Why not? To many, “terrorism” would seem the most common-sense way to describe the heinous bombing. Why would the president wait until Tuesday morning to refer to the tragedy as an “act of terrorism”?
There are several reasons that any president — and particularly Obama — would rightfully exercise restraint in using the word initially.
The term has legal and national security implications. The language of terrorism is defined and consequential. It also has political ramifications for an administration that has sought to play down the idea of a broad “war on terror” and has used the idea of a receding threat to explain the winding down of U.S. military involvement overseas.
This debate over “terrorism” is familiar. After the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11, there was much public disagreement about whether to label the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost and annex as “terrorism.” Certainly, any leader wants to avoid getting ahead of the facts as an investigation unfolds. Time and again when I was serving in the White House under President George W. Bush, we saw the “fog of war” color what we knew immediately after major terrorist incidents such as the 2005 London transit bombings and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Of course, with the identification of the two Boston suspectsand the dramatic manhunt that followed, we’ve learned much more about the alleged perpetrators. But in such early moments, the president, quite appropriately, wants to evoke a sense of calm and encourage national resilience.
There are specific legal definitions of “terrorism,” found in several variations in U.S. law. In general, terrorism is not just an act of violence but one conducted with a particular purpose in mind: to intimidate a population or to coerce or affect a government’s policy. Such acts are often committed by designated foreign terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. Without more clarity, a president may not want to draw conclusions about the intent or purpose of an act of violence.
The use of the term “terrorism” also has direct national security implications. With this label, there is a recognition that our national sovereignty and citizenry have been attacked, whether from within or by external actors (or both). This suggests that there could be related attacks to follow and that a response to prevent future strikes or to punish the perpetrators will be necessary. Because we often think about terrorism in terms of war, this has potential military and lethal consequences.
There are also clear political consequences to labeling something an act of terror. Questions emerge immediately about why our counterterrorism and intelligence systems, built up over a decade, were unable to prevent the attack. Inevitably, the potential political ramifications color the language used.