Obama’s rush to judgment: Was the Boston bombing really a “terrorist” act?

President Obama has repeatedly claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing was an “act of terror” and that its alleged perpetrators are “terrorists.”

It may seem pointless to quibble with this description: after all what could be more “terroristic” than setting off bombs at a peaceful sporting event killing three persons, one a child, and injuring or horrifically maiming dozens more?

But in fact how the act is described is very important in determining government, media and wider societal responses, including ramping up racism and bigotry against Muslims, Arabs or people of color.

There can be no doubt that the Boston Marathon bombing was a murderous act, but does it –– based on what is known –– fit the US government’s own definitions of “terrorism”?

It is important to recall that other, far more lethal recent events, including the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado and the school massacre at Sandy Hook, Connecticut have not been termed “terrorism,” nor their perpetrators labeled “terrorist” by the government. Why?

Obama’s changing descriptions

In his first statement shortly after news emerged of the bombing in Boston on 15 April 2013, Obama pointedly did not describe the attack as “terrorism.” The term is totally absent from his statement. He does say, “We still do not know who did this or why. And people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.”

It was only the next day on Tuesday, 16 April, that Obama first called the bombing an “act of terrorism” after media had pressed the White House on the issue.

Last night, after 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured by police, Obama made a statement declaring: “We will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had. And we’ll continue to do whatever we have to do to keep our people safe.”

In his weekly video address today, Obama reaffirmed, “on Monday an act of terror wounded dozens and killed three people at the Boston Marathon.”

Official definitions of “terrorism”

The US government has no single definition of “terrorism” but the National Institute of Justice at the US Department of Justice points to two influential standards that are in use, one enshrined in law and the other provided by the FBI:

Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.

What was the “political” or “social” goal of the Boston bombing?

Based on these definitions, what distinguishes a “mass shooting” such as Aurora or Sandy Hook on the one hand, from an act of “terrorism” on the other, is that the mass shooters have no political goals. Their act is nihilistic and is not carried out in furtherance of any particular cause.

So far, however, 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.”

Nor is there any evidence that the two suspects are part of a group. Indeed, on Sunday, The Boston Globe cited Boston officials to report that, “all evidence thus far indicates they were acting alone and were not part of a broader conspiracy.”

Neither of the suspects is known to have made any statement of a political or other goal for their alleged action and there has been no claim of responsibility. Obama, in his statement last night, admitted as much:

Obviously, 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? How did they plan and carry out these attacks, and did they receive any help?

So why is Obama calling them “terrorists?

Since Obama has no idea why the alleged suspects may have resorted to violence and no one else has offered an evidence-based explanation, why is Obama already labeling them “terrorists” when he himself warned against a “rush to judgment?”

The only explanation I can think of is the suspects’ identification as ethnic Chechens and Muslims, even though there is no evidence that they acted either in relation to events in their ancestral homeland or were motivated by any Islamist ideology.

True, Obama did switch to calling the Boston attack “terrorism” before any facts were known about the identities or backgrounds of the suspects, but it was also before any new relevant facts were known. Once those identities became known, Obama’s statements have only fed careless, prejudiced assumption so common on cable television: they’re Muslims, so they must be “terrorists.”

This may be the easy and populist way of looking at it, pandering to prejudice as Obama so often does, but it is irresponsible and violates official US policy that Obama seemed, at least on the first day, willing to observe.

How acts are labeled is highly political: recall the controversy over whether Obama was quick enough to label the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September as “terrorism,” and the continuing demands that the government designate the November 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, allegedly perpetrated by Major Nidal Hasan, as “terrorism.”

All of these cases reinforce the widely noted observation that acts of violence, especially mass shootings, carried out typically by white males are immediately labeled as the acts of “disturbed individuals” while the acts of a person identified as “Muslim” are to be labeled “terrorism” regardless of the facts.

These are unsafe assumptions and foreclose the possibility of full understanding. Moreover, by reinforcing popular stereotypes, they give new force to the anti-Muslim backlash that seems only to be growing stronger and more poisonous as the 11 September 2001 attacks recede into the past.

It is also important to note the contrast between Obama’s eagerness to label the Boston attack as “terror” and its alleged perpetrators as “terrorists” – without evidence – and his reluctance to label last August’s mass murder at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin as “terrorism” despite the identification of the shooter as having a history of white nationalist and supremacist activism.

Perhaps the first serious consequence of labeling Boston a “terrorist” attack was the Obama administration’s decision to deprive the suspect who was captured of his constitutional right to receive a Miranda warning on arrest, a further thinning of the already threadbare pretense of “rule of law” in post 11 September 2001 America.

