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Motive doesn't matter: Las Vegas was a terror attack, and US politicians are complicit

The gun used to kill more than 50 Americans was bought in a country where such military-level weaponry is freely available. The intention of its purchaser doesn't matter.

On Sunday night in the United States, a gunman opened fire at a music festival in Las Vegas from the 32nd storey of the Mandalay Bay hotel. Details are still hazy in places, but the death toll currently stands at least at 58 people, while a further 515 are injured. The Las Vegas attack is now the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

The previous record was held by the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed. Similarities between the two are striking. Both featured military-grade assault weapons, used against crowds at music venues – the wanton slaughter of people at play, listening to music. An attack on the pursuit of freedom. Our very way of life, as the saying goes.

In the initial reporting, authorities in Las Vegas declined to call what happened a terrorist attack. “No, not at this point,” Sheriff Joseph Lombardi told reporters when asked if the act was being considered at such. The shooter was a 64-year-old white man called Stephen Paddock, a small-town Nevada local, and it was unclear to the media what narrative to append. Islamic State has claimed the shooting, but the usually opportunistic Donald Trump did not repeat the claim in his speech. Clark County district attorney, Steve Woodson, said: "This doesn't involve politics."

What do we call “terrorism”? The word wasn't widely used after the 2014 shooting at Isla Vista, California, where a young man was radicalised online not by Isis, but by trolls and misogynists. Or after the attack on black congregants at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. Or the massacre of children at Sandy Hook elementary school. Common elements: white men, assault rifles. And terror, of course, in the literal sense. But none of those perpetrators were widely referred to as “terrorists”.

It has become a dark joke at the expense of American media that when a white man kills, articles will quote neighbours describing him as quiet, polite, someone who “wouldn't hurt a fly”, while when a person of colour is killed – like Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of a white policeman sparked the Ferguson protests in 2014 – articles will say he was “no angel”. In Orlando, the shooter, Omar Mateen, was born and raised in New York, then Port St. Lucie, Florida, and was every bit as “local” as Paddock. Yet as soon as his Muslim origins were known, he was labelled a terrorist.

To the right wing, this looks like liberal language-policing. But the words are important in what they reveal about American society. It is a deep-rooted linguistic double-standard. “Only in America,” the Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King tweeted on Monday, “can whiteness prevent the man who conducted the deadliest mass shooting in American history from being called a terrorist”.

Right-wing pundits also complain that anyone asking hard questions  in the wake of mass shootings is “politicising” the tragedy. That's straight out of the gun lobby playbook - you can only offer thoughts and prayers, not solutions that might have prevented the terrorist from obtaining military armaments. The right would like us to believe that only terrorist attacks are political, and only political attacks are terrorism, which invariably, in the post-9/11 age, means the ethno-nationalist political terror of radical Islamist groups.

But that position is meaningless. An attack like the one last night in Las Vegas is inherently and by definition a political act. Even setting aside motive, the fact that the gun used to kill 58 Americans and injure hundreds more was purchased in a country where such military-level weaponry is freely available to citizens – that's a political position. In Isla Vista, the killer wanted to terrorise women. In Sandy Hook, children. In Mother Emanuel, people of colour. In Orlando, the LGBTQ community.

All attacks of this nature, whatever the race or creed of the attacker, are acts of terror. The Nevada statute on the definition of the word is clear. The act is its own context. There is no disentangling the motive from the meaning. And as we grieve, we must also face the difficult questions that it raises.

If not, then we will be trapped in this endless loop of butchery and sophistry, for ever.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist