The War on Terror as a Bad Metaphor


In these pages in February 2003 I satirized the administration’s motives for the invasion of Iraq, believing the war would open a Pandora’s box of unpredictable but certainly unpleasant consequences for our country and the world. The basic mistake was made shortly after 9/11 when the “War on Terror” was declared. If the struggle against terrorism is conceived as a war, then it must be waged and won mainly though the use of our vastly superior military forces.

This was a bad metaphor, and it has had disastrous consequences.

Metaphors can be more than literary devices; as in this case, they can rally the public to support bad policies, and sometimes good ones. The domino theory kept us in Vietnam for years, but the New Frontier led to the Peace Corps and the space program. “Morning in America” inspired many to new hope and optimism, but the War on Poverty, in the end, left casualties among the poor as the country discovered it could not afford both guns and butter.

How do we deal with terrorism? By military means, when appropriate. But we were deeply misled by the idea that a “War on Terror” against an ideology (rather than an identifiable, locatable enemy) would succeed, even if it went on forever.

The problem of terror must be faced more soberly. Most of all, it requires police and intelligence work, airport security services, safeguards for our ports, public places and potential symbolic targets, and financial interdictions of terrorist resources.

The “War on Terror” has drained off the funding for these important activities and distracted us from effectively protecting ourselves. It is a dangerous metaphor which should be discarded if we really want to deal with the very real reality of terrorism.