The Language of War Has Consequences

On Sept. 12, 2001, George W. Bush said something he had avoided saying the day before. “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror,” he told reporters. “They were acts of war.”

The decision to frame the response to 9-11 as a “war” was a fateful one. Before that moment, western democracies would never have sent their soldiers to fight endless battles in distant and obscure deserts. Imprisonment without charge or trial would never have been advocated by leading politicians. Torture would never have been supported by much of the population. And calls for the assassination of a man who leaked documents would never have been heard from leading journalists.

It was George W. Bush’s statement on Sept. 12, 2001, that made all this possible. “We are at war,” wrote the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer last week. “A hot war in Afghanistan where six Americans were killed just this past Monday, and a shadowy world war where enemies from Yemen to Portland, Oregon, are planning holy terror. Franklin Roosevelt had German saboteurs tried by military tribunal and executed. (Julian) Assange has done more damage to the United States than all six of those Germans combined.”

The conclusion is obvious. “We are at war.” That statement appears in virtually every call for more spying, more torture, more killing. War is an emergency. An existential struggle. To the extent that the ordinary rules get in the way of victory, they must be suspended – just as Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. “The constitution is not a suicide pact,” as the saying goes.

Occasionally, this stuff is disingenuous, as when Mitch Daniels, Bush’s budget director, justified the ballooning deficit by saying “it’s a wartime budget” and then turned around and justified tax cuts by claiming “Americans are being taxed at the highest peacetime rates in history.”

And who can forget the immortal words of Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay: “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.”

But generally, it’s sincere. There’s no doubt that Bush and his officials believed, and still believe, that the “war on terror” is far more than a metaphor. In a typical statement, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said in 2006 that the United States had emerged “from the Cold War and the struggles of World War Two” only to confront “a new challenge that has every bit as much danger as the challenges we have faced in prior decades.”

First, the Wehrmacht. Then, the Red Army. Now, al-Qaeda. Thus were a few- thousand lightly armed religious fanatics transformed into the equivalent of a military force that very nearly conquered civilization and another that could have annihilated it in less time than it takes to watch a sit-com. Brian Michael Jenkins, the RAND Corporation’s esteemed terrorism expert, once helpfully described terrorism as “actual or threatened violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm, which will in turn cause people to exaggerate the strength of the terrorists and the threat they pose.”

Seen in that light, it’s obvious that hyperbole about terrorism isn’t mere nonsense. It’s what the terrorists want. And that may be the least of the damage done by framing the response to terrorism as a “war.”

The enemy in this “war” is not a nation. He has no armies to defeat in the field, no capital to occupy, no supreme commander who can agree to end hostilities. There can be no V-E Day. If this is war, get used to it. It’s permanent.

Dick Cheney was explicit about that. He warned of “decades” of fighting ahead. So did neo-conservative strategist Richard Perle and former Bush speech writer David Frum in their book An End To Evil. And Norman Podhoretz, the dean of the neo-cons, topped them all in his book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. In Podhoretz’s view, the Cold War was a 42-year-long world war, which makes “war on terror” the World War IV. Expect it to “go on for a very long time,” Podhoretz wrote.

The implication is as obvious as it is frightening. Peace is not the normal state of affairs in this mindset. Wars are not occasional and brief interruptions. Instead, war is the norm, and peace is but a brief interlude between conflicts.

But as we are constantly told, war is an emergency. It’s an existential struggle. To the extent that civil liberties and standards of civilized conduct get in the way of victory, they must be suspended. And since war is endless, the suspension is permanent – which is why, as James Madison observed long ago, “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

To be blunt, any politician or journalist who demands liberty and civility be curtailed because “we are at war” is a bigger threat to liberal democracy and western civilization than any terrorist.

There is an alternative. Sir Ken Macdonald, the United Kingdom’s director of prosecutions, demonstrated it in a 2007 speech about the 7/7 subway bombings. “London is not a battlefield,” he said. “Those innocents who were murdered on July 7, 2005, were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed in their ludicrous videos, soldiers.’ They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals.”

Fortunately, the Obama administration has dropped the language of war. But most of the policies created by that rhetorical framework remain in place. Worse, the language of war thrives in public discourse. It should be challenged and denounced as the futile and self-defeating nonsense it is. As Sir Ken Macdonald concluded, “we must protect ourselves from these atrocious crimes without abandoning our traditions of freedom.”