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Obama and 'terrorism': why he hesitated to use that word

On Tuesday, President Obama referred to the bombings at Monday's Boston Marathon as 'terrorism,' after declining to do so right after the incident. His hesitation was classic 'Obama caution.'

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The president’s initial hesitance to call the attack terror or terrorism was “classic Obama,” says Martin Medhurst, an expert on political rhetoric at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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“It tells us he’s a cautious speaker,” says Mr. Medhurst. “But we’ve known that about Obama for a long time. It didn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t immediately call it terror.”

Obama has come under criticism in the past for his reactions to actual or attempted terrorism, both over the speed of his response and the words he has used. On Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian with explosives hidden in his underwear attempted to bomb a Delta Airlines flight to Detroit. Obama was criticized for waiting three days before responding publicly to the failed attack.

Last September, when the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack – resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya – Obama was initially vague about whether he considered the attack terrorism. Obama faced criticism, and the episode became an issue in the presidential campaign.

But the history books are full of examples where government officials and the media have not exercised caution in putting out preliminary – and ultimately false – information about who might have perpetrated an attack on Americans. When a federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City in 1995, initial suspicion focused on a Jordanian-American man, who was arrested and interrogated. Soon it became clear the attack was a case of domestic terrorism.

A year later, during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a bomb was set off in a park, killing two people. A security guard on the scene named Richard Jewell became the prime FBI suspect in the case, and was hounded by the media. Mr. Jewell was eventually exonerated, after investigators determined that the perpetrator was domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph

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