The Manufacture of Terror: An analysis of the “War on Terror” Frame and its EffectsSubmitted by Kevin Conroy on Mon, 06/11/2012 - 14:31
I recently joined the Daily Paul, but I've been reading it for a couple of years now. I'm currently an undergrad student working towards my bachelor's degree, and wanted to share a paper I wrote recently taking a look at the "War on Terror" that seeks to explain how we've gotten where we are today. Hopefully it will shed some light on the issue. Enjoy!
The Manufacture of Terror: An analysis of the “War on Terror” Frame and its Effects
On September 11th, 2001 a group of terrorists flew hijacked commercial planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. It was one of the greatest tragedies in American history— over three thousand people died and the course of American life was altered forever. Since that infamous day, the American cultural and political landscape has changed at a dramatic pace. The United States government has been a fundamental agent of that change; a slew of “anti-terror” legislation has been proposed and passed, but at what cost? Unfortunately, many of the laws that have been put on the books in recent years infringe upon, and often completely dismantle, the fundamental liberties that have distinguished America as “the land of the free.” The fact that there has been little public outcry has aided the government in passing these troublesome laws.
The overarching meta-frame known as the “War on Terror,” first established by the Bush administration and then echoed and reified by the media, was largely responsible for creating a compliant populace. In order to preserve our liberties, it is important to examine the framing of the War on Terror and the ways in which it has influenced public opinion— this will allow us to become more aware of the framing tactics of government and the press and preserve us from the unnecessary fear and exaggerated sense of nationalism that has been used to facilitate the erasure our freedoms.
In order to comprehend the power of the War on Terror narrative, it is first necessary to understand basic elements of frame theory. Frames are essentially the context that information is communicated within, “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world” (Powell 93). They “define the terms of debate; shape public opinion through the persuasive use of symbols; and, when most effective, lead to public policy change” (Lewis 85). The media typically frames information in three ways: valence frames, semantic frames, and story frames. Valence frames portray something in either a positive or negative light; semantic frames make judgments about a subject through the use of word choice, and story frames place information in context through the use of narrative or storytelling devices (Moser 14,16,18).
These framing devices are often used by the media to create what is known as a “fear appeal,” or a frame specifically constructed to elicit a fearful response or reaction (Moser 10). The parallel processing model, developed in 1970 by Dr. Howard Leventhal, describes how individuals respond to fear appeals. This model states that when someone comes into contact with a fear appeal, they respond in one of two ways: (1) fear control, in which the individual denies the legitimacy of either the fear appeal itself or the source from which the appeal is emanating from, or; (2) damage control, in which the person believes the fear appeal and takes steps to minimize the potential threat (Leventhal). The media often uses fear appeals validly to communicate what they perceive to be legitimate threats; however, at times journalists will include unnecessary fear appeals because it raises the chance that their work will be published, i.e. fear appeals are associated with higher issue importance (Moser 9).
The propensity of the media to use fear appeals, especially in regard to the War on Terror, creates several problems. It contributes to “Rally ‘Round the Flag Syndrome,” or the tendency for people to place greater trust in their government during times of escalated national stress, as described by John Mueller in his book War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. The War on Terror narrative is itself a fear appeal which was largely accepted by the media and, in turn, the general public. Because it was so widely accepted and internalized, it would follow that large segments of American society experienced Rally ‘Round the Flag Syndrome and engaged in damage control as described by the parallel processing model.
Research offers evidence to support this hypothesis. Immediately following September 11th, 9 out of 10 people “worried about more terrorist events happening and about being a victim of a future attack” (Powell 92). This overwhelming environment of fear was not solely a product of the incredibly violent nature of the attacks— it was also largely a result of the way it was handled by the press. Immediately following the attacks, the media began speculating about who was responsible. It quickly came to light that this was the work of “terrorists.” The media’s framing of the terrorists, and of terrorism itself, plays a critical role in shaping public discourse and affecting citizen’s behavior (Moser 3).
