"An act of war" – and other unfortunate phrases


Watching the terrible events unfolding during and after the Paris terrorist attacks, I have a helpless sense of deja vu. It reminds me of the movie, Groundhog Day, only much more deadly and depressing. It feels like we have been here so many times before: the same anguished images, the same suffering, the same questions and sense of disbelief. Most depressingly, listening to the rhetoric coming from Western leaders, I can’t see any way we can avoid experiencing the same day again – whether in a few months or years time.

As I explained in my book Writing the War on Terrorism (2005, Manchester University Press) about the language of counterterrorism, when the 11 September 2001 attacks occurred, President Bush said that they were “an act of war”. This was a key rhetorical move and it led the US to launch the global war on terrorism which has caused so much suffering, violence and counter-violence. On Friday in Paris, exactly like all those years ago, French President Hollande said, the attack was “an act of war committed by a terrorist army”, and “faced with war, the country must take appropriate action”. Just like President Bush fourteen years ago, he similarly signalled his resolve: “we are going to fight and our fight will be merciless.” Former president Nicolas Sarkozy added to the war rhetoric: “The war we must wage should be total.”

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush said that the attacks were an attack on freedom and the civilised world. Today, President Obama said: “this is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people of France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share.” As Bush did so many years ago invoking the mythology of the Western frontier, Obama said that America will do “whatever it takes to bring these terrorists to justice”.

After the attacks back in 2001, we heard the Bush administration claim that al Qaeda represented an anti-modern form of totalitarianism. Following the same script, today US Secretary of State John Kerry said “we are witnessing a kind of medieval and modern fascism at the same time.” And similar to George Bush’s frequent invocation of the “evil” of terrorism and terrorist “evildoers”, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described yesterday’s attacks as “the work of the devil”.

As I and many others have argued, this kind of rhetoric is not without consequence; it functions to shape and structure the response which will inevitably come. It provides a powerful cognitive frame for thinking about the threat of political violence and how to respond. If the attacks are viewed and discussed as an act of “war”, for example, as opposed to a terrible “crime”, a military response then becomes the logical default option. And if the terrorists are conceived of as “evil” or “devils”, or even as “fascists” and “medieval”, then there is no place for anything except policies of eradication: there can be no compromise with “evil”.

After 9/11, presidential rhetoric about the terrorist attacks laid the foundation for a massive military-based “war on terrorism” which involved two major wars costing three trillion dollars and over a million lives, military strikes and a drone killing programme on at least three other countries, a global rendition and torture programme, profiling and mass surveillance, restrictions of human rights, the militarisation of the police, and many other restrictive measures in daily life. In turn, all this activity has contributed to violent instability across the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, the mass movement of refugees, the rise of Islamophobia, and much else besides. Arguably, in a self-fulfilling prophesy, or what is called “blowback” by the security services, it helped to create at least five new al Qaeda groups, and numerous other militant affiliates. In Iraq, it led directly to the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq which then morphed into ISIS, and the merger of the Syrian and Iraq civil wars. In response, the West has initiated a renewed military campaign to bomb areas of Syria and Iraq.

In other words, on the rhetorial basis of the “war” against “evil” frame, the West helped to create and sustain a deeply embedded cycle of violence. The Paris attacks, as well as the Beirut attack a few hours earlier and the killing of “Jihadi John”, are the latest acts in this by now quite intractable cycle of violence. The language of Western leaders, especially the words of the French leadership today, strongly suggest that we remain trapped in our own “war on terrorism” Groundhog Day. I think it’s safe to say that Western leaders will respond with more bombing of the Middle East, more military force, more war, more responding to terrorism with even greater violence and repression. After all, once the words are spoken, there is no choice but to eradicate “evil”.

This means that there will be future days like today, both in Western countries and in the countries of the Middle East rhetorically linked to terrorism. We will try and kill them with our military, and they will try and kill us with their militants. Of course, in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray eventually escapes his fate by learning from his mistakes and gaining a stronger sense of humanity. The message of the movie is that there is always hope that people can change and break the negative cycles of their actions. Today, there is no evidence that our leaders are ready to learn from their mistakes over fourteen years of the war on terror, and maybe it is not the day to insist they do. Let’s grieve first, and then consider carefully whether we want to keep on the same path. The problem is that the words our leaders speak today will shape the reflections and actions they choose in the coming days, and today, I can’t see anything else to come except more Groundhog Day.

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