The political grumbling began shortly after 6 PM on Monday, when President Obama, addressing the nation for the first time after the Boston bombings, made no use of the word “terrorism.” Trying to squelch that grumbling, the President addressed the press again yesterday, this time using the word “terrorism” and “terror” in various contexts, but he parsed his words carefully—and for good reason.
The bombings in Boston were cruel, heinous, deadly, violent, despicable, and most definitely criminal. But were they acts of “terrorism?”
Possibly—but under the law as it now stands, we don’t yet know.
Various federal statutes and regulations define “terrorism,” and while the precise verbiage of each definition differs, the substance of the definitions is essentially the same, with each definition requiring, among its many critical components, a motive to intimidate or coerce the public or the government, whether for political or other aims.
To date, no person or group has credibly claimed responsibility for the Boston bombings, nor has any motive yet been established. If Monday’s carnage was the radical work of politically-minded groups or individuals, then like the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings, it was “terrorism” under our laws. If, on the other hand, it was the purposeless act of a deranged mind, then like Newtown and Aurora, it was clearly terrible and terror-inducing, but not “terrorism” under the law.
This may sound like semantics, but the legal distinction is important, particularly for the President—any President. When a President speaks, words matter, particularly when not merely the nation, but the world, is listening. To proclaim the Boston bombing a terrorist act, then discover it to be the senseless conduct of a madman, would affect the credibility of the President, both at home and abroad. Just as important, a premature declaration by the nation’s chief executive that an act under investigation is a specific type of crime could, conceivably, prejudice and jeopardize the later prosecution of any perpetrator, particularly if the facts reveal the President to have been wrong. Thus, while President Obama was within bounds yesterday when he said that the FBI was “investigating” Monday’s bombing “as an act of terrorism,” he was careful—and correct—not to affirmatively proclaim that the events in Boston were, definitively, “terrorism.”
There’s a hunger among some politicians and some of the public—an entirely understandable hunger—to label and make conclusions about Monday’s events. Without labels and conclusions, we’re left with uncertainty, and uncertainty can be frightening. In the long run, though, the more prudent approach is to proceed on the basis of facts.
The facts will come out. The person or persons who perpetrated Monday’s carnage will be found. And because those in pursuit will continue to focus their meticulous, deliberate efforts on facts instead of labels, justice will be served.