Words, Words, Words: Rhetoric in the “War on Terror”


With ‘all that jazz’ about values, democracy and freedom, it is, after all, the rhetorical machinery churning out buzzwords for sale. Noam Chomsky demonstrates how phrases like “free speech,” the “free market,” and the “free world” have little to do with freedom. “Among the myriad freedoms claimed by the U.S. government are the freedom to murder, annihilate, and dominate other people. The freedom to finance and sponsor despots and dictators across the world. The freedom to train, arm, and shelter terrorists. The freedom to topple democratically elected governments. The freedom to amass and use weapons of mass destruction-chemical, biological, and nuclear. The freedom to go to war against any country whose government it disagrees with. And, most terrible of all, the freedom to commit these crimes against humanity in the name of “justice,” in the name of “righteousness,” in the name of “freedom.” Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that the freedom of the Americans is “not the grant of any government or document, but… our endowment from God.” Arundhati Roy comments: “Basically, we’re confronted with a country armed with a mandate from heaven.

Perhaps this explains why the U.S. government refuses to judge itself by the same moral standards by which it judges others. Its technique is to position itself as the well-intentioned giant whose good deeds are confounded in strange countries by their scheming natives, whose markets it’s trying to free, whose societies it’s trying to modernize, whose women it’s trying to liberate, whose souls it’s trying to save. Perhaps this belief in its own divinity also explains why the U.S. government has conferred upon itself the right and freedom to murder and exterminate people “for their own good.”

Bush concluded his 20th September 2001 speech hence: “I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of it is not known yet the outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know God is not neutral between them. We are assured of the rightness of our cause and confident in the victories to come. May God watch over the United States of America.” Interestingly, the operation in Afghanistan was named ‘Infinite Justice’, which Muslims objected, was only a Divine attribute. The name was then replaced by another fantastical one, explosively overblown with self-righteousness and cocksure certainty of success: ‘Enduring Freedom.’ Some rhetorical mastery!


Closely allied to this dimension is the use of the rhetoric of a moral crusade on the lines of traditional Christian rhetoric of a type that may have come from Pope Urban the Second in A.D 1099. Mainstream newspapers started developing a mindset for religious war. Abidullah Jan writing in ‘The Genesis of the Final Crusade’ lists some such article headlines: “This is a Religious War: September 11 was Only the Beginning”, “Yes, this is About Islam”, “The Core of Islamic Rage”, “Jihad, 101”, “Islamic Terror”, “Holy Warriors Escalate the Old War on a New Front”, etc. On September 16, 2001, the BBC reported Bush had declared a ‘crusade’ when the president remarked, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a long time.” With the ripples of outrage it created in the Muslim world, the apology duly came. However, five months later, the President repeated the word while addressing US troops in which he termed the war as ‘an incredibly important crusade to defend freedom.’ George W Bush, who describes himself as a ‘born again Christian’, has been quoted by Bob Woodward in his book Plan of Attack describing himself as a ‘messenger of God’ ‘doing the Lord’s will.’ Jan states, “Regurgitating the threat to the sanctity of ‘our way of life’ and ‘our values’ is part of the plan to make people feel threatened.” It is important, of course, to use rhetoric to heighten insecurity, so that the rationale to keep the War on Terror going stays pumped up.


Rhetoric has effectively generated fear in the American public mind. The Department of Homeland Security is at pains to prove that ‘the threat to U.S interests from someone, somewhere in the world, has increased.’ The Anonymous writer of Imperial Hubris comments, “We hear experts warning audiences watching CNN that the next al Qaeda attack on our country will involve WMD. The warnings are then complemented by more otherworldly advice to buy duct tape and plastic sheets to wrap their homes and make them airtight, WMD proof fortresses. When faced with vague threats, Washington does what it always does: it scares the hell out of people.”


