Are We Five Years Wiser?

As the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda approaches, we should take the opportunity to assess the results of the response by the US and the international community. The attacks and the response to them have obviously brought about a sea change in international relations, but it would be difficult to argue that further atrocities have become less likely as a result. Why are we no more secure than we were five years ago?

Within a week of the attacks, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terrorism.” The metaphor of war has the singular advantage that it clearly and strongly evokes the intensity of the counterattack that was called for. Moreover, the metaphor of war constitutes an implicit appeal to intense mobilization, not only by a country that comes under attack, but also by its friends and allies.

Naturally, no one questions America’s right to defend itself. The legitimacy of a violent counterattack has never been in doubt. But the war metaphor also carries inevitable connotations that, when applied to terrorism, are misleading and counterproductive.

Whenever war is invoked, it implies a fight against nations, peoples, or states. It implies that whole territories and the populations living there are to be considered hostile. War implies armies and command structures that can be recognized, if not clearly known; in any case, war entails a military confrontation with an identifiable adversary .