It is a buzzword so commonplace in the modern American psyche that it threatens to be suffocated; a platitude, a hibernating abstraction that awakes as ugly reality only as bombs sound and our citizens take a well-practiced plunge into fear. It bears in its meaning, our meaning, so many unsavory assumptions and images that it is easy to forget what, exactly, it defines.
We can now safely say the bombings in Boston were an act of terror. But as the situation refuses to yield answers as to who and why, we are left to chew on this phrase that is so often on the menu, but rarely brought to the table. What is an act of terror? What do we think it is?
HLN spoke with CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem, a former U.S. assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and former Massachusetts Homeland Security adviser. We asked her to bring us back to center on this polarizing word.
HLN: The Boston bombings have now been classified as an act of terrorism -- a terror attack. Now those terms carry a lot of weight for Americans. What does "terror attack" mean, in strictly intelligence terms?
Juliette Kayyem: It means a purposeful, violent act that is targeted to civilians, so this is not a military attack. It is targeted against generally unarmed civilians, of course, for the purposes of making a statement. And that’s where we get into some of this word play – “What was the reason for this?”
HLN: So what makes something like this a terror attack, and not something like Newtown or Aurora?
JK: One of the reasons is, in those cases, we knew who the perpetrator was almost immediately, so we had a sense of intent. And in both cases, it was an intent to kill for no other reason than [that of] a deranged person. What we don't know right now is, was this a crazy person who just wanted an audience for their crazy act, or was this a group wanting to make a political statement? And that's why you see some of this word-based debate. The reason [authorities] are sort of unhelpful to that end right now is, it doesn't really matter at the moment. We don't know who did this. Once we know, then those questions -- Were they part of some organization? Did they have ties to a foreign country? Did they have ties to extremist groups? -- those are the things that only become pertinent once we have the perpetrators.
HLN: We live in an age when the American assumption of terror is so clearly contextualized by 9/11. What about that event changed our working definition of terrorism?
JK: Because we called it a "War on Terrorism," it really wasn't just the word terrorism. It was everything from the war in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq to the Patriot Act; it absorbed so much. The problem with the terminology is, terrorism is just a tactic. It's not a person. It's just a means of someone making their point.
HLN: Do you think the average American has an incomplete assumption of what terrorism is?
JK: What people forget is that there was terrorism before 9/11, and there is certainly terrorism after. Most countries deal with it on a much more sustained level than us. As Americans, we are such creatures of 9/11, that's really what animates us in terms of how we think about it. And it's a scary word, because to us, it's 3,000 Americans dead, it's 19 guys getting onto planes, and that's why I think, now, the sort of tone you are hearing is really different. It's really, "Here's what we're doing, here's what we know, here are the myths that are being debunked." That's clearly purposeful.
HLN: Do you think Americans tend to stereotype who a terrorist is?
JK: I would say yes, because of 9/11. Look at Oklahoma City. That was not an Arab terrorist, and so I think depending on who was perpetrating this, there will be a rethink about the kinds of threats we face, and who's responsible for them. So yes, we are creatures of 9/11, but we know that terrorists take many backgrounds, many ethnicities, and many interests.
HLN: Initially, President Obama shied away from using the word "terror" in his remarks. Members of the media, knowing how seriously this definition is taken, usually wait for absolute confirmation before breathing the term. Why is it so difficult, or why are people so hesitant, to classify an incident as an act of terror?
JK: I think there's two different groups of people here. As the president, and as any political leadership, there's an interest in not using the word "terrorism" and the reason why is, because if we catch someone, we don't want to be tied to having to prove some political motive. If a guy just killed a bunch of people, you're going to go to jail for that. Part of this is just protecting our legal capacity to charge whatever we want to charge. That's why they're calling it an "act of terror," because it clearly was targeted against civilians, but not really saying "the terrorist." I know it sounds semantic, but it really is important.
HLN: So you're saying there really is a semantic difference between "terrorism," "act of terror," "terrorist" and so on?
JK: Right. There's a legal standard you would have to satisfy in court. So the fact that [Obama] called it an act of terror is just a simple acknowledgement that someone perpetrated a heinous crime on unarmed civilians. But to say that we are going to charge for a terrorist crime? We don't know yet. Why would we tie our hands?
HLN: Is there anything that makes you cautious about how the American public deals with acts of terror?
JK: I think the response starts from the top. I've been very impressed with the political and public safety leadership in terms of really trying to tell people, "Look, it won't be normal immediately, here's what we know, here's what we can and cannot tell you." So that's an important role for political leadership, because Americans respond. They respond to what their leadership tells them, in particular their mayors and governors. I think the response has been pretty appropriate, and rightfully, shocked. This just doesn't happen. We've been very lucky.
HLN: Why are acts of terror so effective at capturing our fears and our anger?
JK: It's just the shock of our civilians being targeted. We are used to what a war means; generally it is abroad. But I think it's just the nature of our open society, our acceptance, the movement of people and things and goods. We're a very vibrant society, and terrorism stops us cold. I think that's what makes it so captivating.