The “War on Terror” Metaphor and Ethics of Terrorism

Can Former US President Bush be Held Responsible for the Ineffectiveness of the War on Terror because of his Use of the Metaphor?

“Metaphors can kill” is stated by linguist George Lakoff (1991, p.25). This statement highlights the power of words and the function they serve in guiding us in our understanding of concepts and in our actions.  Metaphors are defined as “figure[s] of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or ideas is used in place of another to suggest a likeliness or analogy between them” (Webster’s dictionary as quoted in Kruglanski et al., 2008, p.98), and are commonly used by the general public in everyday life as well as by political elites in their discourse.  Following the attack on the World Trade Centre on the 11th September 2001, former President Bush declared:

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated (Bush quoted in Andréani, 2004, p.50).”

His expression of ‘War on Terror’ – interchangeably referred to as ‘Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT) – along with his reference to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the ‘Axis of Evil’ (Bush quoted in Halverson, 2003, p.1) are examples of metaphors used by political leaders in public discourse.  Bush’s declaration of War on Terror was directed towards all forms of terrorism of global reach and has given rise to a wide range of critics, especially related to the Afghan War in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003.  One of the questions that comes out is whether the War on Terror has been an effective way of fighting terrorism, and for the purpose of this essay, it will be argued that is has not been the case. Drawing from this position and considering Lakoff’s statement on the importance of metaphors, it can be asked whether Bush can be held responsible for the ineffectiveness of the GWOT because of his use of the metaphor.  This paper will argue that Bush alone cannot be held responsible because of his use of the metaphor. Instead, it will become apparent that although the metaphor contributed to the self-defeating aspect of the GWOT, external and internal factors have influenced the use of the war metaphor, which transcend the responsibility of Bush alone. In order to explore these issues, this paper will first indicate why the GWOT is considered counterproductive, before exploring the role of metaphors and of the environment on them. This will be followed by the issue of defining terrorism and considerations for human agency. This paper will conclude by acknowledging that Bush’s metaphor itself did not lead to the war, but that the responsibility can be considered collective.

Unjust and Ineffective War

Palazzo (2015) has argued that “efficiency in killing won’t translate into effectiveness in war unless the ethics are right”. This statement translates perfectly the case of the GWOT. In fact, although the US had military capabilities, the war cannot be regarded as effective for different reasons. The first concerns the criteria for victory. The success of such a war cannot be measured (Crenshaw, 2011) and defeating all forms of terrorism is seen as a too ambitious purpose that cannot be attained. The second reason lies in the unjust character of the GWOT following the jus ad bellum principles (Walzer, 1977). Actually, no reasonable hope for success was present and there is controversy regarding the US intentions. They have been considered hypocritical 

by violating the others’ rights of freedom in the name of liberty and Western values. Moreover, the war conducted cannot be regarded as proportional considering the overwhelming collateral damage, the resulting unstable regimes and consequent structural violence with the oppression and occupation, nor can it fit the last resort criterion. During this war, the lives of the civilians have been regarded as cheaper than the lives of the Americans. According to Steinhoff (2014), the use of force must be proportional and not greater than the one necessary for achieving the aims, but because the criteria for victory were too ambitious and the chance of success was low, how do we measure the necessary use of force required and morally permissible? The last reason is the counterproductive character of the GWOT. 

In fact, although the war might have been effective in the short run by hampering the terrorists’ plans and eventually killing their leaders, the way it was carried out only reinforced the problem and inspired further terrorism by fuelling their motivation (Crenshaw, 2011; Kruglanski et al., 2008), resulting in a less secure US. Terrorism is fed by unanswerable inequality, injustice and oppression, and by declaring a war against al-Qaeda, Bush answered their need for legitimacy (Andreani, 2004). Nevertheless, the question of whether the War on Terror is a just war or not, might not be relevant as it is the recourse to war itself that is problematic. In fact, an effective solution can only rely on a full understanding of the problem and adequate use of language, otherwise, it only reinforces the problem instead of solving it.

