Conservatives are angry at President Obama’s initial avoidance of the word “terrorism” for yesterday’s bomb attack at the Boston Marathon. (Today he finally used the word.) I’m angry at him for that too, but for a very different reason.
Obviously I know as little as you do about who made and placed those two bombs, but it was clear from the get-go that this was a terrorist attack. That is, a planned, concerted attack on civilians, in a crowded space, designed to kill and maim as many people as possible at random, and to spread fear and panic.
So why avoid calling it what it was? The reason given by White House insiders yesterday was that they didn’t yet know who did it and why.
Excuse me? What exactly does that reasoning imply? That the bomber’s identity defines his actions? That “domestic” terrorism is somehow less fatal than “foreign” terrorism? That if the bomber turns out to be anything other than Muslim, then it’s not terrorism?
A similar tack was taken by many liberal online commenters. “Let’s hold off on determining if this is terrorism until we know more,” they kept saying. But it seems to me that their caution was based on the same underlying assumption — that what they meant was “Let’s hold off on calling it terrorism unless the bomber turns out to be Muslim.”
In effect, they were acting as a kind of mirror image to Fox News, where the instant assumption was that since this was terrorism, the perpetrator could only be Muslim.
So to use one of Obama’s own favorite phrases, let me be absolutely clear:
If the bomber turns out to be a lily-white right-wing Christian whose ancestors came off the Mayflower, he is still a terrorist. As clearly a terrorist as the stock image of the jihadi in a suicide vest.
Moreover, this was not “a tragedy,” as Obama called it — thus prompting countless television reporters to fall back on stock phrases like “a tragic day” and “this terrible tragedy.” This was murder. Mass murder.
“Tragedy” implies that it could not have been avoided, that it was somehow fated. That was the whole point of ancient Greek drama, where the idea of tragedy was invented. But terrorism is deliberate. It’s a cold-blooded decision made by humans (or rather, people who pass for human). And to call it tragedy is to imply one way or another that the perpetrator is somehow not quite responsible for his actions. (Yes, almost certainly ‘his’ and not ‘her.’)
Of course I realize that Obama probably decided on “tragedy” out of the earnest desire to avoid spreading panic and thus terrorizing more people. That’s part of the role of president, I guess: the national reassurer. But I was not reassured. Sure, his first response beat continuing to read from “My Pet Goat” by several miles, but that’s setting the bar about as low as it can get.
The so-called “war on terror” has been a disaster for the US not least because even when it happens right under our noses, we still can’t recognize that it’s not who does it that makes terrorism, or why. It’s what they do.
Whether they’re political or religious; white or brown or black; left-wing or right-wing; “domestic” or “foreign” or any combination of all of the above — if they target, kill, maim, and terrorize civilians, they’re terrorists.
And may every one of them — whether in Boston, in New York, in Oklahoma City, in Atlanta, in Beirut, in Jerusalem, in Baghdad, in Kabul, or in Benghazi — rot in whatever conception of hell you care to name.