chapter  1
18 Pages

The rhetoric of terror: “War” as misplaced metaphor


When President Bush referred to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks as the “first war of the twenty-first century,” he was marking off the attacks as distinctive and perhaps unprecedented. This new “war” beckoned some to reach beyond common conventions to make sense of what was happening. For some the marking was literal: The Economist referred to 11 September as “the day the world changed.” Others reach for similes or some semblance of familiarity (“It’s like Pearl Harbor,” or “It’s like the day JFK was killed”). None of these depictions are satisfying. In fact, the attacks were so unusual and unprecedented, there was no ready framework or language to convey what had happened. The temptation is strong to grasp for a more familiar set of words, to draw on some preexisting framework to make sense of these disruptive events. What’s interesting, for our purposes, is the search for metaphorical constructs, “as if” expressions, in an effort to understand what feels radically unfamiliar. Bush and his aides drew immediately on the accessible and facile language of war.