Americans don't do ambiguity. This is why some part of us is grateful for a clarifying second boom that removes all doubt about the nature of the act if not its whys and wherefores. While the extremes of our political life conclude one thing or the other—and let's not forget perfectly loony leftist suppositions that George W. Bush was really behind 9/11, not to mention other random theories that the current incident was an anti-tax statement by the Tea Party—most Americans are ready, in times like this week, to keep their ideological powder dry while vesting their energy and passion as patriots in mourning the dead and rescuing the wounded, and manifesting a spirit that won't be beaten. Mayhem in duplicates is enough clarity for the moment, but in the meantime, history grooms us to wait for the dropping of second shoes.
While comparisons to 9/11 abound, Charles Krauthammer writes of President Barack Obama's "linguistic unease" about using the word "terrorism," and how in the U.S. the term has a loaded connotation:
There was much ado about President Obama's non-use of the word "terrorism" in his first statement to the nation after the bombing. Indeed, the very next morning, he took to the White House briefing room for no other reason than to pronounce the event an "act of terrorism." He justified the update as a response to "what we now know." But there had been no new information overnight. Nothing changed, except a certain trepidation about the original omission.
There was no need to be so sensitive, however. The president said that terrorism is any bombing aimed at civilians. Not quite. Terrorism is any attack on civilians for a political purpose. Until you know the purpose, you can't know if it is terrorism.
Obama has performed admirably during the Boston crisis, speaking both reassuringly and with determination. But he continues to be linguistically uneasy. His wavering over the word "terrorism" is telling, though in this case unimportant. The real test will come when we learn the motive for the attack.
As of this writing, we don't know. It could be Islamist, white supremacist, anarchist, anything. What words will Obama use? It is a measure of the emptiness of Obama's preferred description — "violent extremists" — that, even as we know nothing, it can already be applied to the Boston bomber(s). Which means the designation is meaningless.
Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare said that the second suspect must be apprehended alive, to ensure that authorities can interrogate him and obtain answers to the countless remaining questions surrounding the motivation and planning for the bombing:
But it is critically important to understand what, if any, connection these suspects have both to overseas terrorist groups and to domestic folks not yet tied to the bombing, and that project will be far easier if the surviving Mr. Tsarnaev is not killed. The question is important both for obvious reasons—if some group is attacking the United States, we need to understand with maximum precision who that is and who is involved—and for less obvious legal reasons: Is this a home-grown terrorist problem that's purely a matter of criminal law? Is this a feature of the US's existing armed conflict with Al Qaeda and its associated forces? Or is this some new overseas terrorist threat—an extra-AUMF threat—against the United States playing out in the streets of Cambridge and Watertown? Or is this an example of a blurry line between categories? The chance to interrogate a Mr. Tsarnaev who can still talk is the quickest and easiest way to answer these questions.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have also shaped the way the media are covering the Boston bombings and subsequent manhunt, with many eager to draw conclusions before there is much concrete information. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic said the media doesn't do anyone any favors with premature speculations: