In 2005, I published Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism (MUP). It was one of the first critical analyses of the public language employed by the Bush administration to make sense of the 9/11 attacks and justify the nation’s mobilisation for a global ‘war on terrorism’. In the book, I tried to argue firstly, that the political elite carefully and deliberately chose the language they used because they had certain goals in mind. It was not a spontaneous or objective reflection of reality, but part of a carefully conceived political strategy to pursue a range of domestic and foreign projects. Second, I argued that the particular narratives and language they employed was chosen from a range of possibilities, and that it was not in any inevitable that 9/11 had to interpreted as an act of war requiring a military response, for example. Other interpretations and narratives were available and could have been deployed. Third, I argued that the core narratives and assumptions of the overall discourse were then reproduced and institutionalised across American society through powerful discursive sites such as the media, churches, and the new Department of Homeland Security. Finally, I tried to show how the language of the war on terror was much more than merely words or propaganda; instead, it had a number of concrete consequences in the ‘real’ world of public policy. These ideological effects included a number of extremely negative patterns of behaviour, such as the torture and abuse seen at Abu Ghraib and the ongoing cycle of violence between al Qaeda and Western and Western-supported states. I suggested that we needed to find new ways of speaking and thinking about the challenge of terrorism if we were to move beyond simply responding to violence with even greater counter-violence which actually increased insecurity.
I am very pleased that since the book was published, a great many other books, articles, research projects, and PhDs have confirmed my overall arguments, and provided further analytical and empirical depth to our understanding of the way the political language of elites functions ideologically. Interestingly, in a follow-up project with Matt McDonald from Warwick University I looked at several hundred speeches by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard in the run-up to the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. The data revealed that all three leaders used the same core narratives about terrorism and all of them ended up justifying the attacks very similar ways. In other words, the discourse of the war on terror spread and was used instrumentally by other political leaders pursuing the same kinds of policies.
Despite this growing evidence for my thesis however, a number of questions have been raised about my arguments which I would like to respond to. First, I have been criticised by some for promoting a ‘conspiracy theory’ approach to the use of political language by elites. I would respond that it is not a conspiracy as such, but rather a carefully conceived political strategy by politicians who are deeply aware of the power of language, particularly in a media-based society. Moreover, there is now a great deal of evidence (which is growing further all the time) to show that political elites in the US and UK worked extremely hard and purposively to promote certain key messages to the public, even though in the case of Iraq’s WMD they knew that the evidence did not hold up. It is not necessarily a secret conspiracy therefore, but simply political actors constructing a discourse to promote their own interests. This is something which other political actors, such as pressure groups, also do.
Second, it has been argued that existing structures and narratives within American society made it virtually inevitable that a war-based interpretation of 9/11 would prevail and a ‘war on terror’ would be launched. The political elite, in this sense, had no real choice and the war on terror discourse just emerged of its own accord. I agree that American society is highly militaristic, that narratives of American exceptionalism and the chosen nation are deeply embedded in the political culture, and that existing foreign policy structures are oriented towards certain kinds of dominant perceptions and responses. With this genealogy and set of existing structures therefore, it was always highly likely that the political elite would choose these particular narratives to frame their policies in order to ensure that they resonated with the public and gained widespread acceptance.
Nonetheless, I still maintain that the political elite always retain a certain amount of agency and in this case, there were definite choices about exactly what kind of narrative framing they could employ to frame the response they chose. Moreover, although it cannot be tested, I think that if Al Gore had been president instead of George W., a different set of narratives and approach to fighting terrorism would have emerged. There are numerous examples of both individuals and groups working hard to introduce a new discourse or language into politics and succeeding, even though the existing structures mitigated against it. Examples of such so-called ‘norm entrepreneurs’ include: Gorbachev’s perestroika; the efforts of human rights activists to construct an international human rights regime; the now widely used language of green politics; gender neutral language; etc. If we abandon the notion of human agency, it becomes difficult to explain change in international politics.
A key point that emerges from this is that language and discourse is never monolithic or static; it has to be reproduced and remade every day by actors and institutions. This suggests that even though the language of the war on terrorism has now been institutionalised in numerous agencies, government departments and laws, and has become an accepted part of entertainment culture, there is still room for struggle and resistance. If we as scholars and citizens continue to challenge the core narratives and language used by elites and their supporters, I believe that the war on terror will in the years to come, go the way of the cold war. This is a valid emancipatory goal, as the war on terror has proved to be nothing short of a disaster for human security, human rights, democratic politics and progressive politics.