Frameworks Other Than War

September 14, 2001

(Originally Written by Frank Blechman, modified and edited by Jayne Seminare Docherty. Blechman and Docherty have been exchanging metaphor analyses of significant events and responses to significant events for the past five years.)

As we have listened to the TV commentators following the plane crashes at the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, the metaphor of “war” has been used over and over again. When thousands of people die in a planned disaster, few commentators seem to have any other frame of reference.

Metaphors are powerful because they subtly define what we know, what we see, what we can’t see, and what we can imagine.

What metaphors have been used in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses for defining our current situation?


Wars have high levels of violence and destruction. This description fits the events of September eleventh. But, most of the media anchors noted uneasily that this isn’t exactly like the 1941 Japanese attack on the US Naval Forces at Pearl Harbor.

  • The World Trade Center was not a military target.
  • The attack vehicles were not military weapons.
  • The attackers did not represent the policy of another sovereign nation.
  • The attack was carried out entirely within this country.

On the other hand:

  • The attack at the Pentagon was against a military target.
  • The attacks were intended to challenge American “power” (economic and military).
  • The attacks may have been planned and financed by interests outside of the US.
  • The level of damage made the south end of New York City look like a “war zone.”

Strengths of War Metaphor:

If this is a war, then we have a vocabulary to guide our thinking. We have an enemy. We attack. We defend. We strike. We have strategic objectives. We have tactics. We use all means necessary. We imagine that out there, however “shadowy,” there is a worthy adversary. If this is a war, our very survival is at stake. War has an exceptionally strong focusing quality. The war metaphor is exciting and it replaces inaction with action. If terrorism is war, then feeble citizens should get out of the way and let the professional warriors do their job. The able bodied should sign up now.

Weaknesses of War Metaphor:

One of the weaknesses of the war model is that it is reactive. We are in a war because we have been attacked. We are in a war because others have declared war on us. We are allowing our actions to be determined by the actions of others. Morally, it threatens to risk everything a society builds by over-focusing resources on one thing, the war.

The great challenge of this metaphor is that it carries an all-or-nothing element. “If you are not for war, you must be for doing nothing.” Without alternative models, critics of war do look weak and indecisive. Alternative metaphors are so badly needed.


Some commentators have used the language of crime and justice. Others have actively denounced U.S. policies of the past that supposedly treated terrorists as outlaws. They have complained that policy makers have confused war with crime, or worse, have hidden behind a criminal justice fa├žade to avoid making the hard decisions that war requires.

Using the language of crime:

  • Terrorism, like crime is an offense against all of us, not just the immediate victims.
  • All civilizations (all civilized societies?) have a stake in suppressing this uncivilized behavior.
  • Investigations should identify the real perpetrators.
  • The perpetrators should be apprehended and brought to justice.
  • They should be punished. Punishment should ensure that they would not hurt others.
  • Punishment should act as a deterrent for others inclined toward the same misbehavior.
  • People (groups, nations) harboring criminals should be treated as accessories to the crime.
  • We could control terrorists more effectively if we didn’t handcuff the police by making them respect civil liberties and human rights.

Perhaps because U.S. law enforcement has become militarized with the proliferation of special tactics teams, the crime metaphor has often been mixed with the metaphor of war.

  • We need a new strike force to enforce the law.
  • We will ask for help from the forces (doesn’t sound like ‘police’ forces to me) of other nations.

Strengths of the crime metaphor:

Citizens (civilized people, societies and nations) can assist law enforcement personnel by endorsing social sanctions, depriving criminals of their cover, and aiding officials when asked to do so. If the goal of a justice system is restoration, not punishment, then the criminal metaphor can be a platform for a restorative model of interaction with the “terrorists.”

Weaknesses of the crime metaphor:

Criminal justice requires a system of courts, and universally recognized courts do not exist for handling this case. The international court systems that do exist are slow and cumbersome. Many citizens and political leaders in the U.S. have been suspicious of international legal systems in the past.


Commentators have reported that the events of the last week have injured us. We need to grieve and to heal. This is the language of biology, but the implications of this metaphor are not clear.

