The Semantics of the 'War on Terror'


Considering 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 gas.

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 goals?

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 us.

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

August 18, 2006