There was a series of moments, during the first twenty-four hours after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the choice of words—by the press and government officials—played a crucial role in setting America on a course that led, ultimately, to our military action in Iraq. Martin Montgomery, a journalism scholar in Scotland, traces this rhetorical trajectory in meticulous detail in his 2005 essay in Language and Literature, the journal of the Poetics and Linguistics Association. Using newspaper headlines and transcripts of broadcast interviews and White House press conferences, Montgomery shows how the decision to describe the attacks in the language of “war,” rather than as a criminal act, emerged swiftly and organically in the earliest press accounts, and was quickly solidified and extended by President Bush and other administration officials. So that by September 13 the assumption that America was “at war,” with all of that idea’s sobering implications, was irrevocably established in the national consciousness. Polls released on September 12 indicated that more than 90 percent of respondents considered the attacks an “act of war,” and although within a couple of weeks challenges to this definition of the attacks began to appear in the press—mostly on the op-ed pages and often couched in partisan arguments—it was too late. This is not to say that invading Iraq was inevitable at this point, but it was firmly situated in the range of options that were legitimized by the notion of being “at war.” As Montgomery writes:

A world of difference exists between the dominant paradigm for considering the events of September 11 as ‘an act of war’ and an alternative paradigm such as ‘mass murder.’ Quite simply, ‘mass murder’…defines the terms of the response within the domain of police investigation, criminal justice and the safeguards of law….The discourse of war offers a quite different route. Actions and reactions are understood in military terms….Once talk of war had become established, a national enemy had to be identified….

Maybe declaring a “war on terror” was the proper response to 9/11. There is a case to be made that it was, and that the problems came later, in the bungled prosecution of that effort. (The very linguistic, and legal, ambiguity surrounding this “war,” however, has allowed the Bush administration to define the term selectively—to demand unwavering patriotism from the home front while sidestepping a formal declaration from Congress, say, or strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions.) The point is that the ready and largely uncritical embrace of the war narrative—in key realms of the public sphere—precluded the possibility of a serious public debate about other options.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.