Could this be another “Columbine?”

Let’s consider another possibility. Exactly 14 years ago today, 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed a carefully-planned attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, using guns and bombs.

The two seniors murdered 12 fellow students and one teacher before shooting themselves.

Like the Boston Marathon bombing allegedly was, the Columbine attack was carried out by two persons, and it involved some of the same methods: homemade explosives.

But the Columbine attack is remembered as a “school shooting” or a “mass shooting” – perhaps the most iconic of a sad litany of such events – but not a “terrorist” attack.

In his essential 2009 book Columbine, Dave Cullen tells the story of the attack in meticulous detail, debunking many of the popular stereotypes that persist to this day that the attack was meant to avenge bullying by “jocks.”

The evidence that emerged is that Harris was a clinically sadistic sociopath who had no ability to empathize with other human beings. Klebold was a depressive whom Harris was able to manipulate. These facts lay at the heart of what happened.

It is definitely not any more desirable in the wake of such atrocities to have a media frenzy stigmatizing all people with mental illness as potential killers any more than we want them to stigmatize all Muslims as potential terrorists – in fact people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, and are indeed more likely to be victims of violence. And contrary to popular stereotypes fed by the media it is exceptionally rare for Muslims to become “terrorists.”

What we do need is patient, serious and informed analysis: could the relationship between the Boston suspects be similar to those of the Columbine killers? What other factors are at at play? I don’t know, but I cannot rule anything out.

Just like President Obama, I do not know what drove the alleged Boston bombers. What I do know is that when the media and the government, egging each other on, rush to judgment, the possibility of alternative scenarios is ruled out and getting to the truth is harder.

If Boston was “terrorism” based on the little that is known, then we must be able to answer these questions: can only white or Christian males be sociopaths, or suffer from other mental illnesses that under certain conditions lead to violence?

Can only two white Colorado high school students act as a pair without “terrorist” motives? Can “Muslims” or ethnic Chechens, or Arabs never be subject to the same kind of conditions or analysis?

Surely the survivors and families of the Boston bombing deserve no less of an accounting of what happened than the victims of Columbine?

We cannot and should not rule out that evidence will emerge that the alleged Boston bombers had a political motive. But it hasn’t so far.

What we have seen is the usual rush to judgment that has left Muslims and many people of color once again fearing collective blame and the governmental and societal retribution that comes with it.

Update, 21 April: Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz on Boston Marathon bomb and “terrorism” definition

A few hours after I published this post on 20 April, I heard Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz on the 20:05 GMT edition of the BBC World Service Newshour making some of the exact same points I made in this post, a jarring experience since I usually strongly disagree with his advocacy on Israel.

Dershowitz was responding to members of Congress who called for the government to treat surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an “enemy combatant” and to deprive him of his constitutional rights. Already, the Obama administration has deprived Tsarnaev of his Miranda rights. I have transcribed Dershowitz’s key comments:

Dershowitz: Well if they [the members of Congress] were in my class they would flunk out of law school … It shows a complete and total ignorance of the United States constitution. This is an American citizen being charged with committing a crime on American soil against Americans.

It’s not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism. In order to prove it’s an act of terrorism they have to prove that they had certain kinds of intentions and motivations. But it’s a perfect trial to try in the civilian courts. There’s no plausible argument that would take this case out of the civilian courts and would put it into any kind of a military tribunal.

BBC: They’ve referred to the US Supreme Court decision Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld which said that there is no bar to the US holding one of its citizens as an enemy combatant. That part they say is certainly established in law.

Dershowitz: Well yeah, an enemy combatant but who’s the enemy here? These are two young men, we have no idea what their motivation was, particularly the young man who was captured alive. As far as we know he has never been in direct contact with anybody from any foreign country. They’re just making it up. And they’re allowing their perception of bias to influence the facts of the case. This case, this will be tried in a civilian court in front of a jury…

Note: several changes have been made to this post since initial publication.




If they refer to it "ever after" as terrorism, even if there is no "greater connection", which there most likely will not be, then they (the feds) should do themselves a favour and condemn retroactively Klebold and Harris as terrorists due to their actions. They should also condemn the Sikh Gurdarwa shooter as a "terrorist" as well and start to crack down on the neo-Nazi/white nationalist entities in the states proper.

The myth that "it's only terrorism when a Muslim is the perpetrator" is pathetic, stupid, and morally sickening, and has to go.


The neo-libralists and Colonialists must reconsider their attitudes and foreign policies, which fosters terrorism. They breed an unequal society, filled with prejudice and hatred. It is obvious that for every negative action of theirs, they will attract an equal and opposite reaction. America and their ilk is becoming their own worst enemies. It is regretable because they inspire fear in their citizenry.


