The language of war

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We have become so used to politicians and others speaking of “the war on terror” – but what does this mean? Who declared war? By whom and against whom is it being fought? How is it being fought and coordinated? How will we know when it has been won – or lost?

It is an unhelpful way of describing our necessary reaction against the threat of terrorism, which is the threat of gross criminal conduct carried out for ideological aims.

After the 7 July 2005 bombs in London, then Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, Sir Ken Macdonald, cautioned:

“London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered on July 7 2005 were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, ‘soldiers’. They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists. We need to be very clear about this. On the streets of London, there is no such thing as a ‘war on terror’, just as there can be no such thing as a ‘war on drugs’.

“The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement.”

So, where did the notion of “war on terror” come from?

The terminology of “war on terror” (or “terrorism”) comes from former US President G W Bush in his response to the attacks on 11 September 2001 and it has been carried on by politicians everywhere. This has not been accidental. There are at least three political purposes served by deliberately adopting such terminology.

  • First, by declaring war, people are impressed with the seriousness and urgency of the task at hand and fall in behind their leaders with minimal questioning.
  • Second, people tolerate the diversion of resources from other areas into a “war” and put up with the consequences.
  • Third, governments are forgiven for – or at least a blind eye is turned towards – the erosion of principles that have been hard-won and serve important purposes – the right to liberty, the presumption of innocence, the right to silence, the burden of proof, and all the other foundations of a properly functioning criminal justice process in a democratic society under the rule of law. The rule of law itself is put under strain.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on 10 October 2015 journalist Peter Hartcher said:

“Terrorism is a tactic of the weak against the strong. It succeeds not in the immediate death and destruction it creates, but in the reaction it seeks to promote. Its aim is to turn the strength of its opponent against itself. It uses terror to spread fear, distort judgment, and sow division … The murder of … citizens by terrorists can no more harm Australia’s national success than can the murder of the same number by a criminal gang. The terrorists’ great aim is to inflict national damage through our responses.”

The threat is real and Australia is not immune. Bombs explode, vehicles run people down, guns and knives kill and injure.

What is the risk of employing such terminology?

We need to face up to terrorism for what it is – crime. It is committed by individuals and groups – but not by nations or properly organised sections of nations waging external or internal war against another party.

And when we deal with crime we have definite, entrenched ways of doing that, developed over centuries and slightly modified or reaffirmed as circumstances require. We know the value of proceeding that way and we have seen the unwanted consequences of not doing so. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides a sketch of the minimum requirements for such a process, almost all of which have been adopted and enhanced in the Australian criminal justice systems.

There is a temptation to overlook or devalue such principles if we abandon normal modes of fighting crime for “war”. Politicians know this. The media feeds on it. We should not be tricked into it. After all, if this is some sort of a war, we don’t want to lose it.