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.
First, we’re in the middle of a “framing war,” as Matt Bai’s 2005 cover article in The New York Times Magazine made clear. In the wake of their inability to wrest the presidency from the GOP in 2004, Bai tells us, leading Democrats in Congress embraced the concept of framing as articulated by George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who suggests that most thought is based not on facts but on unconscious physical metaphors imbedded in our brains. Simply put, framing involves choosing the right words to activate a desired mental “frame” or perception—“private” Social Security accounts instead of “personal” accounts, or “sectarian violence” in Iraq rather than a “civil war,” or the role of “personal responsibility” when it comes to the breadth and depth of our social safety net. The right has had considerable success at framing controversial issues for years—think “liberal media,” or those “founding fathers” in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Now the left has launched a counteroffensive.
We all frame things, often unconsciously—it is how we organize and comprehend reality. When we say, “Our relationship has hit a bump in the road,” for example, or “We’ve gone our separate ways,” we invoke an unspoken metaphor—or frame—of love as a journey, as Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. This largely benign aspect makes framing distinct from spin, which implies premeditation, although there is considerable overlap between the two. The rhetoric beat could take on both conscious and unconscious framing, but I am more interested in those frames that are built with language that is deliberately made overly vague or euphemistic or difficult to define precisely.