Why Does It Matter If Boston Bombing Is "Terrorism"?

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The Progressive

Why Does It Matter If Boston Bombing Is "Terrorism"?

In his brief statement today, President Obama said both that the FBI is investigating the Boston Marathon bombing as an act of terrorism and that "we don't know who did it or why," adding that it's not clear if the deaths and dismemberments at the marathon finish line were caused by a terrorist organization or by a "malevolent individual."

News reporters have been urgently concerned with how long it would take President Obama to label the tragedy in Boston an act of terror, as Brian Beutler points out in Talking Points Memo: "Salivating over the T-word," as Beutler calls the press obsession, amounts to reporters providing opposition research for Republicans. Reporters assume Republicans will try to make political hay over what the President says about Boston, the same way they did over the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. That's the story they are chasing.

What a weird country we live in.

What difference does it make whether Obama calls this awful tragedy terrorism--or how soon he uses the word?

Aside from the political "gotcha" involved in accusing the President of not adequately assessing the danger or protecting us from a terrorist plot, there is the desire to see the President put the country on a war footing. The people who think it's important that Obama start talking about terrorism speak to some deeply held idea that it shows strength and leadership to call out our country's enemies--that doing so will allow us to strike back, and make us safe.

It's an illusory idea, of course. No amount of posturing by the President is likely to make us safe.

Consider that the most recent tragedy to engulf us, before Boston, was the gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

A team from Newtown ran in the Boston Marathon yesterday, completing the course just before the explosions went off. Hometown supporters were in the crowd near the finish line.

Was Sandy Hook an act of terrorism?

No one seems too worried about the question.

In Washington, after months of debate and discussion, Republicans and NRA-allied Democrats have beaten back efforts to prevent malevolent individuals like the Sandy Hook shooter from getting their hands on assault rifles or high-capacity magazines that spray bullets into crowds.

So much for keeping us safe.

In his response to the Boston bombing today, President Obama hit the right notes, emphasizing the country's empathy with the victims and their families, and the determination to help and to heal. But he also responded to the strange politics of the moment by expertly threading the needle. Any time someone uses bombs against civilians, it is "an act of terror," the President said, even though we still don't know if the bombings were the work of a terrorist network or a lone nut.

Either way, an eight-year-old boy with a "million-dollar smile" is dead. Either way, the surreal scenes of runners who lost their legs won't get out of our heads. Either way, those poor neighbors and friends of the runners from Newtown need to be comforted and reassured, as we all do after these awful acts of violence intrude in what should be peaceful, daily life.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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