The Semantics of the 'War on Terror'

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how determined and self-conscious the image makers in D.C. can be
when cultivating a national message, do you suppose it’s possible
that the insistence to call this a “War on Terror” instead of a
“War on Terrorism” is an accident? No matter the context, whether
discussing “terror-free investing,” as I saw on CNBC recently, or
vacationing in an “age of terror,” everyone’s completely in lockstep.
Talking heads everywhere are completely united (along with the people
doing the graphics for the newscasts).

We’re almost
five years into it now, this undeclared “war,” but I still see no
justification for changing the language to accommodate descriptive
titles for it. Just what’s going on here?

I can accept
that perhaps right after 9/11 a quirk of communication got it all
started; a coined phrase was born somewhere by someone that became
an instant fad. But now, still, five years later — universal usage?
I venture to say that if you got a shiny new quarter for each time
a news commentator or newspaper columnist actually called it a “war
on terrorism” out of the thousands — nay, millions — of references
since 9/11, you might have enough now to buy a gallon of

That’s accidental?
Coincidence? A widespread lack of imagination?

For this administration,
it would seem, there are no semantic accidents. Remember the self-conscious
photo op at that factory, when Rove and others changed the boxes
behind Bush to read “MADE IN THE USA” — even when it required changing
the actual “Made in China” country of origin labels, a violation
of federal law? Or consider the emphatic hair-splitting over the
definition of “amnesty” and “guest worker” in the immigration debate,
or the microscopic distinctions detailing what constitutes an “enemy
combatant” versus a “citizen” detainee. And do we need much prompting
to remind us of General Michael Hayden’s tortured public interpretation
of the Fourth Amendment during his confirmation hearings — a redefinition
so complete that basically any search that the Feds deem “reasonable”
is now good to go? Is it also a coincidence that the aforementioned
examples all corroborated, substantiated, or facilitated administration

I think it’s
safe to assume that nothing comes out of this White House by accident.

So why, then,
after the attacks on September 11, 2001, did the White House christen
this new “global conflict” as a “War on Terror” as opposed to a
“War on Terrorism”? It’s only three more letters. “Terror” isn’t
significantly easier to say than “terrorism.” (It isn’t for me,
anyway, and I’m a native speaker of English.) “Terror” doesn’t have
any more pizzazz, from my personal opinion, as it’s too ambiguous
and counterintuitive: Isn’t terror the objective of terrorism,
the exact response from the victims that the terrorists desire?

It’s been said
before during these last five years, but it bears repeating: terror,
while a noun, is an abstract, an emotion, a response to a stimulus;
however, terrorism is a tactic employed by groups
to instill fear in a population to accomplish political goals. And
isn’t the latter definition, terrorism, what all the talking heads
on TV are supposedly talking about? Isn’t terrorism what this is
all about?

They’ve said
that the “War on Terror” will go on for generations, and we know
that it will be invoked whenever they perceive a strategic need
to invade a country or clamp down on some aspect of daily life.
I just don’t understand the distinction.

By insistently
calling it “terror” instead of “terrorism,” was the White House
attempting to reinforce the idea that we should all be afraid? Is
it yet another unjustified example of Newspeak in our daily lexicon?
Are they launching extended, endless campaigns against fear itself?
(That seems hard to believe: based on the number of bogus “terror
alerts” Homeland Security issues every couple of weeks, we can presume
that they very much want us to be afraid.)

Or was the
White House declaring war on the victims of terrorism — you
and me? It’s more social conditioning, in other words. They’re taunting

That’s actually
the only theory that makes any sense.

18, 2006

Trotter [send him mail]
is a technical writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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