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The Rhetoric of Fear
Published on Sunday, September 7, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
The Rhetoric of Fear
Unraveling the message behind the president's pronouncements since the terrorist attacks
by William D. Lutz

A number of books have collected "Bushisms," those memorable turns of phrase that candidate and later President George W. Bush seemed to utter every time he opened his mouth.

In June 2000, for example, candidate Bush seemed confused when asked about the Taliban. So the reporter helpfully prompted, "Repression of women in Afghanistan?" The light dawned. "Oh, I thought you said, 'Some band.' The Taliban in Afghanistan. Absolutely. Repressive," replied the president-to-be.

Such verbal gaffes ("You teach a child to read, and he or her will pass a literacy test," he once said) soon came to define the Bush presidency. Newspaper headlines highlighted Bush's failures as a speaker: "At Night, Bush-Speak Goes into Overdrive" and "As Speaker, Bush Fails." So ineffective was Bush the orator that two months into his presidency a poll reported that 50 percent of Americans believed that people other than Bush were really running the country. Then everything changed.

Today, reporters discuss Bush as an effective orator, a president who "got his gravitas" and "found his voice." Now there's another collection - a new book titled "President George W. Bush On War, Terrorism, and Freedom: We Will Prevail" to be published this week in connection with the second anniversary of Sept. 11 - composed not of Bushisms but 36 speeches and 55 excerpts that trace Bush's statements since the terrorist attacks. It is these speeches that have given rise to the impression of Bush as Pericles.

But the question is, What is Bush's rhetoric? It is the rhetoric of permanent war and fear.

Bush the orator did not happen overnight. This impression was created by many people using a variety of techniques. First, of course, are the speech writers. John Kennedy had Ted Sorensen and Ronald Reagan had Peggy Noonan, but George W. Bush has Michael Gerson writing, Karl Rove plotting the themes, and Frank Luntz polling for the right words to use. Second, Bush has held the fewest number of press conferences of any president in modern history, which limits those unprepared remarks that previously created so many laughs. Third, many in the media now edit transcripts to remove any embarrassing presidential verbal gaffes that may occur.

On Sept. 11, Bush spoke to the nation that evening, calling the destruction of the World Trade Center "acts of mass murder." He went on to reassure the public that the country had not been brought to a halt but that the government, business, life continued. He concluded his 600-word speech by calling on Americans to unite, and quoted Psalm 23, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me." However, this rhetoric of reassurance and hope was soon replaced with a rhetoric of fear.

Later, in his address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 23, Bush declared that "enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country," although individuals cannot commit an act of war, only a nation state can. By calling the attacks of 9/11 "acts of war," Bush accorded those who perpetrated the acts a dignity they did not deserve, awarding them the very status they seek as soldiers who can engage in acts of war. Soldiers who attack the enemy are not murderers.

Had Bush labeled the attackers murderers, he would have stripped them of a philosophical or religious rationale for their criminal acts and deprived them of any justification under any law. They would be held up as common criminals, violating criminal laws common to all nations. They would be stripped of the dignity of calling themselves "patriots," "martyrs" or "soldiers in a holy war." They could be hunted by the international community as criminals, just like any other criminal, deprived of any moral covering for their acts of murder.

Bush, however, chose a different rhetorical route. He chose not the rhetoric of crime but the rhetoric of war, even the rhetoric of permanent war: "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen." Indeed, "Our war on terror . . . will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." Thus we are engaged in a war without end, for how can anyone ever know that every terrorist has been found?

By Jan. 29, 2002, when Bush gave his State of the Union Address, he added to the rhetoric of permanent war the rhetoric of fear. He opened his speech with the assertion that "our nation is at war," and he did not mean this metaphorically but literally, even though there has been no declaration by Congress. He used the words "terror," "terrorist" and "bioterrorism" 30 times. He depicted a world that is a terrible and dangerous place where "our worst fears" have been confirmed. "Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning," he said.

We are threatened "by the world's most dangerous regimes." We face "ruthless killers who move and plot in shadows," presenting us with a danger that will not soon pass but will last "long into the future." In using the rhetoric of war instead of the rhetoric of criminal law, Bush induces fear not among the attackers but among those who were attacked. To Orwell's world of permanent war Bush adds permanent fear.

Bush has perfected the rhetoric of fear and permanent war, justifying a wartime military budget, using the Patriot Act to negate the Bill of Rights, promoting any and all proposals, and invoking special wartime powers. "Don't you know there's a war on?" has become the all-purpose reply to critics and those who would dare question the leader or his policies. The message of Bush's rhetoric is simple: Be afraid. Be very afraid. But trust me.

'The Taliban in Afghanistan. Absolutely. Repressive.'

'Enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.'

'Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.'

'Our nation is at war.'

'Thousands of dangerous killers ... are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs.'

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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