The timely death of three dangerous words

Why isn't anyone celebrating the demise of the "war on terror"?


Aaron Kinney
August 3, 2005 1:41AM (UTC)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney checks in with a report on what we used to call the "war on terror."

Reaction to the quasi announcement last week that the Bush administration was putting the "war on terror" out to pasture mainly focused on its unavoidable silliness. It was absurd for the executive branch to react to a failing policy by changing its name. But where was the excitement, the jubilation, over the fact that a phrase worthy of Joseph Goebbels was finally exiting the lexicon?

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Over the course of a presidency in which the term "Orwellian" has been greatly overused, the "war on terror" was the doubleplusungood Orwellian term that justified its categorization. Critics wondered: How, exactly, does a nation go about fighting a war against a tactic, an abstract noun, a state of mind? OK, technically, terrorism is a secondary meaning of the word "terror." But as UC-Berkeley linguist and political strategist George Lakoff told War Room in a phone interview today, "The primary meaning has to do with extreme fear," and that's what the Bush administration wanted to promote.

"They wanted people to be afraid," Lakoff said. "And when people are afraid, they want a strong president to protect them."

George W. Bush put America on a "war footing," and used that stance to justify a host of policies rooted in his increased executive power, from the invasion of Iraq to the PATRIOT Act to the recess appointment of John Bolton. The demise of the propaganda underlying those decisions is something to celebrate.

But what was the point of switching from "war on terror" to its replacement, "global struggle against violent extremism"? In an article published Monday on AlterNet, Lakoff argues that, while the new term is deliberately confusing, the goal is simple -- "that the public will no longer associate the Iraq war with terrorism and see the failure in Iraq as a failure to curb terrorism."

The "war on terror" simply outlived its political usefulness, according to Lakoff. The public had grown tired of the prospect of unending war. Then the bombings in London discredited the administration's position that fighting insurgents in Iraq would prevent terrorist attacks at home. As for the timing of the decision, Lakoff said he has no doubt that the White House coordinated its semantic switcharoo with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Baghdad, where the top U.S. military official in Iraq floated the idea of beginning to remove U.S. troops by next spring -- just in time, coincidentally, for the 2006 midterm elections back in the USA.

There's no denying that the "war on terror," as Lakoff told us, was a "very, very successful" piece of propaganda. The media adopted it to describe the campaign against international terrorists almost without exception, while Democrats made no effort to frame the issue differently -- a failure Lakoff calls a "major mistake" of the John Kerry campaign.

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Now the "war on terror" is history, and if nothing else we can celebrate one small victory for intelligence and meaning in the American political discourse. Is there a larger victory to celebrate? Not yet.

Bush rolled out his war against fear nearly four years ago, when he told a joint session of Congress: "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

It didn't work out that way. The "war on terror" has ended, but al-Qaida lives on, Bush still flexes his war powers, and we still have detainees locked up at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. The "war" is over. Long live the war.


Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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