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Debate over Marathon attacks as terrorism doesn’t help

The bomb explosions at the Boston Marathon were a form of terrorism, by most definitions of the term. The devices that went off near the finish line Monday were obviously designed to harm innocent people, and also to create chaos and fear among the broader public.

Yet simply denouncing the incidents as terrorism, or demanding that others do so, doesn’t help the investigation. Was the bombing the work of a single deranged plotter, domestic extremists, or an organized group overseas? Why did the perpetrator or perpetrators target Boston? Will they try to strike again, and when? These are the questions that matter, and the terms that news organizations or elected leaders use in describing the Marathon attack should not alter the response one iota.

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There’s been considerable discussion about whether President Obama, in his initial remarks Monday on the Marathon attack, was too reluctant to describe the incident as terrorism. The implication by Obama’s critics is that the president, whose administration bears responsibility for protecting Americans, is downplaying the importance of the Boston attack or is somehow failing to understand its enormity. Inevitably, Obama took care in remarks Tuesday to describe the incident as terrorism.

Yet there was never any reason to doubt Obama’s desire to catch those responsible. And given the risk that some might automatically equate “terrorism” with “organized overseas militants,” long before any firm evidence was in hand, there was good reason for rhetorical restraint.

It’s rarely helpful to let indignation guide the terms of public discussion. In the early 2000s, some commentators called for relabeling “suicide bombers” as “homicide bombers,” to redirect attention from the killers to to the victims. But clarity suffered; historically, most bombers have sought to take human life at a safe distance, while suicide bombers are a distinct phenomenon because of the perpetrators’ willingness to kill themselves in the process.

Political leaders, and the broader public, need not get drawn into hair-splitting about what to call the attacks in Boston. Such discussions only divide people against each other, when the real goal should be to pursue those responsible.

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