Not every bombing, no matter how many civilians are killed or how terrifying it is, is terrorism. The Boston Marathon atrocity on Monday afternoon may qualify or it may not. Since the discourse around terrorism in the U.S. is an exceptionally fraught one, here’s how to think through the issue.

Terrorism is not just violence aimed at civilians. Terrorism is violence aimed at civilians with a political objective — most often, designed to cause a spectacle.

The Boston Marathon attack brought violence against civilians: three are dead and over 150 injured, several critically. The bombs were placed near the marathon’s finish line at Copley Square, where banks of video cameras and spectator smartphone caught the race’s end, so it’s safe to say it caused a spectacle. We don’t yet know whether it carried a political objective, and that’s the crucial criterion.

No one — group or individual, foreign or domestic — has taken responsibility for the attack. If and when someone or some group does, it may not be definitive: as last September’s Benghazi attack showed, claims of responsibility are not always genuine. A press conference on Tuesday morning by the Boston investigative team underscored that law enforcement is just beginning to understand what happened 18 hours ago.

If you watched cable news at all yesterday, you saw that the race was on to outpace the evidence. CNN termed the attack terrorism within two hours of the twin blasts. Its reporters speculated that President Obama would as well when he spoke on the event, to insulate himself from political criticisms — only Obama was more circumspect. “We still do not know who did this or why,” he said, “and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have the facts.”

Yet shortly afterward, a White House official who would not speak for the record blast-emailed reporters with a clarification. “Any event with multiple explosive devices — as this appears to be — is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror,” the official said. That turns out to be a distinction with a subtle difference.

“I’m not even getting this debate right now,” says Juliette Kayyem, the former homeland security adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. “Terrorism is a very, very scary word. If the president decides not to use it, I’ve got to believe it’s to keep people calm… If it’s just some random crazy guy with no political bent, you don’t want to get tripped up.”

That is, Kayyem explains, there’s a legalistic subtlety at work here. Calling something an “act of terror” is a legally neutral term. “Terrorism” is more problematic: a defense attorney could, for instance, say that Obama prejudiced the investigation by pre-stigmatizing a potential suspect as a terrorist. Notably, for the moment, the FBI, which is leading the Boston investigation, says it’s “too early to establish the cause and motivation” behind the bombing. (After this piece went to press, Obama muddled the waters, saying the FBI was “investigating it as an act of terrorism.”)

Lurking behind this definitional debate is a massive amount of subtext. The word terrorism is neutral as to the identity of the terrorist behind the act. But the association in the United States, nearly twelve years after 9/11, is anything but.

The U.S. committed a lexicographical error in calling the series of military reprisals emerging from 9/11 a War on Terrorism. (Or sometimes War on Terror; it’s not even been a consistent euphemism, nor one that bothers with legal exactitude.) Instead of defining the specific entity behind the 9/11 attacks as the enemy — diffuse as al-Qaida actually is — the War on Terrorism construction created the immediate association that “terrorism” is a euphemism for al-Qaida. It also allowed for a darker association: For some, “terrorism” will equate to an act committed by Muslims, no matter how many pre- and post-9/11 acts of terrorism were committed by non-Muslims. It’s not fair. But it is real.

That association can have dire consequences for innocent Muslims and non-Muslims, both from ignorant fanatics and from law enforcement. One of the biggest sources of speculation in journalism and on social media concerned a Saudi national questioned in the bombing. Yet Boston police commissioner Ed Davis said flatly this morning, “There is no one in custody.” The investigation is just beginning to interview Bostonians.

That’s to be expected: law enforcement has to run down what one investigator called the “voluminous” leads emerging in the hours after the explosions. After reports came through social media about police questioning Arabs who among the thousands running away from the Copley disaster area, people grimly joked that “Running While Arab” is the new “Driving While Black.” Suspicion is not the same thing as evidence; questioning is not the same thing as suspicion; and social media-fueled descriptions are not reliable at underscoring these differences.

Terrorism, ultimately, isn’t just a definitional problem of establishing motive. It’s a case where the meme can overshadow the thing-itself. None of this is a reason to avoid calling terrorism what it is. But it is a reason to avoid labeling the Boston Massacre terrorism before that central fact is established.

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