There’s been some noise generated by the usual suspects about whether or not President Obama was too late to dub the Boston Marathon bombing an act of terror. Generally, a political or social motive is considered essential for such an act to be considered terrorism, and even though the suspects have been identified, we have no clue as to their motive, so others, including a few sane conservatives, have responded that assigning a label is actually premature.
However, given the general furor raised by what conservatives want to view as the the president’s failure in regard to semantics, Senator Claire McCaskill has taken the issue a step further and asked some pertinent questions about how we label acts of mass violence:
Based on the evidence at this point, is there any difference between Sandy Hook and Boston other than the choice of weapon? … We are so quick to call Boston terror,” McCaskill said. “Why aren’t we calling the man with the high-capacity assault weapon and the high-capacity magazine, why aren’t we calling him a terrorist?
I would probably have been inclined at one time to say that I’m not interested in the words that we use to describe these actions. However, it occurs to me that McCaskill’s concern underlines the fact that how we label vicious events is indicative of how seriously we take them. If we are going to deal with the epidemic of gun violence – in the face of NRA intransigence, their paid-for gun whores, and other assorted 2nd amendment nutjobs – we need to conceptually separate it from everyday crime and elevate its importance, something that the label “terrorism” might do. Another example of using labels as a tool to fight especially vicious crime is provided by the designation of “hate crimes.”
The importance as well as the fungibility of such labeling was really brought home to me by a Daily Kos posting about a Fox news contributor who tweeted:
Just b/c the bombing suspects were Muslim, that doesn’t make it ‘terrorism’ any more than a crazy abortion clinic bomber is a terrorist.
Poor baby probably thought she was counseling forbearance in the absence of real information. Instead she reveals an unfortunate mindset when it comes to terrorism – that’s right, terrorism – against abortion clinics. As the DailyKos poster notes, the range of violence that has been carried out against abortion doctors and clinics meets the FBI’s definition of terror* – which, as far as I am concerned, is as good as any. It’s important to make this point because only when we realize that we are talking about people who resort to the same solutions as Al Queda, do we finally understand the full, evil implications of their actions. I’m not sure that “terrorism” is the word we want to use to describe Sandy Hook, but perhaps we do need some special label to designate such events as distinct phenomena that we need to combat with the same energy we have shown when we approach the issue of terror – preferably a label with the same emotional impact as “terrorism.”
*There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).