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?

It’s unlikely. There was something in the nature of those attacks—the magnitude, perhaps, or the audacity—that immediately made parallels to Pearl Harbor and the war that followed impossible to ignore. As Montgomery demonstrates, the press was writing the first lines of a war narrative based on little more than what we all were witnessing firsthand, and so it is difficult to argue that journalists were simply transcribing the White House’s response. Among the headlines of the 183 newspapers that published editions on 9/11 with front pages devoted to the attacks were various formulations of ANOTHER DAY OF INFAMY, in clear reference to Pearl Harbor. In its final edition that day, The Washington Post published an editorial entitled simply, WAR. By the time Bush himself described the attacks as “more than acts of terror. They were acts of war,” on September 12, the press was poised to amplify that message to the nation.

Still, the consequences of the decision to describe 9/11 as the beginning of a war rather than a criminal investigation drive home the importance of political language in a way that a similar semantic debate over “death tax” versus “estate tax” cannot. In the years since that decision, language—its uses and abuses—has emerged as a central issue in our political culture. This emergence has been driven largely by the Bush administration’s need to simultaneously wage its “war on terror” and define it, and the frustration among the administration’s critics with what they consider its aggressive manipulation of language to, in effect, create reality—to help Americans think, for example, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, or that we are “winning” the “war on terror.” As a result we’ve had linguistic clashes between “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “torture,” “unlawful enemy combatant” and “prisoner of war,” “liberation” and “occupation.” We’ve been told that this “war on terror” is a new kind of conflict that requires new strategies, like “extraordinary rendition” and “preventive war.”

Apologies to William Safire, but journalism needs a rhetoric beat. Yes, language has been used and misused in the service of politics since man first had both language and politics. Political rhetoric is not inherently bad, and I am not suggesting a War on Rhetoric. But there are aspects of our present political and cultural reality that underline the need for a prominent, persistent, and intellectually honest airing of our linguistic dirty laundry, and the mainstream press is our best hope for getting it.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.