Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The War on Air Quotes

Here is a representative-enough flaring of an ongoing controversy:

Britain's foreign minister suggested that the U.S.-led war on terrorism may have "done more harm than good" as he issued a sharp rebuke Thursday to the Bush administration ... Miliband said the British government "has used neither the idea nor the phrase 'war on terror' " since 2006 ...
This report was dated January 16 of this year; it remains to be seen whether and to what extent such barbs will be directed at the USA now that George W. Bush has ambled off to who-the-hell-cares-where. Norm Geras has been tracking the fact that President Obama continues to use "war on terror" and similar constructions.

I have scorned the construction myself, sometimes calling it the War on Terr'r, sometimes appending a TM symbol. The trouble is as much with the word terror as with the word war -- on is innocent enough.
  • Under our famously quaint written constitution, Congress alone has the power to declare war, but openly declaring wars has fallen out of style since the early 1940s. We now speak of Congressional "authorizations" that may or may not constitute declarations of war, and muddying matters beyond that, we toss around the W-word to signify any broad, totalizing policy initiative -- war on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, war on cancer, etc. For good or bad, the war-on-X construction has come to indicate little more than that the speaker is, or wants to be taken to be, serious about the cause in question, i.e., committed, driven, sincere, dedicated, focused, unbound by the usual standards of frugality in public resources, etc.

    When it comes to opposing terrorism, I support the idea that the policy be broad, sweeping, and aggressive, using a combination of intelligence, police, diplomacy, military, and whatever else legally avails. This broadness does not lend itself to the sort of military-centered conflict with the 1940's axis powers that so readily met a tidy war label.

  • Wars that defy pejorative air quotes will be wars with clearly-defined enemies, and terrorism does not qualify. There is much that would pass any sensible person's definition of terrorism happening around the world, and the USA-led "coalition of the willing" is not, in fact, waging war on all of it. There are unmistakable elements of terrorism in the violence presently roiling Mexico, for example. Threats and attacks on abortion providers, immigrants, and assorted other right-wing scapegoats within the USA surely count as terrorism, and yet no one is being warehoused at Guantanimo for it.
It seems to me the above counts against the "war on terrorism" label. For all that, I don't recoil at its every use, and I might even use it from time to time, subject to the following: we ought to mean what we say and say what we mean as much as possible, especially in reference to broad areas of public policy that concern life or death for millions. If what we're presently doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond to destroy or stop particular extremists cannot find adequate expression in snappy three-word phrases, then so much the worse for snappy three-word phrases in a complex and dangerous world. And in all cases, arguments over merits should trump arguments over labels.


William Wren said...

greetings from england

Dale said...

Uh ... hello, William. Greetings to you too.