The ‘War on Terror,’ With and Without Scare Quotes

I was intrigued to see this in a New York Times editorial yesterday (12/18/08):

The officials then issued legally and morally bankrupt documents to justify their actions, starting with a presidential order saying that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners of the “war on terror”–the first time any democratic nation had unilaterally reinterpreted the conventions.

I doesn’t seem like the paper generally puts the concept of the “war on terror” at arm’s length. Looking at the last few months, the most popular editorial construction seems to be something like this (11/16/08):

Troops and equipment are so overtaxed by President Bush’s disastrous Iraq War that the Pentagon does not have enough of either for the fight in Afghanistan, the war on terror’s front line, let alone to confront the next threats.

The description of Afghanistan as “the front line of the war on terror” (sans scare quotes) comes up a lot. There was also this codswallop from an op-ed by Philip Bobbitt (12/13/08), from the National Security Council:

The ”war on terror” is not a nonsensical public relations slogan, however unwelcome this conclusion may be to Pentagon planners or civil-liberties advocates. The notion of such a war puzzles us–after all, who would sign the peace treaty? — because we are so trapped in 20th-century expectations about warfare. But success in war does not always mean the capitulation of an enemy government (as we have seen in Iraq); rather, it varies with the war aim.

In a war against terror, the aim is not the conquest of territory or the advancement of ideology, but the protection of civilians. We are fighting a war on terror, not just terrorists.

Man, we must suck at it, then! Bobbitt went on to claim that “Mexico is potentially our Pakistan….”

Then there’s book critic Michiko Kakutani (10/6/08), terkeling John le Carre:

Although the story is enlivened by Mr. le Carre’s intimate knowledge of tradecraft and his psychological insights into the reasons people become spies, informers and believers in a cause, the novel is flawed, like his 2004 book, Absolute Friends, by an overly schematic narrative devised to drive home the author’s contempt for the take-no-prisoners methods employed by the United States in the war on terror.

Seems like the folks at the New York Times are pretty comfortable bandying the term about–unless it’s time to look thoughtful on torture.

About Janine Jackson

Program Director and Co-producer of CounterSpin
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.