All good points. I'm also concerned about the use and abuse of the terms "terror" and "terrorist". I've long wondered why the people who committed the mass murder crimes in Colorado (and more recently New Jersey) have not been referred to as the home grown "terrorists" they are - according to the definition. We can see the answer though in the history of most reporting about such crimes. Because, we see "terror" and "terrorist" consistently being bandied about, arbitrarily, in U.S.A. with usage reserved for labeling crimes and criminals that can be connected to some one who self-identifies as, or is identified by others as Muslim, don't we?


There is no known network and organization which we can gather information on, the way that we can with Al-Qaeda, for example. The predictability (not likelihood) of another incident or attack is far less than ones motivated by jihadism.

I thought there was some indicators that Tamerlan could've been motivated with political goals, based on social media content that was cited...Or has that all been dismissed as tenuous and not meaningful?

I have far greater wrath for Adam Lanza than Tamerlan (almost incomparable), but I have no problem with the word terrorist being associated with the Tsarnaevs, even if potentially prematurely.


Okay so let's wait till we're clear on who did what before we make any decisions on what is what, however, on the assumption that what I've observed has truth, I note the following

There are three main categories of civilian based multiple murder. 1) serial killing 2) mass murdering 3) terrorism.

1) The motives are usually personal and the crimes discreet events. The perpetrators are usually male and alone but can work in teams (usually no greater than two) where the perpetrators are usually closely connected. Suicide is highly unlikely to occur.
2) The motives are usually personal and the crimes public and often, but not always in one event and can be committed by an individual (usually male) but when in a group the pattern is similar to category 1) Public suicide may the the result.
3) The motives are political and not limited to one event and can involve a wider network or political group and the perpetrators are often unrelated and can be complete strangers to each other. Public suicide may be the result.

> The two accused are brothers.
> They did not die during the attack and took means to survive it
> They attempted to evade escape without dying, but only when their identities became known. A crime spree - almost panicked - occurred.
> There has been the allegation that the death of the MIT officer was a surprise pounce type kill
> People have commented on the eery smile of the surviving accused moments before the photo as well as his surprising calm in the days following the event (he is said to have attended a party)

This pattern is more suggestive of serial killer profile using a mass murderer method. They may well have killed again if they had not been caught.


While there are many truths in this article, I cannot agree with the author's conclusion. It would make sense to say President Obama called this an act of terrorism based on the ethnicities of the suspects had it been known who the bombers were, but it was not known until Wednesday who the suspects were and even later before the ethnicities were known. You gave away the reason he called this a terrorist action in the beginning: media and public pressure and backlash for not doing it the first time. Nothing more.


What WE know and what the President knows are far different things. We cannot say when the President knew of their identities.


Using that same logic Leslie, you can also argue that the President and his party know of potential political connections that these criminals may be linked to.


Thank you for this article. I came to it via the link that Glenn Greenwald posted on Twitter. While I agree generally with your take on quote terrorism unquote, and the rush to judgment thereof, I do not think Obama could be said to be leading that rush. If anything, he was lagging a bit behind other mainstream political actors, media commentators, and the general public labeling the bombing "terrorism" and the bombers "terrrorists." He wasn't far behind, but he wasn't in the lead, and he was taken to task in the media for not labeling it "terrorism" immediately. That he subsequently began using the T word in his statements would seem to be a calculated political correction rather than any "prejudiced assumption" on Obama's part. He seems more cautious about jumping to conclusions, and pander, than, say, Graham or McCain, or any number of Opinionistas.


I loved your term "opinionistas." Whether original to you or not it was so apropos for many so-called journalists! Especially on complex social phenomena like the bombing.


If the FBI or other national security agencies had specific information that the older brother was directly involved with extremists groups and then knowing or unknowingly allowed Boston to happen who then are the 'terrorists'?

Could this be a massive failure of National Security?
Will this be used to justify even more draconian 'National Security' laws and anti-Muslim practices?

Recent news articles:
The FBI's previous contacts ... have come under intense scrutiny as questions were raised about whether it missed vital clues that could have prevented the attack ...
The Russian FSB intelligence service told the FBI in 2011 ... Tamerlan was a follower of radical Islam...

FBI news release ... Tamerlan appeared to be strong believer ... had changed drastically since 2010...

their mother... said that the FBI had spoken to the family on multiple occasions. In an interview broadcast by Russia Today before the end of the manhunt ... "They were telling me that Tamerlan was really an extremist leader and they were afraid of him. They told me whatever information he is getting, he gets from these extremists' sites." [She] claimed that the FBI were monitoring her son "at every step", and had been "controlling" him for three to five years.

