In his description of the Boston Marathon blasts, President Barack Obama initially avoided using the words “terror” or “terrorism.” The president has since sharpened his language, saying the FBI is investigating the bombings as “an act of terrorism,”although noting authorities still didn’t know the motive. “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror,” the president said.
And the word choice does matter — beyond shaping public perception. Categorizing an act as terrorism — as opposed to a violent crime — means the FBI will lead investigations, rather than local authorities.
While there’s no cut-and-dry definition for what constitutes terrorism, federal law basically boils it down to politically-motivated violence, although the definition could often include any violence designed to intimidate a population. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” While mass shootings usually don’t end up being considered act of terrorism, bombings often tend to be, although using a bomb doesn’t constitute an act of terrorism.
Terrorists certainly aren’t defined as people who bring their violence from overseas. According to the FBI’s report on terrorism in the 2002-05 period, domestic extremists usually carry out the majority of terrorist acts. Twenty-three of twenty-four recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by domestic terrorists from 2002 to 2005; all but one of the domestic terrorist incidents were committed by special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements. These acts typically targeted materials and facilities rather than people.
Terrorism preventions in this period involved plots by people involved with the militia, white supremacists, constitutionalists, tax protestors, and anti-abortionists. Other preventions included disruptions to plotting by an anarchist to bomb a U.S. Coast Guard station; a plot to attack an Islamic center; and a plot by a Muslim convert group to attack U.S. military, Jewish, and Israeli targets. There were other preventions against people seeking to aid foreign terrorist organizations in attacks within the United States.
It’s not yet clear whether the Boston bombing was an act of “terrorism” in a way that would set it apart from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tucson, or Columbine. All we really know is that the alleged perpetrators were Muslim, and that one allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism. This doesn’t automatically make this an act of terror, but it looks like one so far. Since using a weapon of mass destruction is intended to attack a population, it is considered an act of terror almost automatically, but usually a motive is sought before labeling the act as one of terror. The definition of terrorism may be shaky when applied in certain situations, although motives are usually found and help to determine how a terror suspect will be tried.