{{show_title_date || "Challenges of responding to terror in post-9/11 America, 4/27/13, 10:00 AM ET"}}

Opinion: Should we wait to call someone a ‘terrorist’?


The manhunt that began after two improvised explosive devices detonated at the Boston Marathon came to a close when police tweeted early on the morning of April 19: “The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.”

The people of Boston were free to step outside their homes once suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was in custody. But, as Melissa Harris-Perry outlined last week, the end of the crisis is only the beginning of the politics.

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the rush to judgment crowded out assessments for what led up to the attacks. A single narrative about the nature of terrorism—which became synonymous with Islam and the “why they hate us” storyline—obscured efforts to adjudicate the full significance of that event, least of all any discourse about responsible responses.

In some ways, this reaction seemed inevitable. States of emergency are not good incubators for responsible reaction—and that is exactly what the post-9/11 environment engendered. Underscored again that same week was the known use of torture by U.S. officials under the banner of national security. So when I read things like this or this in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I worry we have already set our feet on a well-worn path.

Republican Congressman Peter King from New York joined hands with three of his Republican colleagues in releasing a statement on April 20 applauding the (temporary) suspension of Miranda rights for Dzhokar Tsarnaev—suggesting that we have yet to go far enough and calling for using all the civil liberty stomping power of labeling the suspect an “enemy combatant.”

The classification of last week’s attacks as “terrorism” suggests not simply violence aimed at civilians but a spectacle of violence with a political objective. As does the use of term “weapons of mass destruction,” which has been used to describe the elements used this week. That may have been the case here. However, what those definitions actively do—the actual material consequences of using the word “terrorist” in a headline, or in a speech—triggers a series of judicial life and death consequences.

While questions need to be asked, those that predetermine the answers aren’t useful. Questions about the Tsarnaev brothers’ biography are inevitable—but potentially devastating when they become synonymous with intent. Questions about the Chechnyan diaspora may be revelatory—but potentially disingenuous if it is meant to stand in for terrorist impulse.

So, as we begin the post-crisis process, we should guard against our public dialogue becoming a mere series of politicized equations.

Host Melissa Harris-Perry explored how fear and anxiety play into our collective response to the Boston bombings. See the first segment above.

Opinion: Should we wait to call someone a 'terrorist'?