Trump’s response to the New York attack is predictably depressing

How long can we maintain these double standards over what we call terror?

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Five syllables. “Allahu akbar.” All it means is “God is good.” A simple sentence of religious praise, no more and no less meaningful in and of itself than “praise the Lord” would be to a Baptist, or making the sign of the cross is to a Catholic. “Hallelujah”, the Hebrew equivalent, is used as widely in Christianity as it is in Judaism – perhaps more so. But all of these exclamations are, or should be, exactly equivalent.

But “Allahu akbar” has become freighted with political meaning in America.

After the October Las Vegas attack, in which a 64-year-old white man opened fire on a crowded music festival from a high window in a casino hotel, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds – the deadliest mass shooting event in modern American history – White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters: “There's a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.”

After the driver of a pickup truck careened down a crowded cycle path in Manhattan on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring eleven more, no such restraint was apparently necessary. According to police, he shouted “Allahu akbar” as he got out of the car. Cut, print, terrorism. Easy narrative.

“We must not allow Isis to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!” the president started tweeting. “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!” The fact that the shooter had shouted those five syllables in Arabic meant that the time and place for political debate for this tragedy could be brought up to right now.

“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the 'Diversity Visa Lottery Program,' a Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump continued, attacking the Democratic senate minority leader, who is from New York. Bizarrely, he seemed to think Uzbekistan, where the attacker was from, is Europe:

For Trump, the attack came at a neatly convenient time, drawing attention from the first indictments in Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the election, which included his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

The New York attacker had a pickup truck, a paintball gun, and a pellet gun. He was described as “a late sleeper”. He was “on the radar of federal authorities,” the New York Times reported, but that could mean anything. In the current climate, it is likely that US authorities have most, if not all, foreign-born Muslims “on their radar”, and he had passed the stringent background check required to attain a US green card. The attacker did not come from a country covered by Trump's travel ban.

This attack struck home for me. I know that place – for a year, I commuted by bike from lower Manhattan to the Upper West Side. I took that cycle path twice a day. Being able to bring the place to mind intensified my usual response to this kind of news; helpless anger, mixed with a kind of exhausted, cynical numbness.

After the Vegas attack, I wrote in a piece for this website that we needed to evaluate what we call “terror”. I felt the slipperiness of the definition was allowing Republicans to use the term dishonestly, to politicise events which fit their agenda on Islam while acting outraged when attacks happen which undermine that narrative or threaten their position on guns.

“All attacks of this nature, whatever the race or creed of the attacker, are acts of terror,” I wrote, pointing out the clearly premeditated nature of the Vegas attack, the knowledge of the festival's exits; the shooter's meticulous plan to kill as many people as possible. While his motive is still not known, that attack – which was, remember, only a month ago – has already passed into distant memory. The “time to talk about gun control” never arrived. Of course it didn't. It never does.

I've also spent much of my career covering the internet. I have seen how radicalisation works. It's largely not as sophisticated as you might imagine. People can be lonely. They gravitate towards literature that makes them feel special. They gravitate towards literature that gives them someone, or something, to blame for their personal grievances. Al-Qaeda was a terrorist organization; ISIS, online at least, largely just aims to make lonely people angry. There's no reason to elevate the lonely people they turn into killers into enemy combatants.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo described the attacker as a “lone wolf”, another phrase to which we are becoming depressingly accustomed. His attack was “inspired” by Islamic State, authorities said. It seems unlikely that it was directly ordered. Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of the Isla Vista shooting in May 2014, found a radical ideology of misogyny online, and used it to convince himself to kill six people.

It's difficult to see the difference between that and a “lone wolf” terrorist who happens to find a radical ideology based on a bastardisation of Islam. The framing devices don't really matter. The IS model – just put the stuff online and let sad, lonely people find a reason for killing, isn't that different from the white supremacist literature that Dylann Roof found before the Charleston shooting, or the misogynistic literature that Rodger found.

Defining an attack as an act of terrorism changes the law enforcement response, labelling people as enemies in a war, rather than as criminals. In a way, it ennobles these criminals, making them exactly what IS want them to believe they are. This isn't a war any more – maybe it never was. “They” did not attack New York this time, any more than the “they” of Rodger's misogynistic comment-boards shot people in Isla Vista, or the “they” of Roof's Confederacy-fetishist Facebook pages shot people. Are these terrorist attacks in the way 9/11 was? 

“The one thing I like about President Trump, he understands that we are in a religious war,” said Lindsey Graham, a moderate Republican senator who has often been critical of the commander-in-chief. But a religious war is exactly what IS wants. Framing it that way only hands them a more powerful recruiting tool. "Look," they can say to potential recruits. "We are at war. America admits it." 

I've covered dozens of attacks in America now, and I'm sick of watching the same conversation play out. The inevitability of the response – the “thoughts and prayers”, the “now is not the time to talk about gun control” response from Republicans in the case of Vegas or the “now is the time to talk about immigration control” from Trump if the attacker was in some way linked to Islam or the Middle East.

So perhaps I was wrong. Maybe the correct response after Vegas was not to say that everything is a terror attack if its intent is to cause terror, whether the attacker's political ideal is the Caliphate or the Confederacy. Maybe it would be better to go the other way, to treat all of these as crimes, and exit a war we cannot win – a war on nebulous, poorly-defined “terror”; a war on a feeling. Treat the terrorists of IS, and the terrorists of American white supremacy, the same.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.