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.
Although the war metaphor has some advantages, the next president should consider other terms that lead to thinking that is more nuanced—and ultimately more effective. Viewing counterterrorism through the lens of law enforcement, for example, may yield more tightly focused tactics that are less likely to provoke resentment and backlash and are also less costly than war. Two other metaphors—relating counterterrorism to disease containment or prejudice reduction—home in on many of the deeply rooted psychological underpinnings of terrorism and, in doing so, suggest strategies that may chip away at the motivations of terrorists and thus may be the most successful at squelching the scourge in the long run [see “Inside the Terrorist Mind,” by Annette Schaefer; Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008].
The Bush administration’s framing of terrorism as an act of war is a departure from past administrations’ ways of thinking. Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, for example, preferred a disease metaphor. President Bill Clinton’s general themes were the pursuit of justice, law enforcement and international cooperation. Clinton wanted to deny “victory” to terrorists, but he and other previous presidents stopped short of the word “war.”
President George W. Bush adopted the war construct immediately. On the morning of September 12, 2001, after a meeting of the National Security Council, the president told reporters: “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.”
The war metaphor helps to define the American perception of the threat of terrorism. If terrorism is war, then the national security, indeed the existence, of each side is threatened. The conflict is zero-sum; the outcome will be victory for one side or the other. Being in a state of war also requires national unity, and dissent is easily interpreted as unpatriotic. The solution has to be military. Thus, the Department of Defense must play a lead role in shaping policy, and the president’s duties as commander in chief must take precedence over his other tasks. An expansion of executive power accompanies the war metaphor: measures that would not be acceptable in peacetime, such as restrictions on civil liberties and brutal interrogation practices, are now considered essential.
But in several ways, the struggle against terrorism differs significantly from conventional war. First, the entity that attacked the U.S. in 2001 was not a state. It was an organization, al Qaeda, with a territorial base within a weak “failed state,” Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban regime was not internationally recognized. Since 2001 the entity that the U.S. is fighting has become even more amorphous and less like a state. It has progressed from the so-called terrorist organizations to an ideology that aspires to world domination. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on September 21, 2006 , called it “chaos theory in human form—an ever-shifting array of state and nonstate actors who cooperate, coagulate, divide, feud and feed on one another without end.”