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Four Reasons to Use the War Metaphor with Caution

The events of September
11 have raised legitimate concerns about justice and security. Many
people are demanding some form of response to punish or otherwise mete
out justice to the perpetrators. All of us want some reassurances that
we will not have to live in constant fear of violence and terror.

Given our reliance
as a nation on a war metaphor for describing many difficult situations
(e.g., war on poverty, war on drugs, war on crime), it is natural that
we would talk of our current situation as a state of war, even if we
do not envision an immediate massive counter-attack. Nevertheless, this
metaphor should be used with great caution.

  1. If we describe
    this as a war, we grant the perpetrators of these unspeakable acts
    a legitimacy they do not deserve.

    are criminal acts.

    have no evidence that those who perpetrated them are rulers of a
    state or nation.

    they do not appear to fall into the category of revolutionaries
    – i.e., representatives of a disenfranchised identity group seeking
    representation within a state or nation.

  2. If we describe
    this as a war, we imply that war can bring our enemies to their knees
    and keep them from ever harming us again.

    have yet to fight successfully a “war to end all wars”
    and this will be no exception.

    perpetrators of this horror are not clearly identifiable, cannot
    be located easily, and probably cannot be attacked successfully
    using military means.

    attacks on any nation that harbors the criminals responsible for
    these atrocities will create thousands of refugees; refugee camps
    have been the breeding ground for suicide bombers. Thus, we will
    only perpetuate the cycle of fear and terror for our children and

  3. If we describe
    this as a war, we avoid examining the motives of those we consider
    to be enemies.

    assume that we understand what motivates the “enemy others”
    and that we can predict their responses to our military actions.

    fail to examine and address the conditions and policies that have
    given rise to the cycles of unrest, violence, and terror that have
    been escalating around the world and that on September 11, 2001
    entered the previously “safe space” of our nation.

  4. If we describe
    this as a war, we betray our own highest values of justice, due process,
    and fairness.

    we bomb innocent people in retaliation, we commit the same atrocity
    that we saw on September 11.

    are granted rights that enemies in war are denied.

    we fail to invoke the national and international laws that apply
    to criminal acts, we undercut the rule of law and weaken the sources
    of our own long-term protection.


Jayne Docherty, Ph.D.

Jayne Docherty joined the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding faculty in August 2001 after teaching conflict resolution at Columbia College in South Carolina and George Mason University. She holds an A.B. in religious studies and political science from Brown University and a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from George… MORE >

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