Revisiting the War Metaphor: Sept. 25, 2001

by Jayne Seminare Docherty, September 25, 2001

In a paper written a day or two after the initial attack on New York and Washington (Four Reasons to Use the War Metaphor with Caution), I urged caution when using the metaphor of war to describe the crisis facing the United States.

Why do we use metaphors and what metaphors arose out of September 11?

During times of uncertainty – when no easy policy answer or response is apparent – we must resort to analogy to make sense of the new problem facing us. These analogies are expressed through metaphors. In the early hours of September 11, we heard a number of different metaphors. See: Frameworks Other Than War.

Some metaphors described the event itself:

  • This is a crime.
  • This is war.
  • This is a natural disaster.

Other metaphors described the effects of the events.

  • Biological metaphor – America has been injured.
  • Educational metaphor – we have learned lessons.
  • Chemistry metaphor – a chain reaction has been set off.

Some metaphors inspire action.

Generative metaphors tell us how to act and they guide our decisions about mobilizing resources to meet critical needs. The natural disaster metaphor allowed us to place all of our disaster relief services into full action mode very rapidly.

Longer-term responses to the events of September 11 were more difficult to identify. In the early hours and days, we saw the crime metaphor vying with the war metaphor, and it seemed the war metaphor was going to dominate our decision-making.

Generative metaphors should be used cautiously during any crisis.

Every metaphor is a way of seeing the world and every metaphor is also a way of not seeing the world. If we lock onto a single description of the problem and the appropriate response too early, we may not discover the most effective long-term responses to a crisis.

Metaphors also mutate and the war metaphor has been no exception.

No one metaphoric description of a new problem fits perfectly. Thus, even the most enthusiastic supporters of a war on terrorism are starting to hedge or soften the analogy. They remind us that:

  • This is not a war against Islam, just against violent Islamic fundamentalists.
  • There will be no clearly identifiable enemy.
  • All of the battles will not be military in nature.
  • There will be no territory to conquer and hold.
  • There will be no discernable front line.

In fact, those using the war metaphor are not deriving their action plans directly from the military.

The war metaphor permeates public policy discussions, particularly discussions about law enforcement. We have declared war on poverty, drugs, and crime. Now, we have a war on terrorism. The war metaphor – having cycled through our domestic policy processes – is reentering the world stage in a mutated form: war as international law enforcement.

What will war as international law enforcement against terrorism look like?

First, we will identify the “bad guys” or criminals – terrorists (non-state actors) and rogue nations (state actors).

Second, we will name their crime – engaging in, plotting to engage in, or supporting acts of violence against innocent civilians or the governments that protect innocent civilians.

Third, we will use crime-fighting strategies such as intelligence gathering and the threat of force to coerce or convince them to cease their bad behaviors.

What does this metaphor keep us from seeing about the real problem?

It is critical that we understand the assumptions behind the metaphor of war as international law enforcement against terrorism. This approach assumes that our identified foes are like professional criminals. Specifically, we are presuming that:

  • We can capture, imprison, or perhaps execute the criminals.
  • If this fails, we can make the terrorists recalculate the “cost of doing business.”
  • If the costs become too high, they will:
    1. transfer their activities to a different venue,
    2. change their methods of operating,
    3. or cease their criminal activities altogether.

In reality, many of the forces against which we are mobilizing are not like professional criminals. The terrorist cells identified as our “enemies” are much more akin to the Branch Davidians or MOVE in their motivational imperatives. We know from experience that mobilizing paramilitary law enforcement teams during confrontations with these groups resulted in disaster.

It is true that the Branch Davidians and MOVE suffered the heaviest casualties in their confrontations with law enforcement agents.

On the other hand:

  • The community in Philadelphia around the MOVE home was devastated.
  • The federal government lost significant legitimacy after Waco.
  • Waco led to the Oklahoma City bombing.
  • And, similar groups (such as the Posse Comitatus organization) managed to inflict significant destruction on law enforcement agents before they were themselves destroyed.

In short, law enforcement requires a certain level of predictability and the predominant use of goal rationality on the part of the criminal, and this predictability and goal rationality may be absent in this case. See: What Motivates the Terrorist or Potential Terrorist?

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