The Politics of the T-Word: Defining Terrorism in the Wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings

April 16, 2013

I met a woman who ran the Boston Marathon but did not finish.  She tried four times to qualify for the event, so it was a big deal when she finally got to make her debut.  When she began to recount her race experience, she began to tear up.  She was at mile 25 and entering the Back Bay-area of Boston when a wall of police entered the course and told runners the race was canceled because there were two explosions near the finish.  She knew her family was at the finish line so she kept running, making several detours to reunite with them.  Her husband chimed in and said, “You ran the last 1.25 miles to find us and that’s more important than the race.”

The bombings at the Boston Marathon resulted in deaths, injuries, and utter chaos.  The bombings left spectators traumatized by what they saw, families panicking in search of loved ones running or near the finish, and ruining a day meant to celebrate accomplishment.  Medical doctors found carpenter nails in victims, suggesting that the bombings were devised to maximize injury.

Terrorism?  Depends.  Federal defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, called the bombings “a cruel act of terror.”  News broadcasts described the scene as terrifying and compared the images to one of a war zone.  However, President Barack Obama did not use the words “terror” or “terrorism” as he spoke Monday evening after the bombings (although his staff said it was), only to change his tune the day after–unclear whether that was the result of more evidence or public outcry.

As someone who witnessed the events – both as a runner and as someone who lives two blocks from the finishing area – I have no problems using the t-word.  However, there was slight hesitation for some officials to use the t-word even after authorities said the explosions were the result from two bombs.  This event has made me consider how terrorism is defined and why there was this initial reluctance.

Within law, there is not a precise definition for terrorism.  Under United States law, terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  While there are several federal statutes that define terrorism (e.g., international terrorism), all statutes focus on violence against a nation-state.  This definition is largely consistent with other countries, but there have been debates about whether violence is an essential element, as well as whether terrorism should cover dissenting groups overthrowing a government regime.  Problem?  Where does the shootings in Newtown, Elementary School and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado fit into this framework?  The shooters involved may have had a personal vendetta against something but it wasn’t necessarily a political one.

Even without a precise comprehensive legal definition, there is a fairly uniform definition (albeit more nuanced) that has become embedded within popular culture.  According to sociologist Lisa Stampnitzky, the term “terrorism” has now become social category that has perceptions of what terrorism looks like.  Terrorism is not the work of irrational, sociopaths, but rather calculated acts meant to send a political message.  Emphasis on the political has also transformed isolated acts of violence into a transcendent concept that governments fight against.  Case and point: the Global War on Terror.

There are a few reasons why the t-word is hard to define.  As a practical matter, not all acts of terrorism look alike.  Terrorism can be international or domestic, as well as interstate and intrastate.  Acts of violence or inciting fear can be performed by an individual with a personal vendetta or by a highly sophisticated network.  Some scholars suggest a bare-bone definition that can have one of many characteristics, but an overly exhaustive list can lead to a vague and overboard definition that may be unconstitutional.

As important is that some believe an elaborate definition of terrorism, particularly one containing emotive language, would be prejudicial to those charged under a terrorism law of some sort.  And that makes sense in countries like the United States where our criminal justice system presumes innocence until proven guilty as a matter of law.  However, disaggregating emotion from terrorism would be problematic, and, quite frankly, an unrealistic representation.  Political or apolitical, causing violence or instilling fear, terrorism inherently tugs on our heartstrings in ways that many criminal acts do not.  Death and injury are devastating in of itself, but rarely do we hear phrases such as “not my city” and “how can someone ruin such a beautiful [thing]” without notions of terrorism entering the conversation.

I believe that we need to focus our politics around stopping terrorism rather than debating whether it is appropriate to call something by the term; we know it when we see it.  Acts of terrorism transform the way we go about our daily lives, how we see the world, and make our hearts stop even for a brief moment.