WASHINGTON — The bombing at the Boston Marathon, the first large-scale attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, was clearly another terrorist attack.
So why wasn’t it labeled as such by President Obama in his first public remarks from the White House after the attack had occurred? The White House gave murky legal reasons having to do with future prosecutorial efforts, but this was certainly not a time to mince words.
A White House official, who later talked to reporters on the condition he would remain anonymous, said that this was clearly an “act of terror.” The Washington Post noted Tuesday that this was “the same term the president used in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September.”
By Tuesday, Obama apparently decided that he could have been more forthcoming in his word choice, since everyone else was calling it an act of terrorism. So at a morning news briefing, he called the bombings what they were: an “act of terror.”
“Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror,” he said. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
It will be recalled that the Obama administration went to great lengths to avoid calling the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including our ambassador, an act of terrorism by terrorists. Instead, the first official explanation was of a “protest” at the U.S. Embassy that somehow got out of hand.
The State Department also peddled that line, then moved away from it. And then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice went on several TV talk shows, offering the same “protest” explanation, triggering weeks of widespread criticism from GOP leaders in Congress and, eventually, House and Senate hearings.
The White House abandoned that description when it became increasingly clear that the Benghazi attacks were carried out by terrorists.
We do not know whether the premeditated attack near the marathon’s finish line — which killed three people, and maimed and injured more than 140 others — was the work terrorists from abroad or a domestic extremist group.
But obviously this was the deadly work of terrorists, whoever they may be, and Obama should have said so up front.
His initial reluctance Monday to call the attack an act of terrorism is a sensitive issue in many political quarters, and, no doubt, the reason why the Post called attention to the president’s avoidance of the term in its front-page story on Tuesday.
There are reasons for this sensitivity. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared “war on terrorism,” and that was the name he gave to the anti-terrorist policies his administration carried out over his two terms in office.
For some reason, never fully explained, the incoming Obama administration abandoned that description as the president sought to put his own stamp on U.S. policies in the battle against terrorism in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.
At the same time, Obama had sought to close down the U.S. military prison base in Guantanamo where the most dangerous terrorist detainees are being held. And Attorney General Eric Holder wanted to move their trials to federal courtrooms in New York City.
That policy change spawned a storm of opposition on Capitol Hill and across the country, and the White House eventually abandoned its efforts, although not entirely.
While we don’t know who the perpetrators are as of this writing, or who they represent, the explosive devices were intended to kill or maim as many people as possible in an attempt to show they can still pierce our security defenses.
There have been numerous terrorist plots and attempts in the last decade by individuals to detonate bombs in large population centers — at least 16 cases in New York City alone. But these attempts have either failed or been thwarted by counterterrorism and other law enforcement agents.
In September 2009, an al-Qaida terrorist plotted to set off bombs in the New York subway system but the attempt was foiled, as was a car bomb left in Times Square in 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a citizen of Pakistan and the U.S.
Almost all of these attempts have been perpetrated by people from Middle Eastern countries, but the origins of this latest horrific attack in Boston remain a mystery.
The forensic work on the explosive devices may tell us a great deal about whether the terrorists were from abroad. At least one counterterrorism agent was quoted as saying that the attack didn’t have the hallmarks of an al-Qaida bombing.
“At this stage, it’s perplexing,” the official told the Post. “It’s not a military or particularly iconic target like Times Square or the New York subway. This could be someone with limited or no foreign connections.”
I was in Oklahoma immediately after the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil prior to Sept. 11. The radio talk shows that night were filled with angry callers who were certain the people who killed 168 Americans were Middle Eastern terrorists.
It turned out, however, that the bombing was carried out by an American, Timothy McVeigh.
Nevertheless, foreign terrorists continue to pursue their relentless attempts to find lapses in our nation’s security apparatus, on airlines, subways, sporting events and other strategic targets.
They’re constantly probing our weak spots, looking for new targets and plotting to demonstrate that they’re able to penetrate our defenses and inflict heavy casualties on our homeland.
They have to be successful only once, while we have to be right every time, President Bush used to say. Over the course of his war on terror following 9/11, the terrorists were unable to penetrate our homeland. But it now seems clear that they have stepped up their efforts.
The Obama administration may not like the term “war on terrorism,” but that is what we are now engaged in 24/7.
Whoever perpetrated the savage Patriots Day attack on the streets of Boston demonstrated that we remain just as vulnerable as we were before.