Boston Marathon Bomb: How Soon Should We Call An Attack Terrorism?


The first thought that came to mind the moment I scrolled through my Twitter feed to discover incoming reports about bombs exploding at the Boston Marathon, was whether or not this was a terrorist attack. As both a New Yorker in elementary school during 9/11 and as a regular consumer of the media, for better or worse, the word "terrorist" is ingrained into my subconscious. But unlike that September where I sat in my classroom wondering why my teachers looked so distressed as my classmates were picked up to go home early by the dozen, in college I planted myself in front of the nearest television with a group of students and watched.

We all wanted to know if whether or not this was an act of terror.

The 2012 Benghazi attack was a convoluted affair that ended with the death of four people, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The GOP heavily criticized the Obama administration in the aftermath. They also all but tore Secretary of State nominee Susan Rice into pieces for her televised discussion of Benghazi that did not outright label the attack as a terrorist one. Rice's conceived scandal over one word ruined her opportunity to take outgoing secretary Hillary Clinton's place. On the other hand, Clinton made sure to depart from office with a bang.

Regardless, it seemed both politicians and journalists alike in light of Boston were trying to avoid having a repeat of the "he said, she said" circus that defined the Benghazi scandal.

The first scrap of news that flooded outlets from a government official was from Vice President Joe Biden. Reportedly, he was in the midst of a conference call on gun control when a White House aide interrupted to inform him.

"As I’m speaking here, they just turned on the television in my office and apparently there has been a bombing I don't know any of the details of what caused it, who did it I don't think it exists yet but our prayers are with those people in Boston who have suffered injuries," Biden said.

"I don’t know how many of them there are. I’m looking at it on television now."

At that point, news concerning the president only stated that he was being briefed on the situation at hand. News outlets all over were quick to make special note of Biden's use of the word "bombing" over "explosion," though as CNN noted, it more than likely was an initial reaction of the vice president's rather than a meaningful one, as details were still pouring in at the time.

Another White House official deemed the explosions as "clearly an act of terror" among others. I distinctly recall CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer adamantly stating that the network would not be labeling the Boston Marathon as a terrorist attack. Except CNN then made the editorial decision to do just that. When President Barack Obama held his long-awaited press conference some hours after the explosions, there was initial no mention of terrorism. He described the event with the words like "explosions" over "bombings" and "senseless" over "planned."

Terrorism, as defined by the Intelligence Committee and U.S. code, is  "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

It wasn't until Tuesday that Obama found it appropriate to take on the "T" word in the form of a "heinous and cowardly" act of terrorism. Although investigations currently underway have yet to pinpoint a culprit or group of culprits, it appears that the government is ready to take on the "terrorism until proven untrue" stance. Whether or not that is a fitting measure is an argument for another day, but what remains to be to seen is this: a lesson has been learned from Benghazi when it comes to word choice in the media. 

Well, almost.