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July 14, 2004

Nunberg on "terror" vs "terrorism"

Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has an excellent column in today's New York Times, The -ism Schism.

Nunberg has been studying the rate at which politicians and journalists are swapping the phrase "war on terror" for "war on terrorism". In the first year after 9/11, the White House called our enemy "terrorism" twice as often as they called it "terror." But over the last year, the ratio reversed, with the White House using "war on terror" twice as often as "war on terrorism."

It was bad enough to declare war terrorism, a tactic. Now, our leaders are spurring us to fight terror as such. As Nunberg observes, this shift expands the scope of an already vague term. "Terror" is now being used as an umbrella term for virtually anything frightening or undesirable from unfriendly governments to Americans' reaction to the threat of terrorist attacks.

"Terror" rhetoric becomes especially toxic when it is juxtaposed with war metaphors:

"The war on terror," too, suggests a campaign aimed not at human adversaries but at a pervasive social plague. At its most abstract, terror comes to seem as persistent and inexplicable as evil itself, without raising any inconvenient theological qualms. And in fact, the White House's use of "evil" has declined by 80 percent over the same period that its use of "terror" has been increasing.

Like wars on ignorance and crime, a "war on terror" suggests an enduring state of struggle - a "never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts," as Camus put it in "The Plague," his 1947 allegory on the rise and fall of Fascism. It is as if the language is girding itself for the long haul.

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