In the aftermath of any major crime, there's an urgent need to understand what happened. Knowing who did it, and why, can give a small amount of comfort in the wake of a senseless act.
On Monday, in the chaos following the two Boston Marathon explosions, which killed three people and wounded well over 100 others, that desire was palpable. United States politicians and the media alike rushed to label the act "terrorism," before a suspect or a motive were identified. (As this article was published, no suspect had been identified.) But should we call what happened in Boston a terror attack?
Click the video above to watch politicians and pundits struggle to classify the Boston attacks.
Perhaps most notably, President Obama called the bombings an "act of terrorism" in a press briefing Tuesday. He used various forms of the word "terror" multiple times in the four minutes that he spoke. But this was only after he provoked the wrath of the right-wing media by refraining from using the T-word on the day of the blasts.
Speaking to Reuters, an unnamed White House official called the bombings "clearly an act of terror" on Monday (a day before Obama made the concession), adding that investigators would be treating it as such. Unnamed officials said more or less the same thing to Fox News and CNN on Monday.
Other lawmakers and officials also seemed to eagerly embrace the word: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) both labeled the bombings as terrorism in the immediate aftermath on Monday. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called it a "cruel act of terror" on Tuesday. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called it "a terrorist attack of some sort," while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) compared it to 9/11. The list goes on.
In the media, it was the much the same. CNN, MSNBC and Fox each called the bombings "acts of terror" in their on-screen graphics almost right away; CNN and Fox also called the explosions terrorism multiple times on their websites. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews speculated that the bombings might have been done by "domestic terrorists" and asked whether the explosion at JFK Library might be an attack on "the Democratic Party." The list goes on.
For an act to be considered terrorism, however, there must be a political ideology behind it. As defined by the U.S. government in the U.S. Code, terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets."
Therefore, if the Boston attack was perpetrated by a single person (or a group of people) with no known political motivations -- as was the case with Newtown shooter Adam Lanza -- it cannot legitimately be called "terrorism," even though it created a truly "terrifying" situation. What's more, as Mediaite points out, prematurely labeling an event as an act of terror can unnecessarily alarm the American public and give an inflated sense of power to the perpetrators.
When asked by MSNBC's Chris Hayes if it "mattered" whether the Boston bombings were labeled as terrorism or not, a former FBI agent named Donald Borelli summed up investigators' complicated use of the word:
The default position is, when you have multiple devices go off, or attempted to go off, it's terrorism from an investigative standpoint, in terms of the resources, in terms of the laws that will be used, and the methods and techniques of the investigation. This will be treated like terrorism, until proven otherwise, essentially [emphasis added].
Judging by Borelli's statement and by what Obama and senior administration officials and politicians have said so far, the government will likely assume the bombings were terror attacks unless "proven otherwise." Somehow that doesn't provide a lot of comfort.
Video produced by HuffPost's Ben Craw.
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