Four Reasons to Use the War Metaphor with Caution

by Jayne Seminare Docherty, September 16, 2001

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.
    • These are criminal acts.
    • We have no evidence that those who perpetrated them are rulers of a state or nation.
    • And, 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.
    • We have yet to fight successfully a “war to end all wars” and this will be no exception.
    • The perpetrators of this horror are not clearly identifiable, cannot be located easily, and probably cannot be attacked successfully using military means.
    • Military 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 grandchildren.
  3. If we describe this as a war, we avoid examining the motives of those we consider to be enemies.
    • We assume that we understand what motivates the “enemy others” and that we can predict their responses to our military actions.
    • We 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.
    • If we bomb innocent people in retaliation, we commit the same atrocity that we saw on September 11.
    • Criminals are granted rights that enemies in war are denied.
    • If 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 Seminare Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.