The use of rhetoric has helped the ‘ideologization’ of the War on Terror. This has eclipsed the true ground realities and the actual root causes of the conflict, turning attention away from them. Particularly regrettable is the inability to understand terrorism as a desperate reaction by the socially outcast, economically deprived and politically oppressed. Terrorism, in fact, is a tactic used by disaffected individuals and communities, not an ideology. Instead, terrorism is seen as an opposing, challenging, hostile and ‘barbaric’ ‘evil ideology’ opposed to all that the West stands for and believes in. This is extremely misguided and helps divide the world into opposing ideological camps, lending strength to the dangerous ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. George W. Bush expressed the grandiosity of this ‘clash of ideologies’ in a statement: “We’ve entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite.” Journalist Margie Burns comments on this: “This statement should sound alarm bells for the nation and the world. What does Bush mean by an “ideological conflict”? All previous grandiose Bush pronouncements on global conflict have focused on terrorism and the “war on terror.” Bush is trying to present terrorism as an “ideology,” in an us-or-them global conflict, with Terrorism replacing Communism. Every thinking person knows that terrorism is not an “ideology.” Terrorist acts are a tactic. We know by now exactly who uses them, too: individuals and small groups use guerrilla tactics when other tactics are not available to them, against a much stronger governmental power or foreign power.” The New York Times reported on July 25, 2005, “The Bush administration is… pushing the idea that the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission.”


The ring of patriotic jingoism defines America’s rhetoric. It hedges in moral judgement within its own delineations, defining values as ‘American’ or ‘un American.’ Arundhati Roy writes in her book War Talk that the term ‘anti-American’ is used in order to discredit and inaccurately define its critics. “Once someone is branded ‘anti-American’ (like anti-Semitic), the chances are they will be judged before they will be heard and the argument will be lost in the welter of hurt national pride. To call someone anti-American, indeed, to be anti-American, is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those that the establishment has set out for you: If you’re not a Bushie, you’re a Taliban. If you don’t love us, you hate us. If you’re not Good, you’re Evil. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.” This is the ‘imperial hubris’ the Anonymous writer mentions in his book by the same name–the arrogance and self-centredness in interpreting events and people outside the United States. After the July 7 2005 bombings in London, G8 leaders denounced it as an attack on ‘our way of life’, and declared that they would never let the ‘Islamists change our values.’ The connection that the rhetoric of “Islamist terrorism” makes with Muslims and Arabs has led to dangerous racial profiling and has damaged the image of Islam and Muslims in the Western public mind. Discrimination and prejudice against Muslims in the West is on record high levels.


In his 9/11 address, Bush said: “The US was targeted for the attack because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.” In his historic speech of 20th September 2001, President Bush explained why the United States is hated: “They hate our freedoms–our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other… the terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life… Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of freedom depends on us.” This rhetoric of ‘they hate us for our freedom’ became a trumpeted theme in the mainstream media, insulating the American public from any recognition or realization of the elements of self-interest, opportunism and exploitation in American foreign policy that affect so many lives–many of them Muslim. Arundhati Roy states: “People are being asked to make two leaps of faith here. First, to assume that The Enemy is who the US government says it is, even though it has no substantial evidence to support that claim. And second, to assume that The Enemy’s motives are what the US government says they are, and there’s nothing to support that either.” In fact, motives are quite the opposite. The U.S is not hated for what it is, but for what it has done. The smokescreen of rhetoric, however, keeps a dispassionate analysis of the real grievances of America’s ‘enemies’ at bay. Roy said in a speech commending Noam Chomsky: “If people in the United States want a real answer to the question of ‘why do they hate us?’ (as opposed to the ones in the Idiot’s Guide to Anti-Americanism, that is: “Because they’re jealous of us,” “Because they hate freedom,” “Because they’re losers,” “Because we’re good and they’re evil”), I’d say, read Chomsky on U.S. military interventions in Indochina, Latin America, Iraq, Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. If ordinary people in the United States read Chomsky, perhaps their questions would be framed a little differently. Perhaps it would be: “Why don’t they hate us more than they do?” or “Isn’t it surprising that September 11 didn’t happen earlier?”

The Anonymous writer [later revealed to be Michael Scheuer, a senior CIA officer — Ed.] of Imperial Hubris calls the robotic repetition of ‘they hate our freedom’ “errant and potentially fatal nonsense.” He states: “There is no record of a Muslim urging to wage jihad to destroy democracy or credit unions, or universities. What the US does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world is infinitely more inflammatory.” The US must recognize this to be able to redress the grievances of the Muslim world that are not without basis. However, such rhetoric deflects attention to the real causes and prolongs America’s Beauty Sleep. Eyes Wide Shut. In the backdrop, the corpses keep piling up.


