Charles Krauthammer: The language of terror

Published: April 19, 2013

Terrorism is speech — speech that gathers its audience by killing innocents as theatrically as possible. The 19th-century anarchist Paul Brousse called it “propaganda by deed.” Accordingly, the Boston Marathon attack, the first successful terror bombing in the U.S. since 9/11, was designed for maximum effect. At the finish line there would be not only news cameras but also hundreds of personal videos to amplify the message.

But what message? There was no claim of responsibility, no explanatory propaganda. Indeed, was it terrorism at all?

There was much ado about President Obama's nonuse of the word “terrorism” in his first statement to the nation after the bombing. Indeed, the very next morning, he took to the White House briefing room for no other reason than to pronounce the event an “act of terrorism.”

He justified the update as a response to “what we now know.” But there had been no new information overnight. Nothing changed, except a certain trepidation about the original omission.

There was no need to be so sensitive, however. The president said that terrorism is any bombing aimed at civilians. Not quite. Terrorism is any attack on civilians for a political purpose. Until you know the purpose, you can't know if it is terrorism.

Sometimes an attack can have no purpose. The Tucson shooter who nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was simply deranged, a certified paranoid schizophrenic. Or there might be some personal vendetta — a purpose, but not political. In the Boston case, conceivably a grudge against the marathon, its organizers or something associated with the race.

That, of course, is extremely improbable. (Schizophrenics are too disorganized to set off simultaneous bombs, for example.) It's overwhelmingly likely that the Boston attack was political, and therefore terrorism.

Nonetheless, the president's nonuse of the word was no big deal. Why then was he so sensitive that he came out the next morning to correct the omission?

Answer: Benghazi, in which the administration had been roundly and correctly criticized for refusing to call it terrorism for so long.

Benghazi, however, was totally different. There, the word mattered very much. There were two possible explanations for the killing of the four Americans: a deliberate preplanned attack (terrorism), or a spontaneous demonstration gone wild.

The administration tried to peddle the spontaneous demonstration story in order to place the blame on a mob incited by a nutty Coptic American who had made an offensive video. This would have spared the administration any culpability.