For all their backtracking, mumbling, slip-ups and ambiguity, our political leaders have made one thing exceptionally clear: The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.

The bombing of the Boston Marathon Monday left three dead, scores more wounded and was formally declared an “act of terrorism” by President Obama on Tuesday. Needless to say, this designation bears tremendous emotional import for a nation that has carried on into the 21st century under the shadow of 9/11. But when it came to providing actual answers regarding the bombing, the president had this to say: “What we don’t yet know … is who carried out this attack or why. Whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization — foreign or domestic — or was the act of malevolent individuals.”

That’s a lot of no information. And while it’s only honest for the president to admit his administration’s naivety at the onset of an investigation, it leaves some to wonder how anyone could responsibly call an event for which they have next to no information an “act of terrorism.”

As it turns out, terrorism is a fairly noncommittal word. With no concrete legal definition, it has been assigned to the actions of groups ranging from international crime organization al-Qaeda to domestic environmental group Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Between these two alone, terrorism as we understand it encompasses everything from coordinated mass murder (the former) to isolated incidents of arson and vandalism (the latter). Clearly, “terrorism” is not representative of any single group, action or plan.

Over the past decade, terrorism has instead come to represent what we fear or fail to understand. The tragedy in Boston is a perfect example of an event that stretches the boundaries of our imaginations in cruel and terrible ways, prompting us to elevate it to a status above common law. Terrorism is the go-to word for events such as these, a word for which the definition is as vague as it is adjustable to the given situation. But if the perpetrator turns out to be a single conniving psychopath, can we really equate him to a coordinated criminal organization? Or vice versa?

Generalizations like “terrorism” tend to ignore these types of questions. Labeling a crime an “act of terrorism” excuses us of our responsibility to understand its cause, just as labeling a criminal a “terrorist” excuses us of our responsibility to understand his motives. It’s a demonizing term that suggests there is nothing to understand about the people to whom it applies. It nurtures a paradigm of action over reason — the same brash and uncompromising attitude that helped propel us into Iraq and Afghanistan and give rise to the 7,000 U.S. casualties that ensued.

Under the blanket of terrorism, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi are no longer the results of complex and historic social and political tensions — they’re pure evil, as plain and one-dimensional as a masked and goateed cartoon villain. We’re Superman, and they’re Lex Luther. We’re Luke Skywalker, and they’re Darth Vader. It’s a juvenile and nearsighted way of looking at the world, but it is one that we readily embrace for its simplicity and its guarantee that we are, unequivocally, “the good guys.”

Reality is not so clean-cut. While we can probably agree that detonating bombs in public squares or ramming planes into office buildings are generally shitty things to do, they are not without pretext or their own brand of motivated reasoning. That we may disagree with that reasoning is an inherent aspect of the conflict. But to pretend that it doesn’t exist — that al-Qaeda hijacked commercial jets just to play into the role of “the villain” we’ve assigned to them—is to ignore the deeper roots of the problem.

We can’t afford to keep on glossing over the details. It may turn out that Boston was the work of a single, delusional maniac. If this is the case, we would do well not to group him alongside a coordinated, international syndicate like al-Qaeda. He deserves neither the fear nor the power this title bestows.

No matter whom the culprit turns out to be, one thing does hold true: There’s a method to the madness. And though we may never negotiate with terrorists, it is in our best interest to understand them. We stand nothing to gain and everything to lose by turning a deaf ear to the cries of protest that so often precede acts of violence. After all, it’s no coincidence that words come before blows.

With our generalizing rhetoric, moral certainty and total disregard for opposing perspectives, we’ve taught that actions speak louder than words.

Mark Strong is second-year CCS literature major.


A version of this article appeared on page 16 of the April 18, 2013 print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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