Murder is murder, whether committed by ‘shooters’ or presidents

Semantics: There's only one word for the wilful killing of others

10 October 2017 - 07:39
A body is covered with a sheet in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 1, 2017.
A body is covered with a sheet in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 1, 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

On October 1 in 331BC, Alexander of Macedon and Darius III of Persia ordered their respective bands of followers to commit mass murder on the other.

Alexander's Greeks murdered Persians at a greater rate than the Persians murdered Greeks, which is partly why you know Alexander as "the Great" and not "the Barbarian".

On October 1 1939, Adolf Hitler signed off on the mass murder of mentally and physically disabled people living in Germany or German-occupied regions. He and his accomplices described this plan as "euthanasia".

On October 1 1942, construction started on the death camp known as Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The camp's purpose was to carry out mass murder on an industrial scale, although this was described as "the final solution to the Jewish question". However, over the next three years the Allies committed a mass murder of Germans that forced the German mass murder to slow and then stop, with the result that "euthanasia" and "the final solution" are now known as "genocide" and "Holocaust".

On the same day - October 1 1942 - a US submarine torpedoed and sank a Japanese freighter, the Lisbon Maru, carrying almost 2000 British prisoners of war. More than 800 of these men died, but their murders are categorised separately: those who drowned were victims of "friendly fire", while those who were shot by Japanese murderers as they floated in the sea were victims of a "war crime".

On October 1 2001, three members of a group called Army of Mohammed murdered 38 people in the Jammu and Kashmir State Legislative Assembly in Srinagar, India. Media described them as "terrorists".

And so to October 1, just over a week ago, when Stephen Paddock committed mass murder from a hotel room in Las Vegas.

In the hours and days following the atrocity, competing ideologies fought to claim ownership of naming his crime. Those on the left demanded that he be branded a "terrorist", to push back against the media's tendency to categorise white murderers as "shooters" while dark-skinned murderers are invariably accused of terror.

Those on the far right started a rumour that he had been radicalised and was "a Muslim". Since then, Paddock has been described as all those things and more: "millionaire", "gambler", "brother". And yet, amid all the labels, one is startlingly infrequent: "murderer".

At first glance it seems strange, this rush for nouns other than "murderer". Perhaps one reason is the media's tendency to script rather than report the news: "gunman", "shooter" and "terrorist" are all words you'd hear snarled by James Bond, whereas "murderer" sounds plain and old-fashioned.

But I think the main cause of this semantic tangle we get into is the result of 3000 years of legal mass murder (a phenomenon we call "war") and its accompanying knot of euphemism, denial and cognitive dissonance.

You may have experienced some of that brain-splitting double-think yourself while reading this column, perhaps agreeing that the Holocaust was mass murder but war deaths are somehow different. This is entirely natural: mention war, and our faculties go to sleep. Even the word is enough. Five people murdered on a city street is shocking. Five people murdered on a city street is a "gang war", well, it's complicated.

Millennia of training have worked: the blood-soaked rules go unchallenged. The mass murder of civilians by a civilian is an atrocity. The mass murder of civilians by soldiers is regrettable but sometimes unavoidable. The mass murder of soldiers by soldiers is a glorious victory.

Do you see how nuts this is, how absurd it is to argue over guns and different nouns for "murderer" when mass murder is not only legal but celebrated by cheering crowds? If Paddock had tweeted that he was considering murdering hundreds of people, he would have been arrested, but Donald Trump can tweet that he is considering murdering millions of North Koreans and yet he remains at large. This is insane.

And it will stay insane, for as long as war is legal and we keep trying to tell each other that one mass murder is terrible but another isn't even murder.

Murder is murder, and people who do it are murderers. "Shooters", "terrorists" or presidents: it makes no difference to the dead.

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