Lacking answers for the Boston marathon explosions


President Barack Obama turns to leave after speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, following the explosions at the Boston Marathon. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Jena McGregor
Columnist April 16, 2013

One of the hardest things for a leader to say is that he doesn’t know the answers.

And President Obama has had to say that twice now, first on Monday afternoon when he made his initial public statement within hours of the Boston marathon bombings, and then on Tuesday morning, when uncertainties were again restated about the individuals, groups or motives behind the tragedy.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

“People shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” Obama said in his remarks Monday. And on Tuesday: “What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual.”

In a time of crisis, people look to leaders for answers. They want to know why something happened, they want to know who is to blame, and they want to know when they’ll be safe again. They want context and explanations, reassurances and order.

That’s one reason why what the president didn’t say on Monday got more attention than what he did. Yes, much of the debate over the absence of the word “terrorism” from his initial remarks was political, especially given the history of that loaded word in recent campaigns. All of the baggage of Benghazi and Fort Hood and Detroit has made the name the White House gives a tragedy — and when they give it — a carefully scripted act.

But the missing word also got so much attention because we really did want to know, quite simply, why. Why would anyone, or any group, commit such a senseless act of horror at a place of so much joy? And if the president’s own aides were saying it was an act of terror, why would the president not say so as well? Did he know something the rest of us didn’t when he chose to omit the word?

Now, of course, the president and his defense secretary have called it just that, and the uncertainties have shifted to much more difficult questions — not just what to call it, but who is responsible and why. After all, the biggest news out of the president’s press conference on Tuesday was not that the explosions were being treated as “an act of terror,” but that he did not have any real developments to report.

We live in an age of instant answers. We turn to Twitter for our news and call up Google results in milliseconds. From Newtown to the attempted Times Square bombing, we’ve learned who was behind such horrible acts within a matter of hours or the span of a few days. That made them — or the potential of them — no less horrific, of course. But it allowed us to more quickly begin the process of trying to understand, and trying to heal.

Some will surely say that the president took the easy way out when he didn’t call the Boston marathon bombings a terrorist act on Monday afternoon — that he wasn’t willing to risk the political fallout of doing so too soon. But having to admit he didn’t have the answers amid a crisis was actually much harder.

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