The Use and Abuse of Terrorism

Dr. Bernard L. Brock
Wayne State University

Published in The Michigan Citizen, December 1, 2002, A7.

Over a year after the destruction of the World Trade Towers and following the Republican election victory and control over both houses of Congress, we can make some judgments regarding President Bush's use and abuse of the "War on Terrorism."

Terrorism, which means the "use of violence to intimidate or subjugate," has become a powerful, political umbrella tying together otherwise unrelated people and/or events. Then, when coupled with a "war" metaphor, terrorism becomes a powerful label uniting people to act emotionally and unthinkingly against a political enemy.

As late as 1980, The Readers' Guide, which indexes popular magazines such as Time, People and Atlantic Monthly, had no entry for the term "terrorism." Acts of violence, designed to intimidate or subjugate, were listed under either the people who committed them or the place where events took occurred, for example an IRA bombing would be entered either under IRA or Ireland or London.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan introduced "terrorism" into the political vernacular when he assigned this label to the legally elected, leftist Sandinista government. Then, he coined the term "Freedom Fighters" for the people supporting Samoza, an ousted, brutal dictator.

At the same time in El Salvador, Reagan reversed the labels and applied the term "terrorist" to the opposition against the oppressive Duarte regime he politically backed.

The labels "freedom fighter" and "terrorist," instead of designating the country's official government and its opposition, reflected Reagan's political attitudes -- his "friends" and "enemies." Reagan's use of these emotional labels mobilized public opinion without requiring him to explain in any detail why in one country he supported the legitimate government, and in the other he didn't.

In 2001 in response to the destruction of New York's Twin Trade Towers, President George W. Bush intensified the power of "terrorism" when he coupled it with a "war" metaphor. When Bush declared a "War on Terrorism," he not only identified the enemy, but he also determined the main national priority, which, fortunately for him, reversed his sinking job performance as the nation united behind the President to face an enemy. .

Again, just as Reagan's use of "terrorist" enabled him to by-pass presenting the details justifying position, Bush was not compelled to set forth a plan for his "War on Terrorism" with its resulting costs and benefits.

Then, a year after 9/11, Bush shifted the focus of the "war" toward Iraq arguing that its leader Saddam Hussein was inherently a "terrorist" and currently had the means of mass destruction, and soon could have nuclear weapons.

Threatening a preemptive strike against Iraq, Bush intimidated the UN into strengthening is resolution against Saddam Hussein and providing a deadline for compliance. While Bush was negotiating with the UN, American planes were already attacking strategic targets, and military forces and hardware were being moved into the area.

Again, this shift from Afghanistan to Iraq was made without explaining why Hussein is more dangerous now than he has been over the last ten years and without assessing the success of the first stage of the war. Questions such as "Have we captured or killed the enemy's leaders including Ben Laden?" and "How effective has the war been against the Al Quaeda and the Taliban?" were never addressed. Nor, was Bush required to present the costs and benefits in extending the "War on Terrorism" to Iraq.

Today, the word "terrorism" still carries much of its original power for spreading fear, but it also has become an umbrella term that ties unrelated ideas and events together as it rallies public opinion to act against the administration's symbolized enemies.

Today, the umbrella of "terrorism" requires the highest priority because it includes, in addition to the Al Quaeda and Taliban, the people who spread anthrax, rebels who took hostages in a movie protesting Russian's policy in Chechnya and the snipers who killed 10 and spread fear throughout Washington D.C. as well as, of course, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqians.

As an umbrella term, any violent act occurring throughout the world can be placed within the context of the "War on Terrorism" justifying retaining it as the nation's highest priority and maintaining Bush's high rating for job performance. Further, the Bush role of "world policeman" is polarizing the world and dramatically increasing hatred toward America, serving as a "self-fulfilling prophesy," because this reservoir of hatred is creating future terrorists to act against the United States.

Beyond the hatred, the "War on Terrorism" metaphor, when it is enacted, results in dead American and enemy bodies. Then, it's no longer a metaphor but an actual war without ever having to present the justification for this level of involvement.

The "War on Terrorism" metaphor by-passed the questions, "What are costs and possible benefits for an actual war with Iraq?" Instead, the power of a metaphor and the hypothetical question, "What if Saddam Hussein gets nuclear weapons and gives it to a terrorist?" is the basis for going to war.

The only hope for decreasing the polarization and "terrorism" is to shift from the metaphor of an "American war" to an "international criminal" metaphor. The enactment of a "justice" metaphor is very different. Then, the problem of terrorism would belong to the world, not just the U.S., and all the major powers of the world would need to cooperate in bringing the "criminals" to justice by pooling their intelligence and law enforcement resources.

Such an enactment would be closer to what NATO did in Kosovo bringing Milosovich before to trial the World Court. It would also symbolize the U.S. as standing for the "rule of law" instead of being the world bully who can intimidate other countries as well as the United Nations to do its bidding.

Bush uses the "War on Terrorism" to communicate the importance of the event called 9/11. However, it becomes abuse as the "war" becomes an umbrella that brings together unrelated events, when Bush fails to demonstrates how these events are united and when he refuses to present costs and benefits of his proposed "War on Terrorism."

The abuse becomes intolerable when the "war on terrorism" is used to over-shadow important domestic issues such as the economy, saving Social Security and Medicaid, the environment and the growing $400 billion deficit. These issues, central to the 2000 campaign, have languished because the strategy makes them secondary to the war under-cutting their importance.

This abuse becomes unforgivable when Bush's motive appears to be political. Not only does he use the "war" sustain his popularity, but he also uses it to keep his critics in line. After Senator Max Cleland, a decorated veteran who had lost three limbs in combat, spoke out against Bush's policies, he was defeated when a Republican political ad accused him of not having courage and of disloyalty to America.

The election removed one important check, Democratic control of the Senate, against Bush's power to further abuse of the "War on Terrorism." Also, because the "war" metaphor spreads anti-American hate, it dramatically increases the potential for future terrorism. As a result, today, I have much great fear of the consequences of Bush's abuse of the "War on Terrorism" than I have of the terrorists who were used to justify the "war."

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