After choosing not to call the Boston Marathon bombings “terrorism” on Monday, President Obama used variations of the word terror four times in a public address on Tuesday. “Given what we know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,” Obama said. “Anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.”
His definition of terrorism was inaccurate, at least according legal guidelines that have been adopted by federal law enforcement. But the President’s decision to embrace the term put him on the politically safer side of a linguistic problem that has bedeviled his presidency for years.
According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, an act of terrorism has three parts. First, it is “an unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property.” Second, it is intended “to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, any segment thereof.” Third, that intimidation or coercion is intended “in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
There are, as a result, possible scenarios in which a bombing of civilians would not be considered terrorism. An attack by a madman without any coherent social or political objectives, a targeted assassination by bomb, or a bombing intended as a distraction for another criminal act, like a bank robbery, would be examples. None of those are likely explanations for what took place in Boston on Monday.
But the use of the term terrorism remains politically fraught one. Nearly four years after U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13, the military has yet to call the event a terrorist act. Hasan had sent sympathetic e-mails about jihad and suicide attacks to Anwar al-Awlaki, a terrorist in Yemen who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike, and reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” before beginning his massacre. Despite the protests of victims and members of Congress, the Defense Department continues to categorize the event as “workplace violence.”
Last year, the use of the term terrorism became a major point of contention in the presidential election. Republicans, including Mitt Romney, charged that Obama had resisted labeling the attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, “terrorism” for political reasons during an election. Obama countered that he had referred to “acts of terror” in his first statement on the attacks. Just weeks before the election, press secretary Jay Carney made clear that the White House had adopted a broad definition of terrorism with regards to the Libyan attacks. “Anytime an embassy or diplomatic facility is attacked by force with weapons and Americans are killed, that is an act of terror under the definition of terrorism that applies at the NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] and elsewhere,” he said in press gaggle onboard Air Force One.
In his statement on the Boston attacks Monday night, Obama seemed deliberately cautious about using the word terrorism, even though the FBI was already moving to take over the investigation of the incident as a possible act of terrorism. With events still unfolding in Boston, the President issued a statement that seemed intended to avoid inflaming national alarm. But in an unusual move, an aide to the President spoke to the press moments after the President had concluded his remarks about the classification of the bombings. “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 White House official said.
Nonetheless, Obama received some criticism overnight about shying away from the word in his Monday remarks. On Tuesday, the clear emphasis of the term seemed designed to head off another Benghazi-like controversy. “The American people refuse to be terrorized,” Obama said.
— With additional reporting by Zeke Miller