When, And Why, to Call a Bombing ‘Terrorism’

Spencer Ackerman
April 16, 2013


Boston Marathon Crime Scene

The crime scene at Boston’s Copley Square, April 16. Photo courtesy Muna Shikaki

Not every bombing, no matter how many civilians are killed or how terrifying it is, is terrorism. The Boston Marathon atrocity on Monday afternoon may qualify or it may not. Since the discourse around terrorism in the U.S. is an exceptionally fraught one, here’s how to think through the issue.

Terrorism is not just violence aimed at civilians. Terrorism is violence aimed at civilians with a political objective — most often, designed to cause a spectacle.

The Boston Marathon attack brought violence against civilians: three are dead and over 150 injured, several critically. The bombs were placed near the marathon’s finish line at Copley Square, where banks of video cameras and spectator smartphone caught the race’s end, so it’s safe to say it caused a spectacle. We don’t yet know whether it carried a political objective, and that’s the crucial criterion.

No one — group or individual, foreign or domestic — has taken responsibility for the attack. If and when someone or some group does, it may not be definitive: as last September’s Benghazi attack showed, claims of responsibility are not always genuine. A press conference on Tuesday morning by the Boston investigative team underscored that law enforcement is just beginning to understand what happened 18 hours ago.

If you watched cable news at all yesterday, you saw that the race was on to outpace the evidence. CNN termed the attack terrorism within two hours of the twin blasts. Its reporters speculated that President Obama would as well when he spoke on the event, to insulate himself from political criticisms — only Obama was more circumspect. “We still do not know who did this or why,” he said, “and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have the facts.”

Yet shortly afterward, a White House official who would not speak for the record blast-emailed reporters with a clarification. “Any event with multiple explosive devices — as this appears to be — is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror,” the official said. That turns out to be a distinction with a subtle difference.

Read the full article–When, And Why, to Call a Bombing ‘Terrorism’