The War on Terror is Over

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

It looks like the War on Terror is over. That is, it's now become a Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, according to the Bush administration's shift in language being used to describe that particular set of economic, military, domestic law enforcement, and foreign policy initiatives. I suppose we've come along way from the national security policy known as "Smoke 'Em Out" or "Bring 'Em On", but this new phrasing doesn't really warm the heart either. As someone who has come to appreciate the value of framing - and how good the current administration has been at it in the political sense - I'd like to suggest a few bits of analysis of what this new frame means.

1) War connotes a military operation in a foreign land, though the administration has done a nice job of breaking the mold with the introduction of military-style concepts into the every day lives of American citizens, through such vehicles as color-coded threat levels, the use of the armed guards to police domestic travel, etc. Substituting "struggle" for "war" allows for an expansion (if that's possible) of the tools and institutions that can be brought to bear. It might be hard for modern generations to think about giving up certain civil liberties or enduring certain inconveniences for some War that's supposed to be going on elsewhere, but when you're asked to do your part in the Global Struggle, it's harder to argue.

2) Ah yes, let's look at "Global." When it was the War on Terror, it was being headed up by the countries that had declared that War, namely the U.S. and the U.K. This meant that other participating bodies could largely avoid declaring War and the average citizen in any given country, being unable to declare War, had to leave the heavy lifting to political entities that can. Now that it's a Global Struggle, all of us have a responsibility, a duty even, to participate. It no longer observes any political boundaries, and its success or failure is no longer solely under the control of any one nation. The U.S. is doing its part in the Global Struggle, yes, but how can the U.S. alone be expected to carry the burden that all of us should now share? Who isn't doing *their* part in the Global Struggle!?

3) Fighting terror was a pretty hard conceptual sell from the beginning. How do you show evidence of terror until it happens? Isn't terror the thing that is created in the victims of a terrorist's crime? This means that you couldn't really identify a target as a primary one in the "War on Terror" until that person/entity had created terror. As in, after the deed has been done. Now that we're Struggling against Extremism, the administration can start to focus more effort on the deeds of suspected targets well before any harm is done. The downside, of course, is that the notion of extremism is much more open to interpretation the standard of proof for extremism is much more in the eye of the beholder than terrorism. Extreme about what? Religious beliefs? Economic models? Home decor and personal hygiene? Certainly, there are some acts that a reasonable majority of the world's population can agree are "extreme," but it's the gray areas that might get us in trouble. And whereas before many Americans might have a hard time believing that a terrorist is anyone other than a middle-Eastern-looking man who has come from far away to create havoc and death, many more of us will be able to think as some of their fellow citizens as extremists, suspects in our own back yards.

I give the administration credit for recognizing, through its phrasing, at least, that current and future efforts against the problem of terrorism must go beyond traditional concepts of war or even the use of physical force at all. But I'm also concerned that they're trying make us all look the other way when it comes to the culpability of administration officials, policy, and decision-making in getting us to where we are now.

These kinds of changes aren't done lightly by this White House; it starts with an internal political or policy goal, then slight tweaks in the public language being used, then it becomes partisan talking points, then it becomes a legislative agenda, then it becomes a part of our everyday lives.

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