Shifting Language: Trading Terrorism for Extremism

Administration and military officials seem to be moving away from the slogan "global war on terrorism" to "global struggle against violent extremism." Steve Inskeep charts the phrase's evolution from 2001 to the present.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The catchphrase `global war on terrorism' has been widely used since September 11th, 2001, but military officials have started backing off those words in favor of new language. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did so on Monday at the National Press Club.

General RICHARD MYERS (Joint Chiefs of Staff): I think I've objected to the use of the term `war on terrorism' before, because, one, if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution, and it's more than terrorism. I think it's--violent extremist is the real enemy here and terror is the method they use.

INSKEEP: In that speech, General Myers said violent extremism, not terrorism, was responsible for the recent attacks in London and in Egypt.

Gen. MYERS: Violent extremists can affect us just by creating fear, which has the impact to change our way of life. We've seen a little of that since 9/11.

INSKEEP: Over the next few minutes, we're going to hear how the phrase `global war on terrorism' evolved into variations of a new phrase, `global struggle against violent extremism.' Here's the language used on September 11th when President Bush addressed the nation.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: America and our friends and allies join with all of those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism.

INSKEEP: The president used similar words one month later when military strikes began in Afghanistan.

Ms. KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania): The first thing that President Bush needed to do after September 11th was find language to make sense of our experience.

INSKEEP: Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. JAMIESON: Presidents respond to moments with words that tell us what the moments mean and then, with words, recommend to the nation and to the Congress courses of action.

INSKEEP: Now the phrase `global war on terrorism' was widely accepted. It was used in speeches, in documents and even in cable TV news logos. As recently as last month, President Bush used a slightly shorter version, telling soldiers at Ft. Bragg of the global war on terror.

Pres. BUSH: Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania.

INSKEEP: But this language of war and terror may not be as effective as it once was. That's according to David Gergen, a former adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents, who now teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government): The Bush administration has had a very expansive view of the war on terrorism, while others have claimed that Osama bin Laden is the real enemy and that Saddam had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11. There's no question that one of the reasons Americans were prepared to go to war in Iraq was a widespread belief, wrong to be sure, that Saddam bore a partial responsibility for 9/11. The rest of the world has not accepted that, and now there are a growing number of people in the United States who don't accept that the war on terror is the same thing as the war on Iraq.

INSKEEP: As we've heard, the president was still saying `war on terror' as recently as last month. But by this month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounded different. Rumsfeld spoke during a public appearance with Italy's defense minister.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Italy has shown a great deal of courage and vision in the war against violent extremists.

INSKEEP: During that appearance, the secretary did use the words `terror' and `terrorists,' but he also said `extremists' eight times.

Sec. RUMSFELD: Our resolve remains undiminished in continuing to deal with the extremists who are murdering innocent men, women and children.

INSKEEP: Kathleen Hall Jamieson says when people begin to shift language, it means the language isn't working for them.

Ms. JAMIESON: The language of war carries other language with it. How many allies do we have? What are the markers for victories? And when will it end? And if we're going to be engaged in this effort for a very long period of time, then war may not be the best metaphor.

INSKEEP: So global war on terrorism, or GWOT for short, becomes global struggle against violent extremism. That would be GSAVE for those keeping track of our government's evolving acronyms and the subtle shifts of meaning that they imply.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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