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When 'terror' doesn't mean 'terrorism'

The public conversation loses something when terror – a human emotion – becomes an all-purpose synonym for terrorism, a political or ideological tactic.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/TCSM
A running shoe with a sign that says 'No more killing people...Peace' hangs on a police barricade in remembrance of those killed and injured in the Boston Marathon bombing at a makeshift memorial on Boylston Street, on April 22, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Here we are again, on the rebound from another act of senseless violence and sifting through our taxonomy of terror. The Boston Marathon bombings were an act of terror – but were they an act of terrorism?

In the days since the twin blasts hit Boylston Street – Boston's front parlor – the response from both officialdom and the public has been marked, in the main, by restraint and resilience. As President Obama said, quoting Scripture in his powerfully moving speech in Boston, people have shown not "a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline."

To restate the obvious, just for the record: There is much that we don't know yet, and much that we may not ever know.

The White House waded carefully into these swift and turbulent waters, holding off on using the "T" word in initial public statements. But that evolved. And after the second suspect's capture Mr. Obama promised, "We will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had."

Note that he didn't name names, and that the word "terrorists" appeared only once in his statement, and in a dependent clause at that. His main point was a promise to keep investigating. But the work of "terrorists" is, by definition, "terrorism."

The words we use to talk about these events, even in our heads, matter. And it's worth keeping certain distinctions and nuances straight.

The public conversation loses something when terror becomes an all-purpose synonym for terrorism, a political or ideological tactic.

It may be an understandable substitution: After all, terrorism has those two "r's" that so often get elided so that the word comes out "terrism." And six letters fit more easily than nine on a page.

But terror is a human emotion. Terrorism is a political or ideological tactic. Terror comes ultimately from Latin, and is rooted in the idea of shaking with fear. Terrorism came into English from French in the final years of the 18th century. Originally it referred to "government intimidation during the Reign of Terror in France," as the Online Etymology Dictionary explains. Note: "State-sponsored" terrorism was the original kind. The word was soon extended to refer to "systematic use of terror as a policy."

Etymologies aren't definitions, though, and so here's a definition from WordNet: "the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear."

Terrorism is characteristic of asymmetrical warfare: guerrillas taking on a national government, for instance. With minimal resources, they are forced, from their perspective, to go after soft targets. Terrorists strike once to make clear they can strike again – and the tactics are used in pursuit of some sort of goal, however hateful. When guerrillas bomb a subway station, for instance, a small bomb that causes only minimal damage nonetheless signals that the authorities no longer have complete control of that element of civic order. And all stations on that subway become targets.

What's missing at this writing from the narrative of the Tsarnaev brothers is some kind of goal. What were the bombings meant to accomplish?

If a bomb goes off in a city, but no one hears a message, can it count as terrorism? And is it really terrorism if the people refuse to be terrorized?

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