Metaphors and external influences

Metaphors, according to the constructivist theory, are the most common method of comprehension and are commonly used to help in understanding abstract and complex concepts (Lakoff, 1991; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).  The majority of ideas that are difficult to understand alone are in part comprehended through other better-known and more concrete ideas (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p.56).  They shape the way we think and “create realities” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p.156).  In order to simplify the understanding of a complex concept (e.g., terrorism) or a situation, metaphors focus on certain aspects of this concept, and thus hide or set other aspects aside. The fact that they hide realities must be acknowledged as, although it is supposed to support the understanding of the concept, there is a real risk of oversimplifying it, hiding other fundamental features and paradoxically leading to a misunderstanding of the original idea. The metaphors, when they are accepted, are considered as truth (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p.157). By defining our realities in all aspects of our lives, metaphors not only modify our perceptions, but they also influence our actions. Lakoff and Johnson (1980, pp.156-157) argue:

“A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will… fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies… We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.”

In the GWOT, Bush referred to counterterrorism as war. War metaphors orient policies and political actions and are highly present in our cultures, especially in the media (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).  The previous feature of metaphors positing that they hide parts of the reality becomes problematic when the source domain of the metaphor is an important issue such as terrorism and counterterrorism.  The acceptance and the use of the war metaphor lead to consequential inferences and ideas associated with war (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) and we develop expectations based on the metaphor. In order to understand the impact of the war metaphor, we must refer to the fairy-tale-of-just-war metaphor which posits that “[a] crime is committed by the villain against an innocent victim… [T]he villain is inherently evil… and thus reasoning with him is out of the question” (Lakoff, 1991, p.26).  In the case of terrorism, the use of the metaphor makes the policymakers and the public focus on the actor and the act of terrorism and hide other aspects of the concepts, such as its causes. The consequences that come out of the use of the war metaphor and the knowledge associated with it are as follows: An act of appeasement is not conceivable, and the military action is the only option available. 

As David Brooks mentioned in the New York Times on September 21, 2006: “The definition of the threat determines the remedies we select to combat it” (quoted in Kruglanski et al., 2008, p.103).

In this view, Bush’s use of the metaphor has led to a partial understanding of terrorism by hiding the fundamental features of the concept. This misdiagnosis might have contributed to the choice of an inappropriate solution which reinforced the problem instead of solving it. However, this is not the only theory available regarding metaphors, and non-constructivists reject entirely this view.  Instead, they suggest that there is an objective reality on which the use of language has no impact and that metaphors are merely rhetoric and poetry (Ortony cited in Halverson, 2003, p.3). Aristotle (cited in Halverson, 2003, p.3) also argues in the Poetics and the Rhetoric that metaphors are useless in influencing reality and actions and that they “served primarily decorative purposes” (Halverson, 2003, p.3). The commonality between the constructivist and non-constructivist arguments is that they fail to acknowledge the embeddedness of the individuals in their social context and the resulting inter-dependence. The power of words must, therefore, be understood as a circle: the language that we use shapes our behaviour and our behaviour, in turn, defines our language, with both being shaped by their environment.

To what extent do some actions result from the individuals or from the pressure exerted by their environment is hard to define. Bush’s use of the metaphor was coherent with the American political culture (Crenshaw, 2011), and this, coupled with the highly emotional context of 9/11 in which it was adopted (Kruglanski et al., 2008) is likely to have played a role in the support for the policy. Moreover, the emotion of fear produces a desire to take action to remove the threat and this can lead to relying on quick decisions over lengthy deliberations (Dyson and ‘T Hart, 2013). Although individuals bear direct responsibility for the words that they use, being held accountable for the way culture, history and the situations shape our language seems irrational. Dillon (1998) stresses the importance of considering the political and historical processes that enable the perpetuation of atrocities and crimes and that the actors cannot be solely held responsible for them. In this sense, the responsibility for the ineffectiveness of the war goes beyond Bush’s use of the metaphor by also inculpating the way we conceive war under the fairy-tale-of-just-war narrative which impacted the way it was performed. As Halverson (2003, p.5) puts it: “How we talk about war has a significant impact on how we carry it out”. In addition, it seems naïve to put on one person the consequences of an unjust war, and as Kruglanski et al. (2008) argue, the U.N. Charter would have likely authorized the US to use force in self-defence, had the attack been committed by a State.