“They knew what actions and what sites on the Internet he was going. How could this happen? How could they — they were following every step of him and they’re telling today this is a terrorist act.”

While Dzhokhar became a naturalized American citizen last year, Tamerlan was still seeking citizenship. ...
Homeland Security ... decided not to grant a petition from Tamerlan for United States citizenship after officials found a record in his files that he had been interviewed by the FBI.

Politico: FBI talked to older Boston suspect


Terms such as guerilla, militant, terrorist and, most notoriously, freedom fighter, all carry a freight of meaning. The very use of them is rhetorical, evoking comparisons and mediating perceptions through political categories.

"Terrorist" surely does imply an attack on civilians, which is intended to make a political point. Sometimes, a group will issue a statement, making the purpose clear. On other occasions, as in case of the devastating Wall Street bomb of 1920, no statement is needed.

However, the psychological and political effect on civilians is intended to evoke a response in terms of pressure on a government to change its policies. This is usually most effective in relatively democratic societies, but dictators usually need even more public support, because the promise to secure public safety is often their justification for a lack of electoral endorsement.

The original al-Qaeda group has changed perceptions of terrorism, because it was international in its aims and did not aim to change policy in the target nations, except perhaps by inducing a military response which would change perceptions of the United States from qualified admiration to fear and loathing.

Maybe 19th-century nihilist attacks are the nearest comparison, despite the aims being rather different. We have forgotten that almost all terrorist attacks have been nationalist in their motivation, and directed at the domestic politics of an occupying nation.

So, as has been said already, what were the aims of this attack? They could hardly be intended to influence US policy towards Chechnya, or even Russia.

Nationalist rebellion has given way to radical Islamist attacks in Chechnya and the surrounding region. It may be that the elder brother was influenced by that, and was revolting against the amoral decadence that he perceived around him. Is that "international terrorism," or is it more like attacks on abortion clinics? And what about his brother?


this is completely spot on. regardless of if he did it or not, or if he's politically affiliated or not, all the events and actions after the bombing have been complete breaches of justice and due process. every one has just jumped to conclusions without being presented with evidence. and if this does go to the jury, he is already guilty. the media has made sure of that.


Very well put argument that helped me to realize why I was uncomfortable with the vengeful rhetoric. I am hoping that the government takes a deep breath before making a big mistake. The difference between these two young men and the shooter at Newtown is that they are not native born Americans, and happen to be Muslim. A WASP white guy who shoots children is labeled mentally ill, not a terrorist. A naturalized US citizen who bombs the marathon is labeled a terrorist, a sad reflection of our racism and ignorance.


I really appreciated how you made the distinctions between how the shocking Boston Bombing gets labelled compared with other horrific incidents like Columbine, the Sikh Temple, Sandy Hook, etc. I could "feel" the difference you pointed to when different descriptions are given. It sets up the mental framework in which very different conclusions and directions open up. Very helpful! Thank you!


President Obama said "act of terror" in the clip; he did not say "terrorism" or "terrorist." Perhaps he did elsewhere. If his rhetorical skill kept him from using those other terms, his judgment did not prevent him from using a close enough neighbor to trick Abunimah and of course those in media and politics who give in to and promote though-stopping alarm.
Abunimah's mention of Columbine and its background of bullying can be a clue to one factor in the atrocity: Might the hostility to Islam in much of politics and public discourse -- and the wars against Islamic societies -- have helped the brothers develop antagonism for this society and the public, and helped them move from antagonism to violence? Cycles of atrocity are surely not unknown in human behavior!


For clarification, Obama did in fact use the term “terrorism” on 16 April, and he did call the suspects “terrorists” on 19 April, as stated in my post.


Thank you for informing me. So he didn't skirt around the term but head-on used it -- worse judgment than I thought before.
What do you think of the possibility I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere that the noisy Islamaphobia was part of the stack-up of pressures prompting the perpetrators?


While it is certainly premature to label these acts "terrorism" in the absence of any info on the motivation and goals of the perpetrators, it was nevertheless a reasonable presumption, and was even before anything was known about the ethnicity of the perpetrators. In particular, many aspects of the attack--the use of multiple shrapnel-enhanced IEDs timed for near-simultaneous explosion and targeting a mass gathering of civilians fits a common "fingerprint" of terrorist attacks around the world.


I'm no fan of Obama, his drone attacks, prosecution of whistleblowers and other assaults on civil liberties. But I did take this course in terrorism at UCLA a couple of years ago, and my professor wrote the textbook. He would call this an example of lone wolf terrorism since at least the older brother was ideologically motivated. Here's what he wrote four days ago in Foreign Policy. Interested to hear if this changes your opinion. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/a...


