Review of Discourse, War and Terrorism
|EDITORS: Hodges, Adam; Nilep, Chad
TITLE: Discourse, War and Terrorism
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
Simon C. Bacchini, Department of Linguistics, Queen Mary, University of London,
The 9/11 attacks on America have had a number of effects, some of a huge, often
very visible nature: the war in Iraq; others perhaps less tangible but
nonetheless very present and affecting the daily lives of millions, like the
heightened sense of fear and insecurity among the general population. All that
followed the terrorist atrocities has been accompanied by an extraordinary
linguistic output: by politicians, journalists, commentators and others. In the
so-called war on terror, language has been used as the principal tool to explain
and justify actions and reactions; to persuade and dissuade; to construe and
Edited by Adam Hodges and Chad Nilep, this volume is a timely collection of
papers looking critically at the discursive construction ''of war and terrorism
in light of 9/11'' (p. 3). As the editors remind us, ''discourse does more than
merely reflect events that take place in the world; discourse interprets those
events, formulates understanding, and constitutes their sociopolitical reality''
(p. 2). The stated aim of the collected papers is therefore ''to explore the
discursive production of identities, ideologies, and collective understandings
in response to 9/11 within the United States and around the world'' (p. 3). The
collection positions itself in the tradition of 'critical' language studies and
draws contribution - often combining them - from disciplines such as critical
theory, linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, Critical Discourse Analysis
(CDA), Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), cognitive linguistics, ethnography
and feminist theory.
Including the Introduction, the volume contains twelve chapters. The first
contributions concentrate on discourse emanating from the United States;
subsequently the view broadens and takes into account discourse from other
countries and different outlets as well as different modalities: written,
spoken, visual. As the editors write, ''the themes [of the papers] move from a
specific focus on the American administration to more general discourses on
9/11, terrorism, and war, concluding with a critical enquiry into the politics
of fear that underlies many of the discourses examined throughout the volume''
In chapter two, Patricia Dunmire looks at the discursive means used by 'dominant
groups' to 'claim' and 'appropriate' the future (p. 20). For the author, ''the
future represents an ideologically significant site in which dominant political
actors and institutions can exert political power and control'' (p. 20). The
corpus that she analyzes consists of a political document known as the National
Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) and two speeches by President
George W. Bush on the war in Iraq.
Dunmire's analysis is informed mainly by CDA and SFL; she also draws on work by
Scollon and Scollon on anticipatory discourse to analyze ways in which social
agents ''position themselves, or are positioned by others with respect to
knowledge and agency of the future'' (p. 23). Positions vis-à-vis knowledge of
the future range from certainty (the future is or can be known), which is the
''oracular'' vision, to doubt (the future is neither fixed nor entirely free:
''probabilistic'' vision) or professed ignorance (the future cannot be known: the
''agnostic'' position). With regards to agency in the future, positions vary from
lack of agency (nothing can be done about things in the future: the ''fatalistic''
position) to a more empowering one, where social actors can affect change with
regards to future events. This is known as the ''agentive'' stance.
Armed with these analytical tools, Dunmire proceeds to a close reading of the
NSS and the two speeches by the President. After having identified agents,
through an analysis of lexicalization, modality, nominalization, she identifies
how the Administration, in the run-up to the Iraq war, ''staked a claim on the
future. It has done so, in part, by transforming politically motivated policies
and goals into an objectified world of 'coming dangers' and 'emerging threats'
that must be defeated'' (p. 39). She goes on to claim that uncertainties,
alternative interpretations and other possible visions are conveniently left
behind, the world-vision that emerges is one of certainty about the future and
its threats and dangers; this vision is in turn used to justify actions such as
the invasion of Iraq and other pre-emptive moves.
Dunmire's paper beautifully illustrates how the tools of SFL, especially its
peculiar notion of transitivity, can be applied to the analysis of text to show
how agency is assigned to various entities, and how - through this - identities
are constructed, assigned to social actors, and perpetuated.
Chapter three, by Annita and Michelle Lazar, broaden Dunmire's scope and look at
how other US Administrations used the language of policing and war to shape
world-views. The authors argue that the characterization of the opponent as
absolutely ''other'', an ''outcast'', is essential to successfully rally support for
America's policies in what came to be known as the ''new world order''. Their main
concern is ''America's articulation of the pursuit of justice in securing a New
World Order'' (p. 46). They identify the ''the establishment of an American-led
moral order'' (p. 45) to be ''a foundational element of the New World Order
discourse.'' This discourse - the authors argue - rests on the necessity of
representing the ''other'' as an ''aberration'' and a ''threat'' that justifies
action. They identify rhetorical strategies, such as 'overlexicalization' (p.