Photo by Brandi Ibrao on Unsplash

Problems in defining terrorism

This problem of the actor against whom the war is fought is at the heart of issues of fit between the war metaphor and counterterrorism. On September 12, Bush interpreted the attacks as an act of war rather than an act of terror (Woodward cited in Kruglanski et al., 2008), and this deliberate classification is likely to have led to the war response (Crenshaw, 2011), but a war against whom? Prototypical wars are fought against States (Flusberg, Matlock and Thibodeau, 2018), but al-Qaeda did not fit this category. Instead, it was a more diffuse and amorphous entity (Kruglanski et al., 2008) without fixed geographical basis, with the fighters fitting neither the civilian nor the combatant categories. This lack of fit along with the demonization of the Other (Bush cited in Crenshaw, 2011) participated in the ineffectiveness of the war by regarding Iraqi and Afghan civilians as supporters of al-Qaeda. In addition to the lack of fit with the actor, there was also the detainee issue: The US combined the advantages of both the laws of war and their own domestic laws, obeying them according to convenience (Ignatieff, 2002). In addition to posing serious ethical issues, it also reflects the inadequate definition of the adversary, weak understanding of the causes of terrorism and misdiagnosis of the nature of the problem (Crenshaw, 2011) following Bush’s use of the war metaphor. It demonstrated a poor willingness from the Bush administration to find an appropriate solution. To illustrate, if a child comes to its parents complaining of a stomach-ache and refusing to go to school, the parents are likely to give them a pill to calm the pain, assuming that the cause is biological. If instead, the parents had taken the time to listen, they probably would have understood that the child was bullied and was psycho-somatically expressing his struggle, which could not be solved with medication. Yet, Richardson (quoted in English, 2010, p.122) stated that:

“[W]e cannot defeat terrorism by smashing every terrorist movement. An effort to do so will only generate more terrorists… A policy informed by the work of the terrorism studies community would never have declared a global war on terrorism, because we know that such a war can never be won… A policy informed…would have sought, instead, the more modest and attainable goal of containing terrorist recruitment and constraining resort to the tactic of terrorism.”

In the light of the knowledge and research available on terrorism, it could be argued that decision-makers have a duty to be aware of it, especially in a situation that can lead to massive collateral damages. When they fail to do so, they can be held responsible for the consequences.

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that terrorism is hard to define and that leaders cannot be expected to resolve what researchers have not been able to solve. Although terrorism is not new, its definition is the subject to debate (Meisels, 2009; Teichman, 1989), and Schmidt (cited in Coady, 2004) estimates the number of definitions to be over one hundred. How can a problem be expected to be solved when it cannot be defined? Perhaps instead of defining terrorism in terms of its aims, actors or methods, it should be defined in terms of its causes. It may sound difficult considering the plurality of its roots, but it might prevent the governments from adapting their definitions in order to fit their policies and interests. The problem with a War against Terror is that it identifies its enemy as a tactic, therefore becoming a war against a method, rather than an identified enemy, and as Crenshaw (2011) argues, we cannot win a war against a tactic. There are also important moral considerations when you use the techniques that you seek to eradicate, but maybe a condition for rethinking one’s strategy and turning to a more adequate solution is its own failure. Moreover, regarding the issues of fit, Ignatieff (2002) posits that because terrorists do not fit categories, shifting from entity to ideology (Kruglanski et al., 2008), the moral inconsistency is totally normal. This issue of fit is only unilateral as al-Qaeda considered themselves at war with the US and it was not a metaphor for them (Ignatieff, 2002).  Instead, Bush chose the most available and logic solution in regard to the unfamiliar character of international terrorism, and the cognitive limitations of human beings with their reliance on old-thinking and emotional influence. The war metaphor as counterterrorism bridged the gap between old and modern warfare. In this regard, although the war choice was inappropriate, it is possible to explain the factors that led to its choice, and they seem to overtake the simple responsibility of a single individual. The US answered the challenge by making the fairy-tale-of-just war fit with the assumptions about al-Qaeda, and the war clearly appeared easy to win, but sadly revealed itself counterproductive in the long-run. Drawing on the general misunderstanding and ambiguous nature of terrorism, to what extent can it be argued that it is Bush’s metaphor that led to a misunderstanding of terrorism and not the common misdiagnosis of terrorism that led him to use this inadequate metaphor? Alternatively, it can be seen as being mutually constitutive, but the responsibility of an individual in this process is another question, which can be articulated around issues of individual agency and culpable negligence.

