We Don’t Know Yet If the Boston Attack Was Terrorism

When President Obama gave his first statement about the Boston Marathon bombing he was careful not to use the word “terrorism,” instead saying “We still don’t know who did this or why, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts. But, make no mistake; we will get to the bottom of this.” He has since changed his tune somewhat—perhaps due to pressure—saying “This was a heinous and cowardly act and given what we now know the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism.”

While everyone can agree that the bombings were a horrific act of violence, in order for something to be called terrorism it must have a political or religious motive. Without a political motive it is just senseless violence, not terrorism. Brian Beutler at TPM observes:

I do have a strong sense that most major media outlets typically distinguish terrifying violence from violent terrorism by examining motive. No political or ideological motive? Not terrorism. You might disagree with that distinction, but it’s been pretty consistent. It’s why everyone feels comfortable calling the Unabomber a terrorist, but not the perpetrators of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Since we have as yet no idea who carried out the bombings or what their motive was in doing so, and no known terrorist organizations have claimed responsibility it is difficult at these stages to label it an act of terror. When Luke Magnotta mailed severed body parts to Canada’s two major political parties it was easy to jump to the conclusion that it was politically motivated, which turned out to not be the case. As Glenn Greenwald points out:

Obviously, it’s possible that the perpetrator(s) will turn out to be Muslim, just like it’s possible they will turn out to be extremist right-wing activists, or left-wing agitators, or Muslim-fearing Anders-Breivik types, or lone individuals driven by apolitical mental illness. But the rush to proclaim the guilty party to be Muslim is seen in particular over and over with such events. Recall that on the day of the 2011 Oslo massacre by a right-wing, Muslim-hating extremist, the New York Times spent virtually the entire day strongly suggesting in its headlines that an Islamic extremist group was responsible, a claim other major news outlets (including the BBC and Washington Post) then repeated as fact. The same thing happened with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when most major US media outlets strongly suggested that the perpetrators were Muslims.

This is not to say that it definitely wasn’t terrorism, just that we have to keep in mind that there are a lot of things we still don’t know, and that the labels we chose to use have powerful implications.

Rhiannon M. Kirkland

Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.