The term “terror” itself is a crucial component of the framework of the War on Terror. In this context, it refers to “terrorism,” but terrorism does not have a universally recognized definition. The international community has failed to reach a consensus on a definition because of “a lack of agreement regarding what separates terrorism from other types of violence” (Moser 2). Due to the various and scattered definitions of terrorism that have been offered around the world, the public’s understanding of the term is dependent on how it is defined for them by the frames used by media (Moser 3).
The press’s framework around terrorism began to take shape before September 11th. During the time immediately preceding the attacks, the media laid the groundwork for the Bush administration’s framing of the War on Terror. They tended towards a pro-state, anti-extremist stance in the course of their coverage of terrorism at the time. In this context, an extremist is defined as “someone who commits violence because they hold convictions that are contrary to governmental action or policy. This includes anyone who commits violence in the name of governmental change, such as violent civil rights advocates, freedom fighters, terrorists, or dangerous vigilantes” (Moser 15). For example, studies show that in 2001 newspapers tended to cast Palestinian militants as terrorists, while describing Israelis as victims. They typically left out the fact that Palestinian casualties outnumbered Israelis’ by several hundred. Also, they tended to omit details of the violent tactics Israel used against Palestinians, while dwelling on Palestinians’ violent behavior instead. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli government perpetrated violence against Palestinians while small groups of individuals in Palestine were the aggressors toward Israel (Moser 15). Therefore, putting Israeli actions in a positive valence frame while putting Palestinian actions in a negative valence frame is a pro-Government, anti-extremist stance. The positive framing of Israel was done partly by using rhetorical devices to align the Israeli government with the United States government, strengthening the pro-state stance.
Immediately after the attacks on 9/11, the Bush administration began building the overarching framework of the “War on Terror” (Lewis 85). The President and his entourage “created this frame (which) took on ideological dimensions, not only providing linguistic cover for widespread political change in the name of national security, but also offering an institutionalized way of seeing the world—a frame as influential as it was subtle” (Lewis 85). The frame itself contains a fear appeal— there are groups of people (terrorists) throughout the world that want to destroy America, and we need to do whatever it takes, whether it be war overseas or increased security at home, in order to stop them.
Journalists transmitted this narrative to the public, “amplifying the president’s frame and embedding it in public discourse” (Lewis 91). While many journalists were critical of Bush’s specific policies, they did not question the narrative of the “War of Terror” itself— they just disagreed with how the president was carrying that war out (Lewis 91). The media essentially gave the Bush administration complete power to define the terms of the new War and then reified the new frame, effectively “remov(ing) the War on Terror meta-frame from the realm of debate, leaving pundits and the press to squabble instead over technicalities and tactics” (Lewis 93).
Because the media has been largely responsible for the public’s understanding of terrorism, it is important to look more closely at the ways terrorism has been portrayed in the press. The media distinguishes between terrorism and domestic terrorism (Powell 90). “Domestic terrorism” was used to label the activities of United States citizens, while “terrorism” was used to define foreign agents. Interestingly, the distinction between the two was also largely tied to the religion of the culprits; “a distinction (was) made between ‘‘terrorism,’’ reserved as a label for those also labeled Muslim, and ‘‘domestic terrorism,’’ reserved for citizens of the United States who were not Muslim and had no international ties to terrorist organizations” (Powell 98).
Domestic terrorists were described in very human terms. They were often seen “as intelligent and as a planner” (Powell 98). Additionally, there was usually an attempt to excuse the actions of domestic terrorists by describing them as mentally ill, or at least potentially mentally ill. Their families were also frequently mentioned, adding to the overall sense of their humanity (Powell 99). Terrorists, on the other hand, were portrayed as “angry, extremist, or some combination thereof” (Powell 99). Also, the families of terrorists were almost never mentioned, and there was no attempt to excuse their actions through mental illness or otherwise (Powell 99).
