(updated below)
Two very disparate commentators, Ali Abunimah and Alan Dershowitz, both raised serious questions over the weekend about a claim that has been made over and over about the bombing of the Boston Marathon: namely, that this was an act of terrorism. Dershowitz was on BBC Radio on Saturday and, citing the lack of knowledge about motive, said (at the 3:15 mark): "It's not even clear under the federal terrorist statutes that it qualifies as an act of terrorism." Abunimah wrote a superb analysis of whether the bombing fits the US government's definition of "terrorism", noting that "absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted 'in furtherance of political or social objectives'" or that their alleged act was 'intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.'" Even a former CIA Deputy Director, Phillip Mudd, said on Fox News on Sunday that at this point the bombing seems more like a common crime than an act of terrorism.
Over the last two years, the US has witnessed at least three other episodes of mass, indiscriminate violence that killed more people than the Boston bombings did: the Tucson shooting by Jared Loughner in which 19 people (including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) were shot, six of whom died; the Aurora movie theater shooting by James Holmes in which 70 people were shot, 12 of whom died; and the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting by Adam Lanza in which 26 people (20 of whom were children) were shot and killed. The word "terrorism" was almost never used to describe that indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people, and none of the perpetrators of those attacks was charged with terrorism-related crimes. A decade earlier, two high school seniors in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, used guns and bombs to murder 12 students and a teacher, and almost nobody called that "terrorism" either.
In the Boston case, however, exactly the opposite dynamic prevails. Particularly since the identity of the suspects was revealed, the word "terrorism" is being used by virtually everyone to describe what happened. After initially (and commendably) refraining from using the word, President Obama has since said that "we will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had" and then said that "on Monday an act of terror wounded dozens and killed three people at the Boston Marathon". But as Abunimah notes, there is zero evidence that either of the two suspects had any connection to or involvement with any designated terrorist organization.
More significantly, there is no known evidence, at least not publicly available, about their alleged motives. Indeed, Obama himself - in the statement he made to the nation after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured on Friday night - said that "tonight there are still many unanswered questions" and included this "among" those "unanswered questions":
"Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?"
The overarching principle here should be that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is entitled to a presumption of innocence until he is actually proven guilty. As so many cases have proven - from accused (but exonerated) anthrax attacker Stephen Hatfill to accused (but exonerated) Atlanta Olympic bomber Richard Jewell to dozens if not hundreds of Guantanamo detainees accused of being the "worst of the worst" but who were guilty of nothing - people who appear to be guilty based on government accusations and trials-by-media are often completely innocent. Media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial.
But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of "terrorism" in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tucson and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism). But as Obama himself acknowledged, we simply do not know what motivated them (Obama: "Tonight there are still many unanswered questions. Among them, why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?").
It's certainly possible that it will turn out that, if they are guilty, their prime motive was political or religious. But it's also certainly possible that it wasn't: that it was some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature. Until their motive is known, how can this possibly be called "terrorism"? Can acts of violence be deemed "terrorism" without knowing the motive?
This is far more than a semantic question. Whether something is or is not "terrorism" has very substantial political implications, and very significant legal consequences as well. The word "terrorism" is, at this point, one of the most potent in our political lexicon: it single-handedly ends debates, ratchets up fear levels, and justifies almost anything the government wants to do in its name. It's hard not to suspect that the only thing distinguishing the Boston attack from Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook and Columbine (to say nothing of the US "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad and the mass killings in Fallujah) is that the accused Boston attackers are Muslim and the other perpetrators are not. As usual, what terrorism really means in American discourse - its operational meaning - is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies. For the manipulative use of the word "terrorism", see the scholarship of NYU's Remi Brulin and the second-to-last section here.
I was on Democracy Now this morning discussing many of these issues, as well as the legal and civil libertarian concerns raised by this case, and that segment can be viewed here (a transcript will be posted here later today):


Andrew Sullivan, back in his fight-the-jihadis mode, proclaims that - unlike President Obama - he knows exactly why the Tsarnaev brothers attacked Boston. "Of Course it Was Jihad", he declares in his headline, and adds that it was "an almost text-book case of Jihadist radicalization, most likely in the US." He then accuses me "veer[ing] into left-liberal self-parody" for suggesting today that the evidence is lacking to make this claim.
But in trying to negate my point, Andrew instead demonstrates its truth. The only evidence he can point to shows that the older brother, Tamerlan, embraced a radical version of Islam, something I already noted. But - rather obviously - to prove that someone who commits violence is Muslim is not the same as proving that Islam was the prime motive for the violence (just as the aggressive attack by devout evangelical George Bush on Iraq was not proof of a rejuvenation of the Christian crusades, the attack by Timothy McVeigh was not proof of IRA violence, Israeli aggression is not proof that Judaism is the prime motivator of those wars, and the mass murder spree by homosexual Andrew Cunanan was not evidence that homosexuality motivated the violence). Islam or some related political ideology may have been the motive driving Tamerlan, as I acknowledge, but it also may not have been. You have to produce evidence showing motive. You can't just assert it and demand that everyone accept it on faith. Specifically, to claim this is terrorism (in a way that those other incidents of mass murder at Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tucson and Columbine were not), you have to identify the "political or social objective" the violence was intended to promote: what was that political or social objective here? Andrew doesn't have the slightest idea.
But this proves the point: "terrorism" does not have any real meaning other than "a Muslim who commits violence against America and its allies", so as soon as a Muslim commits violence, there is an automatic decree that it is "terrorism" even though no such assumption arises from similar acts committed by non-Muslims. That is precisely my point. (About the younger brother, Andrew asserts that "the stoner kid [] got caught up in his brother's religious fanaticism" but he has no evidence at all that this is true, and indeed, his friends say almost uniformly that he never evinced any religious fanaticism).
The most bizarre statement from Andrew is also quite revealing: "but does Glenn wonder why Tamerlan thought it was ok to beat his wife, whom he demanded convert to Islam?" In case Andrew doesn't know, domestic violence in the US is at epidemic levels, and the overwhelming majority of men who abuse women have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. Yet with this claim, Andrew simply assumes that any bad act done by a Muslim - even a bad act committed mostly by non-Muslims - must be caused by Islam, even though he has no evidence to prove this. This irrational, evidence-free assumption of causation that Andrew so perfectly illustrates here (any bad act committed by a Muslim is, ipso facto, motivated by religious or political Islam) is precisely what I was describing and denouncing. And it only rears its ugly head when the perpetrator is Muslim.