- Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has used a war metaphor to define counterterrorism strategy. Such a description may simplify a complex reality, making it more mentally manageable, but it may also oversimplify and distort reality.
- Metaphors can guide national decision making. The wars that began in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 clearly demonstrate that the concept of a war to combat a method of violence used by nonstate agents is more than rhetoric.
- Viewing counterterrorism through the lens of law enforcement may yield more tightly focused tactics that are less costly than war and less likely to provoke resentment and backlash.
- Relating counterterrorism to disease containment or prejudice reduction shifts the focus to the psychological underpinnings of terrorism and, in doing so, may suggest successful long-term strategies that chip away at the motivations of terrorists.
On the eve of our national election, we realize that one challenging issue facing the next president is how to address terrorism and the options for counterterrorism. As psychological research has made clear, what he and his administration say about these issues will influence how the public thinks about them—and will affect our national and international policy. [For more on the power of words, see “When Words Decide,” by Barry Schwartz; Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007.]
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the Bush administration has used a battle metaphor: the “global war on terrorism” and the “war on terror.” Such descriptive terms simplify complex realities, making them more mentally manageable. But they do not adequately represent the complexities of the problem, resulting in selective perception of the facts, and they may reflect the views of only a few key policy makers. Nevertheless, they can guide national decision making. The wars that began in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 clearly demonstrate that the concept of a war to combat a method of violence used by nonstate agents is more than rhetoric.