  • Are we infected?
  • Do we need treatment?
  • Can we disinfect the source?
  • How long will it take to heal?
  • Should we take it easy while the injury is healing, or should we be more active than usual?

Strengths of the medical metaphor:

If terrorism is a disease, it can be studied, diagnosed and treated. If it is a medical problem, then we need to bring in people who know how to treat the disease with the least trauma to the patient. Ordinary folks should know when the situation is too serious for folk remedies. Patients may have to make some lifestyle choices to improve their chances of recovery and health. This metaphor is strong because it can be applied at many levels. Not all diseases or injuries are terminal. Some will heal themselves. Not every medical decision is an urgent matter of life and death.

Weaknesses of the medical metaphor:

The medical metaphor can also be merged with the war metaphor. Diseases must be attacked. Surgical strikes will remove the cancer. The metaphor is reassuring, if misleading, because it implies that if war is like medicine, then smart well-trained people will do good and not do harm.

A less serious biological metaphor: Bad events can also be compared to weeds in a garden, a fly in the soup, or blight on the crop. They scar our garden and they may reduce our yield, but introducing a natural controlling agent can treat them. When I heard a speaker this week saying that we have “rats in the sewer, and we can’t be squeamish about going into the sewer to get rid of them,” I wondered whether he had ever heard of cats.


Some commentators have also told us that we have learned a lesson from these events. They suggest that we have to ‘teach a lesson’ to those who were behind these acts. Others have said that we have received a message and should send them one. Few commentators have expanded either of these metaphors, leaving the big questions:

  • If terrorism is an educational problem, and we are the teachers, then how do we get the student to attend class?
  • What sort of educational materials would be effective, and what should the subject matter be?
  • If there is a problem with the communication channel, then how do we open a better telephone line?


Folks interviewed on the street have talked about the events of the past week in terms of chemistry.

  • An irreversible chain reaction has been set off.
  • Our world will never be the same.

I haven’t actually heard the language of space travel, but many have indirectly used the metaphor. They have said:

  • The events have propelled us into a new orbit.

The strength of this metaphor is that it implies that we need to learn to live in this new environment, because there is no going back. It contradicts the war claim that somehow, when we win, things will go back to “normal.”

Acts Of Nature

When hurricanes hit a populated shoreline, a volcano erupts or an earthquake occurs, we don’t use any of the metaphors above. We don’t denounce the force of the winds as evil. We don’t assume that we must attack the storm. We don’t try to treat it as a medical or chemical problem. We may give storms names and occasionally talk about them as if they have a mind, but we generally accept that really, they are natural events. Although damaging, they are part of the way the earth and its systems exchange heat and regulate the planet. Speaking this language we talk about:

  • Seeking shelter.
  • Stocking supplies.
  • Waiting until the storm passes.
  • Rebuilding.

The forces of natures are so much larger than humans that we rarely suggest resistance. We survive and we go on. Very few commentators have used this metaphor, and yet our response is very much the same, as if these plane crashes were separated and accidental. The strength of this model is that we are humbled. The weakness is that it is passive.

Which metaphor is best?

Is there one metaphor that “best” fits the current situation? I contend that there is not one perfect metaphor. I personally prefer the crime model because it restrains reactions within a framework of law, and it is adaptive to a communal restorative approach. I like the biological models because they acknowledge that natural systems are self-regulating and are capable of healing themselves. I like the storm metaphor because it reminds us that waiting is a virtue; storms pass.

I refuse to cynically claim that none of the other metaphors are as good as the war metaphor because they don’t have the same profit potential. I believe that if we can introduce multiple stories into this conversation, we can resist the urge to act precipitously.

Our history is too full of the stories of war and too short on the stories of peace. We need a story about the wise leader who listened to all the counselors and then chose the path of peace, reconciliation and justice. When leaders tell us that we regretfully have to do dreadful things because there are no other possibilities, we have to pipe up, “Wait, we can think of other options you haven’t tried.”

In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin asks, “How come we play war and not peace.” Hobbes replies, “Not enough role models.”

Therein lies our work.

At the time of publication, Frank Blechman was working for the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University.

Jayne Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

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