Two very disparate commentators, Ali Abunimah and Alan Dershowitz, both raised serious questions over the weekend about a claim that has been made over and over about the bombing of the Boston Marathon: namely, that this was an act of terrorism. Dershowitz was on BBC Radio on Saturday and, citing the lack of knowledge about motive, said (at the 3:15 mark): "It's not even clear under the federal terrorist statutes that it qualifies as an act of terrorism." Abunimah wrote a superb analysis of whether the bombing fits the US government's definition of "terrorism", noting that "absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted 'in furtherance of political or social objectives'" or that their alleged act was 'intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.'" Even a former CIA Deputy Director, Phillip Mudd, said on Fox News on Sunday that at this point the bombing seems more like a common crime than an act of terrorism.
Over the last two years, the US has witnessed at least three other episodes of mass, indiscriminate violence that killed more people than the Boston bombings did: the Tucson shooting by Jared Loughner in which 19 people (including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) were shot, six of whom died; the Aurora movie theater shooting by James Holmes in which 70 people were shot, 12 of whom died; and the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting by Adam Lanza in which 26 people (20 of whom were children) were shot and killed. The word "terrorism" was almost never used to describe that indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people, and none of the perpetrators of those attacks was charged with terrorism-related crimes. A decade earlier, two high school seniors in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, used guns and bombs to murder 12 students and a teacher, and almost nobody called that "terrorism" either.
In the Boston case, however, exactly the opposite dynamic prevails. Particularly since the identity of the suspects was revealed, the word "terrorism" is being used by virtually everyone to describe what happened. After initially (and commendably) refraining from using the word, President Obama has since said that "we will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had" and then said that "on Monday an act of terror wounded dozens and killed three people at the Boston Marathon". But as Abunimah notes, there is zero evidence that either of the two suspects had any connection to or involvement with any designated terrorist organization.
More significantly, there is no known evidence, at least not publicly available, about their alleged motives. Indeed, Obama himself – in the statement he made to the nation after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured on Friday night – said that "tonight there are still many unanswered questions" and included this "among" those "unanswered questions":
"Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?"
The overarching principle here should be that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is entitled to a presumption of innocence until he is actually proven guilty. As so many cases have proven – from accused (but exonerated) anthrax attacker Stephen Hatfill to accused (but exonerated) Atlanta Olympic bomber Richard Jewell to dozens if not hundreds of Guantanamo detaineesaccused of being the "worst of the worst" but who were guilty of nothing – people who appear to be guilty based on government accusations and trials-by-media are often completely innocent. Media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial.
But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of "terrorism" in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tucson and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism). But as Obama himself acknowledged, we simply do not know what motivated them (Obama: "Tonight there are still many unanswered questions. Among them, why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?").
It's certainly possible that it will turn out that, if they are guilty, their prime motive was political or religious. But it's also certainly possible that it wasn't: that it was some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature. Until their motive is known, how can this possibly be called "terrorism"? Can acts of violence be deemed "terrorism" without knowing the motive?
This is far more than a semantic question. Whether something is or is not "terrorism" has very substantial political implications, and very significant legal consequences as well. The word "terrorism" is, at this point, one of the most potent in our political lexicon: it single-handedly ends debates, ratchets up fear levels, and justifies almost anything the government wants to do in its name. It's hard not to suspect that the only thing distinguishing the Boston attack from Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook and Columbine (to say nothing of the US "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad and the mass killings in Fallujah) is that the accused Boston attackers are Muslim and the other perpetrators are not. As usual, what terrorism really means in American discourse – its operational meaning – is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies. For the manipulative use of the word "terrorism", see the scholarship of NYU's Remi Brulin and the second-to-last section here.