49), that ''represent the transgressive acts as well as the transgressor's
perverse state of mind.'' Another rhetorical tool identified by Lazar et al. is,
to use Martin's Systemic Functional Grammar terminology, APPRAISAL (in this
framework, labels for systems are usually expressed in capitals, a practice I
follow here), especially in the characterization of America's response to the
The multidisciplinary approach is particularly evident in this paper: the
references quote only one grammarian, Halliday; Lakoff, Chomsky and Fairclough
inform this research more in their guise as cultural theorists/political
analysts. And talking of cultural theory, the influence (in my view not always
beneficial, but more of it later) of the literary critic and theorist Edward
Said is pervasive throughout the paper.
Chapter four, by Adam Hodges, looks at how socio-political identities are
imposed on the world stage through American presidential rhetoric. The
particular equation under scrutiny is Saddam Hussein = Osama bin Laden. Hodges
dissects presidential speeches and identifies patterns that serve the purpose of
constructing narrartively socio-political realities. Central to Hodges' argument
is the notion of 'adequation'. Drawing on work by Bucholtz and Hall and
Bourdieu, the notion of 'hegemonic discourse practices' is also central to the
argument. Hodges discusses how, by minimizing or eliminating differences,
disparate entities are equated; this equation is then used discursively to
justify political and military actions.
Chapter five, by Katherine Lemons, introduces feminist theory to the already
impressive array of analytical tools seen thus far. Reading closely several
articles from the _New York Times_ (NYT), she discusses what she sees as
widespread Western views that consider the female body as a marker of achieved
or absent progress, achieved in the West and absent in Islamic countries, with
Islam seen as a force of repression. In the author's words, among the effects of
the discourse of which the NYT articles are part and ''the normative assumptions
that underlie it [are] a refusal to recognize and engage critically with
different conceptions of liberation and religion'' (p. 90). This, Lemons claims,
obfuscates the debate; it does not compare like with like (by showing
unawareness of other notions of freedom and liberation for women) and distorts
reality by showing the reality of women in Islam through the distorting prism of
western political thinking.
Chapter six, by Gregory Stolz, deals with similar preoccupations in its analysis
of articles from the NYT and the _Christian Science Monitor_. His main approach
is that of CDA. The author intelligently highlights the often problematic
relationship between signifier and signified. In the two newspapers' use of the
term ''Arab'', Stolz argues, the continuous shift of its referent - a region with
often unclear boundaries, an ethnic group whose composition is often unclear, or
a language - is instrumental in increasing a sense of confusion about what
constitutes Arab identity and, ultimately, makes the ''other'' more ''other'' and an
understanding of it a very demanding task. In his concluding remarks, Stolz
makes the observation that ''It is vitally important to examine the ideas we have
about ethnic groups and attempt to divine the sources of these ideas. In the
process we learn as much about the subtle ways in which ideology is encoded as
we do about the complicated nature of identity, ethnic or otherwise'' (p. 119)
Chapter seven is by David Machin. Since media discourse uses images as well as
words, and they are very much part of the war rhetoric. Machin's analysis aims
to show that, although war images are not new, the visual rhetoric of war
photographs has altered. The author's stated aim is ''to reveal what kinds of
participants are depicted as being involved in the conflict. In what kinds of
settings are they shown and what are they doing?'' (p. 125). Machin's analysis
owes its theoretical approach to his own work and Van Leeuven's. In keeping with
the multidisciplinary orientation of the collection, Machin draws on Hallidayan
notions of transitivity. Halliday talks of the clause as a 'mode of
representation', a 'theory of reality' where there are participant-roles
involved in processes. The processes are of various kinds (material, mental,
verbal, etc.) and entail 'participants', human or otherwise, as well as
attending circumstances. In language, processes are realized by verbs,
participants by nouns, and circumstances are normally realized by adverbials.
Machin uses these concepts to ''think about the visual representation of actors
and what they are shown doing'' (p. 133).
Specifically, he looks at photographs of the Iraqi conflict and what the actors
in them achieve visually and what they do. Again lifting concepts from
grammatical analysis and applying them to the visual, he looks at modality
(epistemic, to be precise) to see what the images communicate about their
truth-value; in other words, how truthful a representation they purport to be.