Empathy is absolutely necessary to be able to understand the terrorism phenomenon and begin a curative strategy. It is a natural humanizing element we all are gifted with, enabling us to understand one another as simply sharers in a common essential humanity. Rhetoric checks empathy by presenting the enemy as subhuman, evil, beastly. It ensures that the ‘human connection’ is not established, dehumanizing the enemy. Rhetoric tends to talk about the other side as the abstract ‘enemy’ or as a subhuman, demonic ‘Axis of Evil.’ Rhetoric has worked hard to deflect sympathy from victims of the West’s brutal wars and misadventures since decades. It has divided the world into ‘The West and the Rest’, and presented the West to be on a divinely assigned mission of liberation against subhuman lower-order creatures who must be taught some civilization. In 1937, Winston Churchill said of the Palestinians: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “Palestinians do not exist.” Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Palestinians “two-legged beasts.” Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called them “‘grasshoppers’ who could be crushed.”

Kyle Fedler says, “When we demonize our enemies we see ourselves as totally righteous and the abstract enemy as totally evil.” (‘On the Rhetoric of a War on Terror,’ September 2001). This is what makes the methods and means of the war on terror brutal, without moral restraints, conducted in the self-assuredness of a high moral ground. Again, it is rhetoric that comes to the rescue when human rights are blatantly violated. This is what the euphemism ‘collateral damage’ was invented for–or the 150,000+ dead [This is a low-ball number; Iraq, alone, is listed as having over 1.3 million excess mortalities since March 2003 — Ed.]] of Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem of America’s high-tech killing machines destroying so much of life other than specific targets is solved through the use of imaginative language.


The line between ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter terrorism’ (or ‘the war on terrorism’) becomes indistinguishable here. Kyle Fedler writes: “Invoking the language of war permits the direct and intentional killing of innocent people. So how is this any different from terrorism? If terrorism is the direct and intentional killing of innocent people with the purpose for achieving a greater goal they are not directly linked with, is this not just terrorism?” The underlying logic of terrorist attacks, as well as “retaliatory” wars against governments that “support terrorism,” is the same: both punish citizens for the actions of their governments.

The power of rhetoric which comes with all the authority and glamorous technology of the world’s hyperpower has indeed taken a heavy toll on public opinion. It has in fact, with its skewed up morality, perverted the integrity of the human conscience, head and heart. As a result, prejudices are established as fact, myth as reality. The masses are benumbed to the terrible atrocities in the guise of the ‘War on Terror.’ And questions cannot be asked. As Bush the Senior had said, “What We Say, Goes.”

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: meem.seen@gmail.com. Read other articles by Maryam.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ramsefall said on January 19th, 2009 at 8:31am #


    point well made…meaning is always subject to interpretation, something that Usonians have overlooked through the incessant rhetoric of their noble leaders who spew forth their particular concept of freedom, knowing damn well that it doesn’t align with the public’s concept.

    Washington is obviously not subjected to the same standards by which they judge the rest of the world; do what we say, not what we do — the bad parenting role models that they are.

    I’ve always been flabbergasted as to why God, regardless of one’s perspective of who or what God really is, would play favoritism with one nation or one group of people…such maniacally foolish and arrogant beliefs that people have. God bless Amerika, the most evil-wielding nation on Earth!

    I’m sure that in the mind of W, he is a born again Christian, no doubt God or His Son speaks directly to him. That’s the delusional effects of too much alcohol and coke from his bratty frat days. What he forget to tell the world is that he’s also a born again asshole.

    People easily bought the “why they hate us” line by being so dumbed down and having no recollect of their nation’s political and economic influence around the world, particularly post-WWII. But let’s not forget that Washington successfully threw its weight around the world based on the premise that “we own the world”, as Chomsky asserts again and again. As such, no foul.

    It’s high time that the Empire dives head first into oblivion. I’m sure everything will be better come tomorrow…and if anyone believes that, I’ve also got a friend of a friend with some prime coastal property for sale on the moon.

