The bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday, the first large-scale attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, was clearly another terrorist attack. So why wasn’t it labeled as such by President Obama in his first public remarks from the White House after the attack had occurred? The White House gave murky legal reasons having to do with future prosecutorial efforts, but this was certainly not a time to mince words.
A White House official, who later talked to reporters on the condition he would remain anonymous, said that this was clearly an “act of terror.” The Washington Post noted Tuesday that this was “the same term the president used in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September.”
By Tuesday, Mr. Obama apparently decided that he could have been more forthcoming in his word choices, since everyone else was calling it an act of terrorism. So at a morning news briefing, he called the bombings what they were: an “act of terror.”
“Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror,” he said. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
It will be recalled that the Obama administration went to great lengths to avoid calling the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including our ambassador, an act of terrorism by terrorists. Instead, the first official explanation was of a “protest” at the U.S. consulate that somehow got out of hand.
The State Department also peddled that line, then moved away from it. Then, U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice went on several Sunday talk shows, offering the same “protest” explanation, triggering weeks of widespread criticism from GOP leaders in Congress and, eventually, House and Senate hearings. The White House abandoned that description when it became increasingly clear that the Benghazi attacks were carried out by terrorists.
We do not know whether the premeditated attack near the marathon’s finish line that killed at least three people and maimed and injured more than 170 others was the work terrorists from abroad or a domestic extremist group. Obviously, though, this was the deadly work of terrorists, whoever they may be, and Mr. Obama should have said so up front.
His initial reluctance Monday to call the attack an act of terrorism is a sensitive issue in many political quarters and, no doubt, the reason why The Post called attention to the president’s avoidance of the term in the third paragraph of its front-page story.
There are reasons for this sensitivity. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism” and that was the name he gave to the anti-terrorist policies his administration carried out over his two terms in office.
For some reason never fully explained, the incoming Obama administration abandoned that description as the new president sought to put his own stamp on U.S. policies in the battle against terrorism in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere in the world.
At the same time, Mr. Obama sought to close down the U.S. military detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the most dangerous terrorist detainees have been held. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. wanted to move their trials to federal courtrooms in New York City. That policy change spawned a storm of opposition on Capitol Hill and across the country, and the White House eventually abandoned its efforts, though not entirely.
While we don’t know who the Boston perpetrators are as of this writing, or who they represent, the explosive devices were intended to kill or maim as many people as possible in an attempt to show they can still pierce our security defenses.
There have been numerous terrorist plots and attempts in the past decade to detonate bombs in high-population centers including at least 16 cases in New York City. These attempts have either failed or been thwarted by counterterrorism personnel and other law enforcement agents.
In September 2009, an al Qaeda terrorist plotted to set off bombs in the New York subway system, but the attempt was foiled, as was a car bomb left in New York’s Times Square in 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American.
Almost all of these attempts have been perpetrated by people from Middle Eastern countries, but the origins of this latest horrific attack in Boston remains a mystery. The forensic work on the explosive devices may tell us a great deal about whether the terrorists were from abroad. At least one counterterrorism agent was quoted as saying that the attack didn’t have the hallmarks of an al Qaeda bombing.