Boston Marathon bombings and the t-word

I performed an experiment using my 10th graders Tuesday – they are such great test subjects. I wrote on the board “terrorism” and “terror act.” The students were assigned to write down the words and images that first came to their mind when they read those words.

terrorThis is what I got:

  • a foreigner attacking the U.S.

  • being evil

  • creating fear

  • populated place of attack

  • being scared

Their responses are what I expected, and not because they were teenagers. Their responses are what I believe to be emblematic of many Americans.

They were then shown the remarks that President Obama’s gave Monday in the hours after the Boston Marathon bombings. I asked, “Did you hear anything involving the word ‘terror?’” They, of course, heard nothing of the sort.

Then they were shown a video from the Associated Press recapping the incident. Twice the word “terrorism” was used, once by the reporter and once by the FBI agent.

Lastly, I posed this question: Should Obama have called Monday’s bombings a terrorist attack?

Now in the blogosphere and on the radio, there was a lot of consternation about the absence of terror in his remarks, which were succinct, respectful, and contained some vengeance. Yet, people wanted to hear the president say “terror,” as if its absence somehow cheapened the catastrophe. It’s pretty much Benghazi all over again.

Michael Scherer, a national security blogger for Time, pointed out the legal ramification of using the t-word, despite the fact that Obama’s aides and the FBI already were throwing the word out of the press.

Yet for two groups of 16-year-olds who have spent their conscious lives in a world where they’ve had to endure security measures and threat levels, Monday’s attacks could not be so easily classified as terrorism.

terror“We don’t know who did it,” said one student.

“We don’t know why they did it,” said another.

“It wasn’t a big enough event,” said another student. “Only three people died, and it happened in one place.” Good point – the 9/11 attacks involved three locations and cost more than 3,000 lives, though any life loss is unacceptable.

“We could be going to war with [North] Korea, and if you start using the word ‘terrorism,’ people might think the [North] Koreans were behind it,” said one of the few students who actually watch the news.

Their idea of a terrorist is probably the same idea of those who had tackled the Saudi national who was running away from the chaos. But my students were quick to note: “Of course he was running away; so was everyone else.”

None of my students knew who Timothy McVeigh was. How could they? A year before most of them were born, and 18 years ago this month, this American blew up half of the FBI building in Oklahoma City.

terror discussion 1Was he called a terrorist by then-President Clinton? The interwebs can only give me his address during a memorial service, and not once did he use the word “terror.” Of course, like Obama, Clinton was criticized for not using the word during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

It was a different time – I could keep my shoes on in an airport –  but is McVeigh any less terrible than the person or persons who committed Monday’s attack? If it comes to be that this person is an American who is not Islamic, will they be called a terrorist?

Sadly, no, because our collective idea of a terrorist is not an American. Those of us who endured the fear and anxiety that the Beltway snipers caused in 2002 can tell you that these Americans were terrorists despite no linguistic link to someone like Osama bin Laden.

A terrorist is simply this: someone who desires to bring terror through a destructive act. If we are using this definition, Obama should have said “terror,” and he did a day later. But it’s our schema that keeps us from lumping in people like James Edgar Holmes, Lee Boyd Malvo, and John Allen Muhammad with bin Laden; yet these men strove to create terror as the deceased leader of al-Qaida did.

Obama likely didn’t use the t-word because we would assume one thing, and when we start assuming, the asses that you and I can become leads to stereotyping, bigotry, and anger. In a time of shock and loss, the president should not have to give a lesson in connotation. That’s my job.

It’s easy to get caught up in semantics, especially with our current president. My kids learned a valuable lesson in language. I think adults should learn the same one as well. And I think Obama, whose text we have used in class as an example of rhetorical strategy, should learn how to use the language a little better to convey his sincere message to those less equipped with linguistic skills.