*Was* Boston a terror attack?

On the news everyone seems to be treating it as if it was obviously one. From CNN:

'"Any time bombs are used to target civilians, it is an act of terrorism," Obama said, adding that it remained unclear who carried out the attack and why.'

But I don't think this is right: I think it is important to differentiate a terror attack, which has a political aim, from mere psychopathy, where someone just wants to kill lots of people because it excites them. What difference does the weapon make? If Jack the Ripper kills many people with a knife, he is a psychopathic serial killer. If an IRA member went around knifing people in London and sent messages afterwards demanding Britain leave Ulster, those are terrorist attacks. Isn't this an important distinction? Won't we pursue very different courses in response to these incidents? Why lump these quite differently motivated actions together, other than under the already existing, broad category of "murder"?

UPDATE: Greenwald: "The reason there was such confusion and uncertainty about whether this was 'terrorism' is because there is no clear and consistently applied definition of the term. At this point, it's little more than a term of emotionally manipulative propaganda."

6 comments:

  1. Is the measure of terrorism the intent or the result? If the motives of the perpetrator are never determined does that mean it is not? Even if one asserts the former, it seems safe to assume it is unless shown it is not.

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    1. Well, I am arguing here it is the intent, and that there is a useful distinction between Jack the Ripper and the IRA terrorist.

      "The reason there was such confusion and uncertainty about whether this was 'terrorism' is because there is no clear and consistently applied definition of the term. At this point, it's little more than a term of emotionally manipulative propaganda."

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  2. Good point. The fact that, so far, no group is taking responsibility, and no demands of any kind appear to have been made would tend to suggest that the motive for the bombing wasn't terribly political.

    You'd think if it were terrorists, they'd let somebody know why they did this. If they do have political goals, they would seem to be being tremendously passive-aggressive about it.

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  3. Good point. The fact that, so far, no group is taking responsibility, and no demands of any kind appear to have been made would tend to suggest that the motive for the bombing wasn't terribly political.

    You'd think if it were terrorists, they'd let somebody know why they did this. If they do have political goals, they would seem to be being tremendously passive-aggressive about it.

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  4. Surely the goals do not have to be political. A psychopath who relishes the instigation of fear is as much a terrorist as someone with a political motive. It is bad to base common meanings upon intent rather than effect as they may never be discernible or unambiguous. It matters legally but the law has plenty of time to figure this out.

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  5. As you probably figured, I agree with you here, the word is very ambiguous and I think that it is often used today for more propagandistic purposes than anything logical.

    For instance, a few weeks ago I heard a talk radio host talking about some guy that rammed his car into a Walmart and then proceeded to attack and bludgeon the patrons. The host said something along the lines of, "this is a clear case of a terrorist attack". I disagreed for some of the same reasons that you do here.

    My recollection is that the term was coined in the 70s to address the political motives behind certain actions such as hostage-taking and bombing flights. I don't think that the means used had much influence, nor did the actual ends, rather it was the ends sought by the perpetrator.

    Personally, I don't make much of a distinction between forms of violence other than to find whether it was initiation/defense of property or self. To me, that is what makes the distinction between a crime or just action. And I certainly never hold a double-standard on this issue.

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