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War on Terror, Rest in Peace

Though politically useful for Bush and his minions, the 'war frame' never fit the reality of terrorism. It was successful at consolidating power -- but counterproductive in dealing with the real threat.
 
 
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The "War on Terror" is no more. It has been replaced by the "global struggle against violent extremism."

The phrase "War on Terror" was chosen with care. "War" is a crucial term. It evokes a war frame, and with it, the idea that the nation is under military attack -- an attack that can only be defended militarily, by use of armies, planes, bombs, and so on. The war frame includes special war powers for the president, who becomes commander in chief. It evokes unquestioned patriotism, and the idea that lack of support for the war effort is treasonous. It forces Congress to give unlimited powers to the President, lest detractors be called unpatriotic. And the war frame includes an end to the war -- winning the war, mission accomplished!

The war frame is all-consuming. It takes focus away from other problems, from everyday troubles, from jobs, education, health care, a failing economy. It justifies the spending of huge sums, and sending raw recruits into battle with inadequate equipment. It justifies the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. It justifies torture, military tribunals, and no due process. It justifies scaring people, with yellow, orange, and red alerts. But, while it was politically useful, the war frame never fit the reality of terrorism. It was successful at consolidating power, but counterproductive in dealing with the real threat.

Colin Powell had suggested "crime" as the frame to use. It justifies an international hunt for the criminals, allows "police actions" when the military is absolutely required, and places the focus and the funding on where it should go: intelligence, diplomacy, politics, economics, religion, banking, and so on. And it would have kept us militarily strong and in a better position to deal with cases like North Korea and Darfur.

But the crime frame comes with no additional power for the president, and no way to hide domestic troubles. It comes with trials at the international court, giving that court's sovereignty over purely American institutions. It couldn't win in the administration as constituted.

The abstract noun, "terror," names not a nation or even people, but an emotion and the acts that create it. A "war on terror" can only be metaphorical. Terror cannot be destroyed by weapons or signing a peace treaty. A war on terror has no end. The president's war powers have no end. The need for a Patriot Act has no end.

It is important to note the date on which the phrase "war on terror" died and was replaced by "global struggle against violent extremism." It was right after the London bombing. Using the War frame to think and talk about terrorism was becoming more difficult. The Iraq War was declared won and over, but it became clear that it was far from over and not at all won and that it created many new terrorists for every one it destroyed. The last justification - fighting the war on terror in Iraq so it wouldn't have to be fought at home -- died in the London bombing.

And so the term "War on Terror" had to go. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head man in waging war, said he had objected to the term, "because, if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as the solution" Instead, the solution is "more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military."

That's what was said by those in the anti-war movement.

Donald Rumsfeld's spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, said that the change in language was "not a shift in thinking," like Nixon saying "I am not a crook." But when the war frame is crucial and evoked by the word "war," then dropping the "war" while addressing the public will result in a shift in thinking in the public mind: If the war frame is not evoked in the public mind, the failure of the president's war policy will be less visible.

The new phrase is less comprehensible, long, complicated. You almost have to memorize it: "global struggle against ...what was that exact wording again? Oh yeah, "violent extremism." It doesn't sound like poetry, but it a perverse way it is. It says the administration's policy is like the words for it: hard to comprehend, long, complicated. The new phrase is not memorable, and that's the point.

"Struggle" does not evoke a war frame. "Struggle" is more realistic in that it does not imply an end; it may not have a victory, the "mission" is vague, it is hard to say when it is accomplished, and it is difficult. Dropping war takes the blame for failure away from the war policy, takes the focus away from $200 billion and thousands of lives spent so far, with more to come. It also justifies bringing troops home next year. If there is no war, there is no war to lose.

"Global" takes it out of any particular location, and justifies going into any country anytime. It is diffuse, but confers a broader scope over which to exert power.

"Violent" is important. If they're violent, it justifies using violence against them. It's not just diplomatic, economic and political -- expect the US to use violence.

"Extremists" was chosen very carefully. It applies both abroad and at home. The Bush administration was using the designation "terrorist" for progressive activists and setting the FBI and the IRS on them: activists like, for instance, members of PETA who release minks raised in horrifying conditions. And the radical right has been using the word "extremist" for environmentalists. The term is set up for the suppression of opposition at home.

What is most important is what is not being said. The Bush administration is implicitly, through the use of language, admitting that war won't stop terrorism and that the war in Iraq had no justification. Important questions arise and must be asked: If this is not a "war," does the president still have the war powers given him by Congress? If there is no "war" anymore, how can there be "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo, whose imprisonment without due process is being justified by "war." If there is no "war," will we still need to call up the reserves and the National Guard? And is the new framing retroactive? Was there ever a "war" on terror? Was it just mistake to think so?

Language matters, because of the frames evoked -- and, just as importantly, the frames not evoked. "War on Terror" evoked a frame that embodied a policy claim, that war was the appropriate means to stop terrorists, and that the Iraq War was justified as a response to 9/11. "War on Terror" was a way to get the public to accept that frame and the policy it was mean to justify.

That policy is now being disowned, and so the words must be dropped. The hope is, in the absence of the old words and the presence of the new, a new frame will take hold and the old policy will be forgotten. The goal is that the public will no longer associate the Iraq War with terrorism and see the failure in Iraq as a failure to curb terrorism. That way most of the troops can be brought home before the midterm elections without the implication that the administration is giving up on stopping terrorism.

What should progressives do? Remind the public that there is still a war going on, that it was the wrong policy from the beginning, that the administration now agrees with the anti-war activists, and that you can't end a war just by stopping the use of the word. And remind the public of what Karl Rove said just weeks ago: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war." The conservatives were wrong; had they been right, they'd still be talking proudly about the "war."

George Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate ' (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.