The Significance of Rhetorical War

9 01 2009

John Dickerson has a short piece up on Slate about rhetorical wars, the next one of which appears to be war on the economy.  Oops, I’m sorry, that’s war on the economic crisis.  My mistake.  Anyway, in my National Security Law intersession course this week, one thing we talked about was whether the war on terror is any different from the other rhetorical wars on drugs, poverty, cancer, etc. or if it’s just another phrase in the presidential bag of tricks.  I’d say yes and no.

In some ways, it’s like all the other rhetorical wars, in that the word “war” announces a policy priority and commission of resources.  It’s intended to make those who are doing whatever we’re at war with a little more afraid of us in the case of something like the war on drugs, and to make victims believe that we’re serious in the case of the war on poverty or the war on cancer.  The war on terror does announce a policy priority and commission of resources, and it is supposed to make terrorists fear us and Americans feel like the government is doing something to protect us.  But that’s not all.

While other wars may have done this to some extent, I think the war on terror sets a new precedent in terms of using the “war” as a justification for actions that may or may not be legal or otherwise socially justifiable.  Increased surveillance?  We’re at war!  Questionable interrogation techniques?  We’re at war!  If Congress doesn’t give the President more and more authority, then it looks like it’s on the wrong side of a war, and that’s something you don’t want to be.  It’s also fuzzy because while Congress has not actually declared war on terrorists (something it doesn’t have the legal power to do as the enemy has to be at least somewhat identifiable), it has authorized the use of force against those responsible for 9/11 in the AUMF.  We’re actively fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the President is allowed to do whatever is appropriate and necessary to track down the Al Qaeda people responsible for the 9/11 terrorist plot.  This means that the rhetorical war gets the added brunt of being associated with a real war, and sometimes the two get disturbingly enmeshed.  For example, it was easy to call Iraq just another battle in the broader war.  But Congress authorized force against those who had attacked us first; it never declared a wider war or referred to the war in Afghanistan as an opening battle.

Things to think about.

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