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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.


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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/TCSM

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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 ?

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 becomes an all-purpose synonym for , a political or ideological tactic.


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