Additionally, there is a difference between the alleged motives of terrorists and domestic terrorists. Domestic terrorists are seen as trying to create fear, spread an anti-government message, or simply get attention (Powell 100). They were seen as operating on strictly individualized motives, and not as part of a larger scheme or plot (Powell 100). Terrorists’ actions, on the other hand, were seen as attempts to seek revenge against the United States government for the killing of Muslims around the world, as a symptom of radical Islam, or simply as a sort of primitive desire to kill (Powell 101). Terrorists from abroad were demonized and seen as a much greater threat than domestic terrorists, whose actions were frequently excused. This is troubling, especially considering that the “Council on Foreign Relations indicated the majority (250) of the 335 terrorist acts in the U.S. between 1980 and 2000 were domestic terrorism” (Moser 3). While the public has been led
This trend led to several deleterious effects. It served to create and reinforce stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in general, fueling prejudice among Americans (Powell 92). In many instances, the media labeled a violent act as terrorism and began associating the combatant with radical Islamic groups, and therefore Islam as a whole, before they had received any actual facts about the perpetrators religious affiliations (Powell 96-7). For instance, in the case of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, who opened fire at an L.A. airport in 2002, the media reported calling four mosques in the area, all of which claimed never to have met the man. These mosques had no connection to the shooter, yet they were included in the story, unnecessarily highlighting Hadayet’s connection to Islam with information that had absolutely no bearing on the investigation.
The media’s portrayal of terrorists as Islamic heightens stereotyping of Muslims in general. One study found that 67% of Muslims in the United States felt that the media had become more biased towards Islam since the September 11th attacks (Powell 92). The intrinsic bias in Media coverage of terrorism leads to non-Muslim American’s “fear of the outsider other (being) intensified” (Powell 108). This, coupled with the fact that the Muslim population in the US has grown rapidly in recent years— from one million in the year 2000 to 2.6 million in 2010— leads to an ever-growing climate of fear (Kahn).
As previously mentioned, the motivation for foreign terrorists is often over-simplified as barbaric or vengeful. Their motivation, however, is often neglected in reporting entirely. This trend serves to effectively “free the public from having to engage potentially rational reasons for the acts,” effectively exonerating Americans from any culpability they may have in connection to terrorists’ anger (Powell 102). Also, the lack of description of terrorists’ motives leads to heightened fear; when the motive for violent acts is unknown, it becomes nearly impossible to predict when another attack will occur, which stimulates greater fear of a future attack (Powell 103).
Multiple elements have come together, including the public’s reliance on media for a working definition of terrorism, the tendency of the media to manufacture pro-state, anti-extremist frames and their use of fear appeals to communicate information about terrorism, the transmission and reification of the Bush administrations’ rhetoric, the resultant stereotyping of Muslims, and either the oversimplification of terrorists’ motives or the absence of reporting on those motives altogether, have led to the transmission and reification of the “War on Terror” meta-frame and an atmosphere of increasing fear and trepidation. Due to the power of frames used by the media to shape and influence public opinion and people’s natural tendency to place more trust in government during times of stress due to rally ‘round the flag syndrome, these convergent phenomena have created an easy path for government to pass legislation that infringes on our civil liberties.
The media has obviously played a central role in the naturalization of the “War on Terror” frame, but it appears that they (at least in some cases) may have been unwitting accomplices. In a recent study, journalists from USA Today were interviewed who used the term “War on Terror” in their reporting. They were initially asked the open-ended question “When you think of the War on Terror, what issues and ideas tend to fall under that label?” (Lewis 90). They typically answered by listing several actions of the government since September 11, including events such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. One journalist interviewed summed up the average response by defining the “War on Terror” as “the general basket of activities and the government’s posture since September 11, 2001” (Lewis 90).
The journalists almost exclusively omitted the President’s role in creating the War, however. They were often critical of his policies, but not the frame itself (Lewis 90). This does not appear to have been intentional— many of the journalists were wary of “propaganda,” insisting that they were not trying to forward the Bush administration’s agenda (Lewis 94). When questioned about why they used the term, however, the journalists often said that it was simply the term used by the administration, and they were in effect giving deference to public officials (Lewis). While the journalists interviewed had attempted to be critical of the administration and of themselves, they’re criticism did not extend to the “War on Terror” meta-frame itself, which led to the frame being reified and eventually naturalized by both the media and the public.