Free will and human agency

Although there are undeniable external and internal influences exerted on the individuals, people are predisposed with free will. Under this condition, it is reasonable to argue that because we have a capacity for agency, we are responsible for our acts and their consequences. Corlett (quoted in Corlett, 2010, p.236) argues for “the Scope of Responsibility Principle, [which] states that to the extent that I am responsible for X, and to the extent that I, being a reasonable person can understand, by way of common sense reflection, that X is likely to cause or lead to Y, I am responsible for Y0 ”. As an illustration, if a bully verbally harasses someone, they are responsible for the words that they use, as they are a reasonable person who can understand that words can hurt. Under the law, the person can be held accountable for the harm that those words inflicted. Schlosser (2013) stipulates that we are reason-responsive and conscious of our actions, so we are morally responsible for their consequences. If the consequences are indirect, then our responsibility derives from the original action (Schlosser, 2013). In Bush situation, this is an omission of terrorism realities under the war metaphor that influenced an inappropriate policy. But if people are responsible for what they do, they can also be responsible for what they fail to do, as illustrated by the failure to assist a person in danger. In this regard, if Bush cannot be held directly responsible for the consequences of the war, he can be considered culpable of negligence. Cassese (quoted in May, 2007, p.268) argues that a person who “is expected or required to abide by certain standards of conduct or take certain specific precautions, and in addition is aware of the risk of harm and nevertheless takes it…” can be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. It is reasonably arguable that a leader should answer those requirements. Moreover, it must be added that the war metaphor was not the only one available to Bush, and previous presidents have adopted diverse metaphors of counterterrorism like law enforcement or containment of social epidemic (Kruglanski et al., 2008), which have led to different outcomes by conveying different emotional valences. 

For example, speaking about drug use in terms of disease prompts feelings of compassion and care, whereas using the war metaphor triggers fear and panic (Elwood cited in Flusberg et al., 2018).

Those arguments stress the responsibility of Bush for his words and the following consequences, however, they are not without problems. Firstly, the field of cognitive psychology is challenging the assumptions of the existence of free will by asserting that actions are not consciously originated (Schlosser, 2013). Can we be held responsible for what our unconscious dictates us to say? If our actions are under the control of stimulus-driven mechanisms operating outside our conscious guidance (Custers and Aarts cited in Schlosser, 2013, p.207), then it seems hard to define how we can be responsible, knowing that we do not have full access to our unconscious intentions (Schlosser, 2013). Secondly, the previous illustration of bullying also poses a problem. In fact, if you can be held responsible for what you did, can you be entirely culpable for the consequences of your acts if another person’s agency comes into play? Let’s imagine that the bullying case led to the suicide of the victim. Although this is a matter of controversies, it is legitimate to ask whether the responsibility of the suicide is on the victim or the aggressor. It could be argued that one is responsible for their actions, as without the act of bullying the suicide would not have occurred, but you are responsible for the way you react to the acts, as not all victims of bullying commit suicide. Finally, the availability of other alternatives as a reason for Bush’s responsibility contains an issue at the core of Lakoff’s own argument. In fact, he argues that metaphors are commonly and unconsciously used and that they inherently hide features of the reality (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980), in this regard, this would not be the war metaphor that led to a misunderstanding of terrorism but the metaphor itself, as other metaphors give rise to other problems (Kruglanski et al., 2008), but because they are so intricate in our language, it is difficult to hold Bush responsible for how we communicate. Nevertheless, does this argument have the same implications for a leader and a simple citizen?