For the author, the increased professionalization and technologization of
war-reporting has meant an obfuscation of the truth; this, for example, can be
observed - Machin argues - in the exclusion of casualties from visual reports
that favor more aseptic scenes.
Chapter eight is authored by Becky Schulties and Aomar Boum. In it, they look at
the journalistic output of the Qatar-based Arab news channel Al-Jazeera and its
efforts to position itself between standards of Western objectivity and the
expectations of Arab audiences. In doing so, they examine the language used to
report, debate, and comment upon journalism and comments emanating from
Washington. In the words of the volume's editors, ''[o]ne result of the network's
operations is to open up social space where multiple audiences appropriate and
negotiate the meaning of events'' (p. 9).
This paper is particularly interesting for its focus on discourse originating
from a Middle Eastern perspective, although - as the authors point out - it does
so ''within Western frames and formats and structures of information circulation''
(p. 157). What Schulties and and Boum do very well is illustrate how the channel
appropriates and re-interprets political discourse from both the West and the
Arab world; the literary notion of intertextuality is thus successfully applied
to the analysis of Al-Jazeera's journalistic output, both the verbal and the
A non-American perspective is also to be found in Chapter ten, by Annette
Becker. Her analysis draws on CDA, appraisal theory (Martin & Rose 2003, Martin
& White 2005), and pragmatics (p. 161). She looks at the debate surrounding the
war that has been taking place in Europe, in this particular case in Germany.
The focus of the article is provided by two television interviews given by the
then chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the run-up to the war. Because the
interviews were given to two channels with different political orientations,
what the analysis brings to light is how opposing identities are constructed and
presented that have to do with different political orientations within the
German political discourse. This is done in part through an illuminating
classification and analysis of the use of first-person personal pronouns, both
singular and plural, to which Wilson's scale of 'existential involvement' (p.
169) is successfully applied. Becker also uses SFL's notion of transitivity and
of APPRAISAL in the construction and presentation of a preferred political
identity. The whole discussion is greatly helped by the presentation by the
author of relevant extracts from her corpus and the contextualization that she
never fails to offer.
Chapter ten takes the reader to Serbia. Zala Volcic and Karmen Erjavec look at
the appropriation of the ''war on terror'' discourse by the Serbian
socio-political actors. Through an analysis of an original corpus of interviews
with Serbs, the authors show how a comparison is made that equates the US'
stance towards al-Qaeda to that towards Muslims in the Balkans. The paper
illustrates how a particular topos - terrorism in this case - can be
appropriated by different communities for a number of purposes. Once concepts
like terrorism as an absolute negative and the need to oppose it with a ''war on
terror'' are commonly accepted, then it is enough to discursively shift the
referents (the terrorists are here al-Qaeda, there Kosovar independentists) to
justify any action deemed necessary to implement this war.
In Chapter 11, Maija Stenvall looks at how the media contribute to shaping
emotional responses to terrorism. Looking at reports from AP and Reuters, she
takes a textual approach to shed light on how emotions, such as worry, fear and
concern are shaped by such reports. Her conclusion is that in this process,
fears become 'actors' (both in the Hallidayan meaning of the term, as well as
the current one) themselves in how communities and individuals respond to
terrorism. For Stenvall, the implications are profound and quintessentially
political. Fear, she claims, is a construction used by governments to implement
unpalatable security measures
Stenvall's paper provides a nice transition to the last article in this
collection, Matteo Stocchetti's ''The politics of fear: A Critical Inquiry into
the Role of Violence in 21st Century Politics'', Chapter 12. Stocchetti looks
into narratives of fear and their accompanying metaphors, such as the ''crusade''
and the ''clash of civilization'' metaphors, and the consequences they carry, such
as the ''paralysis of criticism'' with the dehumanization of the ''other'' beyond
rationality. The approach of this last paper is the least linguistic; it relies
more on cultural and political theory.
Overall, this volume is an interesting, stimulating read. Its
theoretically-based approach to the analysis of the discourses of terrorism and
war shows how linguistics - in its broader sense - can be successfully used to
examine the linguistic construction and construal of extra-linguistic realities.
SFL in particular emerges as a powerful tool for shedding light on the workings
of society through the workings of grammar (again, in its broader sense). The
collection offers an interesting multidisciplinary approach and, especially in
some chapters, shows a good use of linguistic data.
