Post-debate analysis of the Libya moment Tuesday night – when Mitt Romney accused President Obama of taking two weeks to call the killing of four Americans at the Benghazi consulate a terror attack and Obama responded that he had done so from day one – have tended to analyze the wrong things.
There has been a tremendous amount of discussion of whether the violence at the embassy was a terror attack or a spontaneous act, for instance. That suggests that these two ideas must be mutually exclusive. But surely there have been plenty of instances when an enraged citizen snaps and commits an act of political violence against other citizens that is the definition of a terror attack – but was not pre-planned.
Which brings up the issue of the definition of a terror attack. Much focus has been placed on Obama’s statement in the Rose Garden the day after the incident which referred to “acts of terror.” (He was speaking in the context both of Benghazi and the September 11 attacks.)
That would echo the language that the Jordanian planning minister, Jafar Hassan, made at a press briefing I was at here in Washington that same day – even getting his words out slightly before Obama’s. Hassan unequivocally referred to what happened in Libya as an “act of terrorism.”
But he didn’t mean to state that this event was a premeditated assault by a terror cell, perhaps connected to an Al Qaeda affiliate. He meant simply that when citizens kill an American ambassador, that makes it a terror attack. He was also probably looking for terminology that would express how strongly he condemned what happened and found it unacceptable, and “act of terror” is a good way to do that.
Lastly, many observers have set up as oppositional the idea that a terror attack took place with the idea that the US-produced anti-Islam video was responsible for the attack. But again, the video could have helped inflame sentiments within a cell primed to take action – that it then did.
Terror attacks can vary widely in cause and organization. The relevant issue here was, how quickly did the Obama administration acknowledge that this particular attack was one that was likely carried out by a Libyan terror cell and then use this assessment to inform the investigation and beefed-up security plan on those grounds, as well as communicate that to the American people?
Perhaps the third and final debate Monday night will enlighten us.