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20 years later, America’s ‘War on Terror’ language has gone global

Right-wing governments and movements often use these words to justify authoritarian and racist policies.

- September 9, 2021

Following the Aug. 26 bombing at the Kabul Airport, President Biden said, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay…These ISIS terrorists will not win.”

Biden’s reference to terrorism was hardly surprising. Since 9/11, the word “terrorism” has been a central element of the political narrative depicting the United States as fully engaged in an existential struggle against the “axis of evil.”

Two decades on, the language of “terrorism” pervades the politics of countries around the globe. In our new book, we contend that the 20 years since 9/11 demonstrate how language has produced collateral damage in the form of expanded violence against all forms of opposition. Our research finds that governments invoke the language of terrorism to justify policies that have little to do with fighting “terror.”

Tough language leads to tough actions

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush declared a “war on terror.” His Sept. 20, 2001 address to the nation included words like “extremism,” “justice,” “freedom” and “civilization.” These types of speeches helped legitimize the open-ended use of force in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Research demonstrates that the rhetoric of terrorism is more than cheap talk. It leads citizens to consent to unsavory forms of politics and justify acts of violence and tyranny. The Bush administration’s attempts to falsely link Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda played a key role in mobilizing public support for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Inaccurate claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction were accompanied by warnings that a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists could lead to a “mushroom cloud” in an American city.

U.S. officials spoke of the need to fight terrorism by “taking the gloves off.” In March 2003, columnist David Brooks argued that winning the war in Iraq would require taking “morally hazardous action.” Rhetoric portraying terrorism as an imminent threat requiring drastic measures helped boost public support for torture carried out by the U.S. in the decade following 9/11.

This language also helped justify an expansion of U.S. security and surveillance institutions. Warnings about terrorism justified the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security.

Americans gradually became accustomed to measures such as highway checkpoints in areas near the U.S. border, tighter security restrictions at airports, “no-fly” lists and criminal background checks. Government surveillance targeted Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities in particular.

Did the Afghanistan exit diminish U.S. credibility among its allies? Probably not.

Invoking terror has a long history

The language of terrorism employed after 9/11 was hardly an innovation. Politicians have long used “terrorism” to delegitimate opposition. British colonial officers Charles Edward Callwell (1859-1928) and French military officer David Galula (1919-1967) often described anti-colonial revolutionary factions as terrorists, using the label to justify the colonial administration’s repressive counterinsurgency measures. South African revolutionary leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid regime as a terrorist — and he remained on the U.S. government’s terror watchlist until 2008.

In the United States, the language of “terrorism” entered political parlance during the Nixon administration and its effort to expand the government’s powers of surveillance. Nixon was also responsible for setting up the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism in 1972.

The Carter administration subsequently established several important institutional structures, including the State Department’s Working Group on Terrorism and the Executive Committee on Terrorism under the Special Coordination Committee (SCC) of the National Security Council.

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign exploited public dissatisfaction with Carter’s Iran policy. On the campaign trail, Reagan called Iranians “barbarians” and “common criminals” and declared that “terrorism” was the “scourge of civilization.” Under Reagan, counterterrorism became a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, providing the pretext for covert actions abroad and increased surveillance against dissidents at home.

How the “War on Terror” and its language went global

As critics predicted after George W. Bush’s declaration of the “War on Terror,” many governments seized the moment and sought to accelerate their own projects of colonization, militarization and domestic repression. Israeli authorities, for example, redoubled their efforts to frame their domination of Palestinians as a fight against “terrorism.” Other governments from India to Turkey to Canada to Brazil made similar moves against activists, indigenous groups, national liberation movements and other designated enemies.

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Right-wing governments and movements often invoke the language of terrorism to justify authoritarian and racist policies. Sri Lankan leaders use the language of terrorism to justify land grabbing and the ethnic cleansing of Tamils. In the United States, White nationalists and other right-wing extremists seek to tie economic and political migrants to terrorism by framing them as “invaders” threatening national security.

But the language of terrorism transcends political affiliations. In 2014, the leader of Spain’s Socialist party advocated using the term “terrorism” to characterize gender-based violence. Liberal groups in the United States frequently criticize the narrow application of the term to Middle Eastern groups, arguing that it should be employed more frequently and consistently to label domestic actions such as mass shootings, violence at abortion clinics and hate crimes.

The logic and language of the “War on Terror” have further seeped into discussion of issues such as environmental activism, immigration and policing. In short, the framework of counterterrorism has become central to the way the U.S. government operates both at home and abroad.

Language as a “terrorist organization”

The two decades since the attacks of 9/11 reveal how ubiquitous the language of terrorism has become — and how this rhetoric produces collateral damage. It leads to the use of violence against ordinary people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, and has justified the expansion of security and surveillance institutions across myriad policy issues. These findings suggest a critical assessment of the politics of language — and the manner in which it terrorizes — can make a valuable contribution to ongoing local and global struggles for justice.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

John Collins (@djleftover) is professor of global studies at St. Lawrence University and author of Global Palestine (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2012), and coauthor with Eve W. Stoddard of Social and Cultural Foundations in Global Studies (Routledge, 2016). He and Somdeep Sen are editors of Globalizing Collateral Language: From 9/11 to Endless War (University of Georgia Press, 2021).

Somdeep Sen (@ssen03) is an associate professor of international development studies at Roskilde University in Denmark. He is the author of Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial (Cornell University Press, 2020).