Status of the leader and collective responsibility

According to Elshtain (2003), under their condition of superpower, the US have a responsibility to protect Western values and sustain the international stability in addition to their own citizens. After 9/11, Bush had the duty to react to the attack, and the recourse to war is explainable by diverse factors mentioned earlier. According to Walzer (1973), under the dilemma of dirty hands, leaders might sometimes do something wrong yet still being the right thing to do. However, in order to be the right thing to do (i.e., just cause), leaders must consider other reasonable alternatives, the likely consequences and be aware of the available knowledge (Walzer, 1973). The process can be assimilated to what Augustine (cited in Ingierd and Syse, 2005, p.87) called the “process of moral deliberation and justification” through which leaders must go when they choose to go to war, thereby being responsible for the consequences of their actions if they fail to do so. As demonstrated by his use of the war metaphor, it can be argued that Bush failed in this process of moral deliberation. The metaphor was the evidence of this failure and was used to manipulate emotions and support his policy (Flusberg et al., 2018). In fact, the war metaphor itself cannot be responsible for the ineffectiveness of the war as this is not a direct and single-player, but it participated in the process by blinding them from other alternatives and misleading on the likely consequences of the war by using analogies to past events (Kruglanski et al., 2008). For this, Bush cannot claim that he exercised his duty to protect the citizens because the war was neither a good thing for the Middle East, nor for the US as it increased their insecurity, and thus can be held responsible.

However, the acts of the leader alone are not sufficient to go to war and according to Corlett (2010), the Congress who validated Bush’s policy can be prosecuted for war crimes with him, as they failed in their duty to acknowledge the likely consequences of such a war and approved the policy. Primoratz (2002) defends that the civilians as well – in a perfect democracy – are responsible for an unjust war so far as they voted for their leader and supported their policies. Nevertheless, Walzer (cited in Primoratz, 2002, p.232) argues that we do not live in a perfect democracy, consequently, civilians cannot be responsible for an unjust war because they can never be aware of its causes and implications, thus only governments can bear the responsibility for the war, especially with the use of the metaphor which participated in misleading the civilians.


In this essay, it has been argued that Bush cannot be held responsible for the ineffectiveness of the War on Terror because of his use of the metaphor. In fact, this is not the metaphor alone that led to a misunderstanding of the concept of terrorism and an inappropriate solution, but the very nature of the idea, which required the use of a metaphor to facilitate its comprehension. This metaphor furthered the misdiagnosis through oversimplification and participated in making an inadequate solution accepted and supported, indirectly impacting the ineffectiveness of the war. However, Bush cannot be held fully responsible for the use of the metaphor because there are historical and political processes that enable the commission of atrocities, transcending the responsibility of a single individual. Despite the debated existence of personal agency and the consequential moral responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, this is not the poor choice of war metaphor that is the fundamental problem but the actual resort to metaphors which necessarily hide parts of complex realities.

In this regard, Bush cannot be held responsible for them as they are unconsciously used and intricated in our language. By their position of authority and influence, leaders should have a duty to use the knowledge available in order to make informed decisions; however, considering the novel character of international terrorism, Bush took the most logical decision. This status provided him with considerable influence and responsibility. Under this status, crimes are justified as a necessity to promote international stability, but only after a process of moral deliberation and justification. Bush failed in this process which is evidenced by his use of the metaphor. Nevertheless, a collective responsibility can be assigned to Bush and the congress, but not the civilians, because the metaphor and the manipulations associated with it blinded them from the real causes and implications of the war. Another way of answering the question would be to ask whether Bush can be held responsible for the effectiveness of the war, had it been the case, because of his metaphor. 

Answering yes would seem to give too much importance to the language and could be considered a fundamental error attribution: When good things happen, it is due to the context, but when bad things occur, the person is held responsible for them. Perhaps a solution would be to use the disease metaphor. Using an etiological analysis of terrorism could have avoided the occurrence of an unjust war and instead have induced care and compassion for something that is curable instead of prescribing death. As Ganor argues (cited in Kruglanski et al., 2008, p.124), terrorism has no military solution and an effective counterterrorism policy must go through a change in language, in order to replace “a Manichean narrative featuring evil insurgents and a noble government with a complicated story of multiparty interethnic intrigue” (Biddle quoted in Kruglanski et al., 2008, p.105). In this regard, the use of metaphors in world politics should be subject to caution, especially when the lives of people are at stake

This essay was written for my course “Theory and Ethics of Terrorism and Political Violence” during my master’s degree. 

December 2018

Author: Anaëlle Gonzalez


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