(Re)Defining the Long War: Toward a New Vocabulary of International Terrorism

by Aaron Hess & Z. S. Justus

As the fight against terrorism continues, language plays a pivotal role. In current policies, the language of war continues to dominate. Based on an analysis of President Bush’s September 11th anniversary campaign speeches, we propose that war metaphors and language, such as victory, enemies, and allies, occlude the reality of counterterrorism efforts. It is difficult to pinpoint victory in this conflict, a requisite of the vocabulary of war familiar to lay audiences.

We call for a new language to illustrate the nature of our present conflict, a new vocabulary of international crime as an effective replacement for discussions of counterterrorism. There are four benefits of this new language. First, domestic audiences are accustomed to the persistence of crime; it is a manageable social ill. Second, the labeling of terrorist organizations as “criminal” decreases the perceived legitimacy of their acts by potential recruits. Third, international crime is a global problem, not a war perpetrated by the United States. Global problems require global solutions, and such a language will help garner support from the global community. Finally, crime language separates the religious connotation associated with labels of terrorism or “jihadism.” This allows moderate Muslims to reframe their faith away from extremist and violent acts.

To illustrate the new language, we have modified one of President Bush’s speeches to remove uses of war language and replace it with a new language of international crime. The speech reads just as “tough” on terrorism while avoiding the disadvantages of war framing. Future domestic and international persuasive efforts to win support should take into account this new language of international crime.