There is, in my view at least, one problem with most of the papers in this
collection. This is their being politically situated in one particular area: the
political Left and centre-Left. Or, to be more precise, their being situated
only in that political area. Having a political stance is not a problem, as long
as it is declared from the outset. The stated aim of the volume: to offer ''[a]
critical perspective and a focus on discourses of war and terrorism in light of
9/11'' (p. 2), followed by the theoretical credentials of the research may
suggest a kind of neutrality which is not there. All the papers offer criticism
of the West's position post 9/11 and in particular of America. It is true that
''discourse does more than merely reflect events that take place in the world;
discourse interprets those events, formulates understandings, and constitutes
their sociopolitical reality'' (p. 2); yet, 'to constitute' is not the same as
'to invent' or 'to manufacture', as many of the papers seem to suggest.
Perhaps the clearest example of this political leaning can be found in the final
chapter. Stocchetti's chapter makes for interesting reading but also for highly
politicized (and politically situated) claims. When the author claims that
''radical elites in both the West and the Arab world feel threatened by the
evolution of the communicative behavior of the masses and by the potential
ideological, cultural, religious and ethnic contamination that this implies'' (p.
236) one cannot avoid being struck first by the equation of democratically
elected Western governments (Stocchetti's ''radical elites'') and Arab radicals
(Islamists, etc.). Secondly, the two discourses may share elements of dogmatism,
but the possibility for change and debate in the West, even within
''conservative'' circles, are hardly paralleled in the Islamic and Islamist world.
Furthermore, Stocchetti claims that ''the tendency to consider terrorism as
irrational and terrorists as fanatics is not only misleading but also risky'' (p.
237). It is certainly true that one can see a rationale behind acts of terror,
but claiming that identifying terrorists as fanatics is misleading means
obscuring a relevant part behind their motives, as well as creating an equation
(the terrorists are like us) which has potentially disastrous consequences. The
''them and us'' discourse may have simplistic elements in it, but it does have
correspondences in the real world and cannot be construed as a discursive
construction. In his analysis, Stocchetti echoes the themes of a BBC documentary
by Adam Curtis, _The Power of Nightmares_ (2004). In it, Curtis made a parallel
between the thinking of Islamist figures and the so-called ''neocons'' in America;
his main argument was that both groups fomented fears in order to drive their
respective audience to action. Apart from the equation (again) of the two
groups, one of the main criticisms to the thesis espoused by the documentary was
that terrorist attack in the West did indeed take place. There is not enough
space here to discuss this latter point in relation to Stocchetti's paper - as
well as others - in this collection, but is seems a relevant objection.
Machin's study of war photographs, also, can be charged with being too
politicized. His analysis leads him to the following bold conclusion: ''These
photographs [35, eight of which are reproduced in the paper] are testimony to
the West's denial of history and of its own responsibility for the instability
in the Middle East. The wealth of the West has been built on the exploitation of
the world with exactly the kind of disregard that we now find in Iraq. Yet the
way we are offered access to Iraq through the news media is, as with all
international events, without social and historical context'' (p. 140) This
passage deserves quoting at length because, in its grand, overarching claims, it
is somewhat typical of the limitations of the papers in this collection and,
perhaps, of the limitations of tools such as CDA, SFL, DA, etc. when used to
analyze complex phenomena. It is one thing to show how, through language,
identities and ''realities'' are constructed, sustained, and transmitted; it is
quite another to make politically-colored statements such as the above and claim
they are supported by the data. Machin claims that we are offered access to Iraq
without proper context. The same is true of his analysis: he does not provide us
with information to really evaluate the necessity for intervention in Iraq nor
for truly understanding the causes of post-war developments. This is especially
true if one keeps in mind that the number of pictures analyzed totals a mere 35
out of a possible thousands, if not millions.
The discursive outpour that followed 9/11 was caused by very real events, both
on and after that fatal date. To be fair, the volume's editors do acknowledge
some of the limitations of CDA studies; in particular, they address the kind of
criticism leveled at CDA which says that ''one cannot fully understand cultural
and political processes without detailed and extended ethnography'' (p. 10). In
my view, a more 'ethnographic' approach could have corrected some of the
problems derived from an a priori anti-Western stance. As Irigaray reminds us,
''parler n'est jamais neutre''. And neither is writing.
Martin, J.R. and Rose, D. (2003). _Working with Discourse: meaning beyond the
clause_. London: Continuum.
Martin, J.R. and White, P.R.R. (2005). _The Language of Evaluation: appraisal in
English_. London: Palgrave.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Simon Bacchini is working on a PhD. on the linguistic representation of physical
pain at Queen Mary, University of London. His main interests are
sociolinguistics, discourse-analysis, and functionally-based approaches to language.