    Best to you.

  2. bozh said on January 19th, 2009 at 10:15am #

    let us please consider that even words like country, USA, UK, Italy, american people are fictions as far as reality or nature is concerned.

    even the words nationalism, patriotism, history of america represent a fictitious reality.
    how can we have the nationalism in the sense that ruling class uses the word (not me) when US ships are cruising the oceans and US is in afh`n and iraq. a better label wld be that we now have planetarism; nationalism, along with history are possiblyforever gone.

    about american people. oh, it sounds so good to the subclass. but in fact we have at least 10 different classes of amers.
    the top class appears least patriotic, religious, or nationalistic; it is fiercely warlike and expansionistic.
    it writes own history; forces own education on the subclass. more cld be said. thnx

  3. Ron Horn said on January 19th, 2009 at 11:21am #

    Thank you for the propaganda, brainwashing exposé. The Empire makes war on all fronts, and the efforts that they put forth on the propaganda front are enormous, especially here in the US.

  4. Michael Dawson said on January 19th, 2009 at 12:36pm #

    Speaking of Chomsky, a huge part of the problem is that the relevant information has little chance of making its through the filters inherent in for-profit mass media. Most Americans don’t know the arguments one way or the other. This is the land of American Idol, not American Ideology.

  5. The Angry Peasant said on January 19th, 2009 at 12:42pm #

    Excellent article, cutting to the heart of the matter. If only the American people could be informed as far as realizing what propaganda is, and what it does; how much it works against them, then they can start piecing things together on their own. Some of us have done this already. The majority needs to follow suit, if there is to be any actual change. The average person must come to understand the bankruptcy of the system they live under. The article talks about propaganda relating to foreign matters. It should also spend some time focusing on the propaganda instituted to keep us all living as unquestioning wage-slaves without health care. That is first and foremost. If we can’t have justice in our own country, forget about the American people doing anything about the rest of the world.

  6. Arvind Kaushik said on January 19th, 2009 at 2:56pm #

    “The U.S is not hated for what it is, but for what it has done.” I disagree with that statement. I think there is a lot of reason to also hate US for what it is. Their superficial, corporate mechanical culture. Their arrogance and the capitalistic greed thats bred into them from the time they are born. Look at American teenagers. All they care about is their Xbox, wearing hip clothes and accumulating the latest electronic toys. And the sad thing is, they are spreading this mcdonalds and Wal Mart culture throughout the rest of the world. The “westernization of the world” is cultural genocide, and its a greater tragedy than the wars they have started.

  7. kalidas said on January 19th, 2009 at 3:34pm #

    “A society of cheaters and the cheated.”

  8. Dan said on January 20th, 2009 at 8:15pm #

    Yet, it’s hard to find a voice of truth and reason that doesn’t exaggerate the case against the U.S. government. There certainly are cases of the U.S. supporting right wing death squads and arming the muhajadeen, but it is misleading to say that the U.S. “trains, arms, and shelters terrorists.” The world is an entirely different place then it was thirty or twenty years ago, and a globalized terrorist network (of which Al Qaeda is the first of it’s kind) is a much different enemy then the soviet union was. There isn’t a mutually assured destruction to shelter us now, and problems such as the commodification of weapons of mass destruction may become much more serious. I recommend Phillip Bobbit’s “terror and consent.” Seems to be where all the hot shots are getting their foreign policy, it’s very enlightening.

  9. Jannah said on February 2nd, 2009 at 9:51am #

    Dan – You forgot one thing. “Al Qaeda” is a fiction, created by the CIA (google Power of Nightmares). Al Qaeda is actually slang for “the toilet” in some Arab cultures – not really the kind of honorable, “mujahideen” sort of name you’d want to call your little group “fighting in the way of Allah”. So yes, it is a “different enemy”; but Al Qaeda is not what’s “different” . What’s different is that more & more people (esp Americans) have been too dumbed down to realize just how seriously they have been lied to, deceived, and manipulated.

    Another difference: This time it’s the world’s one & only superpower, America, that is the one committing the most evil. There is no more “just & freedom-loving America” to come to the rescue because America is now the tyrant.

    Hence, American itself is going down the toilet….