This large-scale failure of the media to recognize and challenge the framework created by the Bush administration, and the ensuing effect on the public, opened the door for government to pass legislation that violates civil liberties. A prime example of this is the Patriot Act. The law was framed squarely within the narrative of the “War on Terror” and was successfully passed. This is apparent both in the name of the bill itself and in the speech that President Bush gave the night of its signing. Formally, the name of the bill is the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” or USA PATRIOT, Act (investopedia.com). This title contains both valence and semantic framing, as well as the rudiments of a story frame. “Uniting and Strengthening” casts the bill in a positive light, and is therefore a positive valence frame, as is the term “Providing Appropriate Tools.” Also, the word terrorism is always a negative valence frame— for instance, the use of the word “revolution” could also be used to frame the same behaviors in a positive way. Therefore, the phrase “Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” here is also a positive valence frame, because it shows the bill to be combating “Terrorism.”
The word “Appropriate” is a semantic frame, because it castes the judgment that the measures taken by the bill are fitting for the situation at hand. The word “Required” here is also a semantic frame. It gives the impression that this bill is not only important, it is “required—” it is necessary. Finally, the rudiments of a story frame are inherent here because there is an implied actor or character that acts as a protagonist who “unites and strengthens,” who “provides appropriate tools,” and who “intercepts and obstructs terrorism.” It is implied that terrorism is perpetrated by terrorists, who are the antagonists in this frame. Also, the phrase “intercept and obstruct terrorism” indicates that terrorists are a threat, so the title of this bill is also a fear appeal.
The speech given by President Bush after signing the Patriot Act into law also demonstrates frames that portray the actions of government in a positive light while simultaneously presenting a fear appeal. Bush states that “With my signature, this law will give intelligence and law enforcement officials important new tools to fight a present danger” (Washington Post). The term “present danger” creates the fear appeal, while the word “important” is a semantic frame that reiterates the sentiment that the Patriot act is necessary.
This line of thought continues in his speech when he states that “The changes effective today will help counter a threat like no other our nation has ever faced” (Washington Post). Here the fear appeal is significantly elevated and the positive valence frame surrounding government is reinforced. He also escalates the negative valence frame that the terrorists have already been framed with by stating that “They (the terrorists) recognize no barrier of morality; they have no conscience. The terrorists cannot be reasoned with…” (Washington Post). He effectively frames the terrorists as something other than human— according to Bush, they have no conscience and no ability to reason. The US government, on the other hand, is cast in an exclusively positive valence frame.
Ironically, at the beginning of his speech, president Bush states that “Today, we take an essential step in defeating terrorism while protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans.” Also, near the end of his speech, he reiterates this sentiment, stating that “This bill met with an overwhelming--overwhelming--agreement in Congress, because it upholds and respects the civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution” (Washington Post). In addition to reinforcing the positive valence frames already established, he also argues that the Patriot Act serves to protect the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The Patriot Act allows for both warrantless roving wiretaps (a roving wiretap meaning that government agents can access multiple facets of a persons life with a single broad, sweeping authorization) (Epic.org). These and other egregious provisions within the bill clearly violate the Constitution, but there was little debate before it was passed.
The framing of terrorism and the “War on Terror,” first manufactured by the bush administration and later transmitted and reified by the media, paved the way for this and other troubling bills by instilling fear in the public, triggering Rally ‘Round the Flag syndrome. This was done by the use of fear appeals to communicate information about terrorism. Because there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, people relied on the media for a working definition of the term. The definition that they received tended to downplay domestic, non-Islamic terrorism while focusing on violence perpetrated by Muslims. The result was a large-scale stereotyping of Muslims that engendered even greater fear among non-Muslim Americans. Additionally, the press tended towards a pro-state, anti-extremist stance, which subconsciously argued for a higher degree of trust in the state. Only by recognizing these framing tactics and their effects on us will we be able to guard against irrational fear and retain the freedoms that the “War of Terror” purports to protect.
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