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.

What if on 9/11 our major media outlets had employed reporters whose sole job it was to cover the rhetoric of politics—to parse the language of our elected leaders, challenge it, and explain the thinking behind it, the potential power it can have to legitimize certain actions and policies and render others illegitimate? As the press and public officials struggled to find the proper language to describe what was happening on their television screens (or outside their windows), these reporters would have been scrutinizing that language, and, let’s assume for sake of argument, having their analytical work displayed prominently—on the front pages of newspapers and Web sites, and in substantial TV news segments. Such a line of inquiry would not have been a stretch, as the decision to define the attacks as “acts of war” ran counter to history. The U.S. and countries everywhere have traditionally treated terrorist attacks as a breach of civil and criminal law—the idea is to deny the perpetrators legitimacy and thereby defuse the political power of their actions. Investigations, trials, and convictions were our primary response, for instance, when terrorists brought down a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and when our embassies in east Africa were bombed in 1998. (It’s worth noting that the bits of transcript from the White House press briefings and broadcast interviews that Montgomery uses suggest that reporters and administration officials did worry, often vigorously, over the language of war and what it meant, but mainly in terms of process—do we need congressional approval? Can you declare war on an individual?, etc.) Could such a journalistic effort have possibly changed something significant about the U.S. response?

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.