Tuesday, April 23, 2013 • 8:38 AM Comments ()

A Matter of Important Semantics

posted by James Heflin

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday regarding the Boston Marathon bombings:

1) "...we need to know everything we can about why this happened, what the motivation was, how it happened, and all of those issues are under investigation."

2) "And so the President commended the work that was done and underscored the need to continue gathering intelligence to answer the remaining questions about this terrorist attack going forward."

3) "[Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] will not be treated as an enemy combatant. We will prosecute this terrorist through our civilian system of justice. Under U.S. law, United States citizens cannot be tried in military commissions."

Point 3 above is a bit of a relief; instead of going extra-judicial and foregoing the rule of law, the Obama administration is choosing to deal with this suspect as if he were any common criminal suspect. Doing so minimizes the perceived importance of such a person, and minimizes the outsized fear that such people seem to want to create. It is, in short, how states like Great Britain have taken the long view regarding IRA and Islamist terrorists.

That last word is an important one. "Terrorism" is a very specific thing, and our definition of it has slipped, as Carney proves. This matters tremendously, especially in an era when there are immediate calls that someone be denied their legal rights as a U.S. citizen because what they allegedly did was considered terrorism. It's neither appropriate nor necessary to label the Boston marathon bombings terrorism yet. They were a heinous and barbaric crime. They might have been terrorism. We'll find out.

Carney's use of the word is premature and legally inappropriate, though it will no doubt be adopted far and wide. We can't know if it's terrorism yet, because of statement number one above--the motivation is still "under investigation," and motivation is key to whether something is truly terrorism.

Here are Merriam-Webster's two (separate) entries on the word:

1)the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.

2) Systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.

Both of these require the same thing: trying to coerce someone into something, usually something political. Even the less exact first entry requires "use of" terror, not merely the creation of it. Until and unless we know that this was the goal of these acts, we are calling these suspects terrorists based on imagination and supposition.

In watching Friday's coverage (on ABC, I believe), I heard "terrorism" defined as "an act that creates terror." That is simply not what the word means, and adopting that looser definition can only invite further abuses of our previously inalienable rights. A lot of things create terror--mass shootings for one--and they don't get called terrorism. Yet by this addled definition, they necessarily are.

Tsarnaev may well have committed an act of terrorism. He will almost certainly be convicted of multiple crimes. The system will work just fine, even if we avoid the collective hyperventilation of prematurely inflating his acts to the level of terrorism.

UPDATE: Prelilminary word on motivation:

Two U.S. officials say preliminary evidence from an interrogation suggests the suspects in the Boston Marathon attack were motivated by their religious views but were apparently not tied to any Islamic terrorist groups.

So we're closer to meeting the actual definition; perhaps we'll soon hear what they hoped to accomplish.

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