“Terrorist”: A self-fulfilling label?

We know who was behind the Boston marathon bombings. It was two immigrant brothers, one of them just a teenager. It was a clandestine operation, one that succeeded as an act of terrorism not because of careful planning or execution but because it happened to occur in a crowded place – that and the fact they the “terrorist” label was applied. But to what extent was this self-fulfilling?

When an attack is executed by one or two gunmen, the narrative is never “terrorism.” Is the difference that these two used bombs? Is it because of their reported extremist ties?  Because they were immigrants? Perhaps their classification as terrorists follows on from the media’s initial labelling of the perpetrators as terrorists, from before it was known now that they were two brothers undergoing an amateur operation?

It’s not just a semantic issue. The “T” word comes packed with emotion and with connotations of large-scale, organised attacks. Criminals, on the other hand, are generally characterised differently.

Which leads us to the second point, which is whether the response would have been different if the Tsarnaevs were identified as criminals or gunmen rather than terrorists?

Writing for the New Yorker, Cassidy had this to say.

“Practically every day, somewhere in the country, cops are looking for armed and dangerous men who have just killed one or more innocent members of the public… Whenever the word “terrorist” is mentioned in this country, reason tends to go out the window, and many other things go with it, too, such as intellectual consistency, a respect for civil liberties, and a sense of proportion.”

That this event also occurred in a week when the Senate voted down a bill to expand background checks on gun buyers should not be overlooked. The Tsaneavs killed three victims with a crude IED, and their fourth with a gun. In 2010 there were over 11,000 gun-related homicides in the US. This equates to about 30 per day, which is about 10 times more deaths than on day of the Boston marathon. And the day before the Boston marathon. And the day after.

This isn’t to trivialise those deaths, or to understate the impact on those injured. It’s to show that reaction to deaths resulting from “terrorism” is out of proportion to every day deaths, and according the Tsanaevs the label “terrorist” gave them the power to instill fear that they desired.

This isn’t to say the Tsanaevs are not terrorists. They are. But so are other criminals, many of whom avoid the “T” word and the hysteria surrounding it.

Their actions made them terrorists, but by locking down Boston, did authorities and the media make them successful “terrorists”?