Monday, November 9, 2009

War of Words in the "War on Terror"

As a student who is very interested in Middle Eastern Studies as well as terrorism, this week's readings seem especially relevant to not only what we have been discussing in class, but to current events. Each reading seemed to discuss the "framing" of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (even if Brown and Hanson's articles seemed...very similar) and the importance of language in assessing the debate.

Robin Brown expresses the role the media played in stringing together the words "war on terror". Various forms of the phrase, including "acts of war", "winning the war against terrorism", and "a new kind of war" had already been used by President Bush, and thus it became easy (if not necessary) for the Bush Administration to not only use the phrase, but market the brand to the American public. Hanson describes how the administration decided to use the word "liberation" over "occupation", leading Americans to feel as though the war was good thing and many more people would be able to experience freedom. There have been multiple studies and opinion polls taken regarding this phrase. It is often argued that Republicans use words better than Democrats in invoking certain emotions from the population. Linguistics professor George Lakoff of UC Berkley answers the question: "You've said that progressives should never use the phrase "war on terror" - why?" He summarizes -

" Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid. How many terrorists are there - hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem".

While I obviously disagree with his analysis (mostly because terrorism is an act of terrifying a group of people, which is what terrorists do, and major global actors are not confined to the concept of a 'nation state' therefore a war can be waged against non-state actors) it is interesting to note the immediate reversal of words once Obama took office.

"The War on Terror" became "Overseas Contingency Operation" and the Obama administration did whatever it could in whatever speech the President gave to spin the wars in a different light, attempting to characterize them as anything but an actual war against actual terrorists. Interestingly enough, this was noticed heavily in the media and Obama (as well as Robert Gibbs) lapsed and reverted to using 'war on terror' soon afterwards. It is obvious that we are still engaged in a war against terrorists, no matter what terminology or phrase you personally decide to use to describe it. But, I'm sure the war over what words should be used to describe it will be just as long as the actual war itself.


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