Boston Bombings

Rob Farley over at LGM makes two key points about the bombings that are worth passing along:

1.  Our thoughts are with anyone injured in the bombing.

2.  Initial reports are very likely to be wrong; this is inevitable, and does not mean that a conspiracy is afoot.

I’d add a few others about terrorism:

1.  The President should not be criticized for not calling, initially, the Boston attack a “terrorist” bombing.  As the Washington Post reports, he “was careful not to use the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ as he spoke at the White House Monday after the deadly bombings, but an administration official said the bombings were being treated as an act of terrorism.” 

Although forests have been cleared debating the definition of terrorism, a good definition I use is that terrorism is the intentional targeting  of (or threat to target) innocent non-combatant civilians with physical violence for political ends by non-state actors.   Given this definition and a lack of anyone apparently claiming public responsibility at the time, the President was likely not sure that this was at attack with political ends as opposed to criminal behavior.  Therefore, circumspection and caution was warranted in his speech even as the administration worked to figure out what happened and who was responsible.   

2.  Given my working definition above, I would argue that the old saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is ridiculous.  It is never morally acceptable in my view to intentionally target innocent non-combatant civilians with physical violence for political ends.  And anyone interested in freedom properly deplores such attacks and anyone engaging in such actions is not a true freedom fighter.  Of course, many governments around the world find it advantageous to call insurgents fighting against them terrorists but that doesn’t hold water (the Patriots at Lexington and Concord, for example, were not terrorists by my definition).  This case was a pretty pure case of targeting innocents.  So if there was a political agenda of any sort behind these attacks, we should properly label the perpetrators terrorists and the appropriate level of government should punish them to the fullest extent of the law (and, of course, if there was not a political agenda behind the attacks, the government should punish the criminals behind it).

3.  If the attack was committed by terrorists, we need to remember that law enforcement and public resilience are two of the best means for winning the “global war on terrorism” (yes, I know, we don’t call it that anymore).

7 thoughts on “Boston Bombings

  1. Mr. President, your definition would be useful. But it is not in common use. Long ago we had Donald Rumsfeld (as I recall) labeling those who opposed the Bush administration policies in response to 9/11 as “terrorists.” I recall seeing in the Tower of London that Guy Fawkes was a “terrorist” for trying to blow up Parliament. And of course your definition would mean that those who attacked the USS Cole were not terrorists, despite government claims to the contrary. And drone attacks on second responders (civilians) to previous drone attacks don’t apparently count as terrorists, since that is us. Hence, I think it is right to think the term really is useless. It means, “people using violence in ways we don’t agree with” at best. Yours would, I think, be a reforming definition.

  2. I’m not willing yet to throw the baby out with the bathwater, hence my attempt to reform the definition. I think it is key to preserve a distinction between terrorism (which is never acceptable and has as its key component attacking innocent non-combatant civilians) and insurgents/guerrillas/irregulars/asymmetric warfighters (which in some cases could be just — see the early stages of the American Revolution — and in so many other cases is not). The problem is that many interested actors want to use the definition as a whip against their opponents – so it is easy for the public to be confused.

  3. I am wondering why your definition of terrorism includes the proviso, “by non-state actors.” I have frequently seen the terror bombing of the German cities by Churchill and Harris and the Soviet terror famine–the starvation of the peasants of the Ukraine and North Caucasus by Stalin–referred to as such, characterizations I agree with.

    1. I go back and forth on this – and my instinct is that states can engage in terrorism as well (and those cases are compelling examples of what states are capable of doing that look a lot like terrorism). Indeed, I’ve often argued this in the past – and many IR experts do – when discussing what are called “enforcement” terrorism and “civilian victimization” attacks. Perhaps, though, Bruce Hoffman is right when he makes a distinction between “terror,” which states can engage in, and “terrorism.” This may be silly sophism but it might be a helpful distinction. Moreover, there are state actions that would seem to fit my definition minus the non-state actor part but that wouldn’t pass the smell test of what we would normally think of as terrorism or systematic terror — think about “takings” or perhaps even taxation itself. Power grows out of the barrel of a gun and the state is certainly targeting our wallets and property with the threat of physical violence behind it when they do such things. But do we really want to include state actions such as these – or the drug war to name another example – as terrorism when they might be odious things (or not) but that seem not to fit what we are trying to capture when we use the concept?

  4. It may be best to focus on the act and targets – the perpetrators, whether state or non-state actors, aren’t relevant to defining something as terrorism. The key for me is the targeting of innocents.

  5. I do agree that initial reports are likely to wrong, actually my opinion is their conclusive report is in fact likely to be a bag of lies all together. This is coming from someone who believes 911 was an inside job, and if you seen some of the things I have you would be joining me on that. So I was looking around on Google and I found a really interesting article about the bombings, here it is:
    In that article they show in detail a number of suspects which appears to be clear proof of who committed these awful acts. There is also a snippet of text among the pics from a man who claims to work for a security firm, and he says he knows it was fabricated and goes on to explain who is going to be blamed and when they will be ‘captured’.
    This may now be a different case tho as this man explains in this video:

    He says because there is so much footage now of who committed the crime the FBI cannot release the details of the so called ‘terrorist’ because it wont be the same person.

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