In the first sentence of that Foreign Policy article the author states that we don't know the motivations of the Boston bombers. He says it "would not be surprising" to find out that it was the work of a lone wolf terrorist. There is an important difference between his statement and your characterization of his statement.


I sympathize with the concern about Islamaphobia and agree that political rhetoric, including some by Pres. Obama, makes the situation worse. I disagree with the author's argument here though. There is very strong evidence that the older brother was motivated by his religious and political beliefs: 1) His own uncles have explained that he called them and said the only thing to live for is god and the only thing to do on this earth is wage Jihad. This is why they wanted nothing to do with him; 2) He had reposted several videos that are clearly endorsing and encouraging terrorism in the name of Islam or Chechnya; 3) Then in the months before the attack he is in Russia and visits Chechnya and comes back and carries out the attacks; 4) He is thrown out of a mosque in Boston because he cannot tolerate the Imam's viewpoint (he calls the Imam a Kafir). There is other evidence demonstrating his growing religious intolerance and belief that he must act on that intolerance.

There does not need to be a recorded statement (written or otherwise) stating that an an act was done for XYZ ideological reason for that act to be deemed terrorism. In the attack on the Sikh temple, the shooter was deemed a terrorist because of his personal history and the nature of the attack. The same logic applies in the Boston bombing case.

In order to be able to make a credible case against Islamaphobia in general, the Islamic community and others concerned with the issue, must maintain their credibility. To deny that the elder brother was ideologically motivated despite the evidence to the contrary undermines credibility, and detracts progress in the long run.


To supplement this article see:

DAVIDSON (April 21, 2013)
[Full disclosure: Includes a reference to this writer's recent input ]

IT MATTER? by Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian/UK April 20, 2013
(Excellent analysis of US political and legal reamifications)

A thorough scrutiny of both these analyses of the last week will shed light on
many areas and add to our understanding of the issues.----- Peter Loeb


For what it's worth, the definition of terrorism was codified as below by the Patriot Act:

Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act (Pub. L. No. 107-52) expanded the definition of terrorism to cover ""domestic,"" as opposed to international, terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act ""dangerous to human life"" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States and if they do not, may be regarded as international terrorism.

-from ACLU.ORG (http://www.aclu.org/national-s...)


I absolutely agree with your argument overall, but could it also be possible that Obama said it was a terrorist attack after being pressured by the media to do so? When the US Embassy in Cairo was attacked, Obama did not call it terrorism initially and the media, especially Romney supporters, jumped on the opportunity to try and deface Obama during the campaign.

I am not and will not assume that the bombing in Boston was a terrorist attack without proof, and unfortunately, I don't think we're going to get that proof. Obama, as the president, should certainly not have said it was, but I believe you should consider all possibilities behind his reasoning before jumping to your own conclusions.


I'll guess that "U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d)" refers to a (or the) criminal code.

Interesting that the law precludes labelling a government action as state terrorism, but the FBI's definition does not. The FBI knows better, I guess.


Thanks for this essay Ali. This is a nice analytical piece about the problems associated with definition and perception. Should be read by anyone with a functioning brain: this means the senators from Arizona and South Carolina.


Abunimah (along with many other people) got wrong the main point
of 1966's Miranda v. Arizona. The Miranda decision in no way forbade
police from questioning suspects before reading them a Miranda warning.
It merely made any pre-warning statements inadmissable in criminal court
against the suspect. That's it. That's what the decision said. It's
really simple.

And that's also what Glenn Greenwald said, in the article Abunimah linked to.

The 'public safety exception' created by Rehnquiist's 1984 opinion in
New York v. Quarles modified that basic rule to say that answer to questions
posed immediately after arrest that were prompted by an officer's
concern for public safety (e.g., saying to Benjamin Quarles 'Where is
the gun?' and him replying 'Over there') should not be excluded.
But none of this has any bearing on whether police are permitted to
question criminal suspects before reading them their Miranda rights.
They are. They always have been. That's just not the issue at all.

Best Regards,
Rick Moen


The issue is precisely this: whether the Obama administration will attempt to introduce statements obtained during its grossly expanded “public safety exception” period as evidence in a trial, and if the courts, which have been very deferential during the “war on terror” will allow this to pass, thus eroding Miranda completely.


the actual quote was "act of terror" not "act of terrorism". the two are not remotely synonymous. please fact check before posting to avoid continual spread of misinformation. particularly when you put a link to the correct quote in your own article. thanks much