Labeling Terror

Fertilizer Plant Explosion In West, Texas

President Obama announced this week that the FBI is treating the Boston bombing as a case of terrorism, since explosives were used to target civilians. Yesterday, I likewise wrote that “happened in Boston was an act of terror.” Lisa Beyer demurs:

Actually, that’s not right. The U.S. federal code and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both include in their definitions of terrorism an element of political motivation. Having spent nearly a decade based in Israel, I understand the common impulse to fit any grave disturbance into an obvious narrative. While politicians, commentators and bystanders can afford such assumptions, the responsible authorities cannot. I remember a particular car bombing in Israel, which the media, as a matter of course, treated as a terrorist act. Evidence later emerged proving the bombing was an internal mob hit.

That’s a helpful perspective. My own definition was based on a simple idea: violence designed to terrorize a broader community – violence random and dangerous enough to affect far more people than those directly hurt. There’s no question that many Bostonians were terrorized by the bombings. But that definition would definitely fit Newtown as well – arguably more broadly. Maybe I was painting with too broad a brush. It’s also true that unintentional violence can terrorize. I cannot imagine how the citizens of West, Texas, feel this morning. They just witnessed an explosion far larger than Oklahoma City. (Despite the location near Waco and the mid-April date, I am assuming no one was behind the explosion.) Ackerman agrees with Beyer:

For some, “terrorism” will equate to an act committed by Muslims, no matter how many pre- and post-9/11 acts of terrorism were committed by non-Muslims.

It’s not fair. But it is real. That association can have dire consequences for innocent Muslims and non-Muslims, both from ignorant fanatics and from law enforcement. One of the biggest sources of speculation in journalism and on social media concerned a Saudi national questioned in the bombing. Yet Boston police commissioner Ed Davis said flatly [yesterday], “There is no one in custody.” The investigation is just beginning to interview Bostonians.

That’s to be expected: law enforcement has to run down what one investigator called the “voluminous” leads emerging in the hours after the explosions. After reports came through social media about police questioning Arabs who among the thousands running away from the Copley disaster area, people grimly joked that “Running While Arab” is the new “Driving While Black.”

The Saudi national, a student, turned out to be simply a victim himself. Brian Beutler blames Benghazi for the focus on the T-word: 

The media was listening for that word yesterday because they identified it as a potential source of a future, contrived political controversy; reporters were acting as opposition researchers for the people they cover, and identified a sin of omission. Like the inverse of when Obama said the private sector was “doing fine” and the press corps zeroed out everything else he said in the same press conference.

Waldman’s contribution to the debate:

Words certainly matter, but the idea that if we use the word “terrorism” to refer to a particular attack then we’re being strong, brave, and resolute, while if we call it, say, an “attack” then we’re being weak and cowardly, is just insane.

Yes, that’s a fetish now common on the let’s-panic right. It’s not about what happens. It’s a form of partisan self-expression. Which may be reason alone to be more circumspect before using it.

(Photo: Shattered glass covers items in the front of a thrift show after the West Fertilizer Company exploded April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. A massive explosion at the fertilizer company injured more than 100 people and left damaged buildings for blocks in every direction. The death toll from the blast, which occured as firefighters were tackling a blaze, is as yet unknown. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)