Brown, Tyler — Fear as a Political Tool: Re-examining Terrorism in Political Speech

Brown, Tyler.  “Fear as a Political Tool: Re-examining Terrorism in Political Speech”

The incorporation of violence into the rhetoric of the political sphere is a topic that has been under-appreciated for some time. I seek to argue that the language used by many policy makers and legislatures, specifically focusing on rhetorical strategies of certain politicians in the United States, incorporates various notions of fear in order to worry the common public, in the hopes that they will side with their ideals in response to this fear. The evaluations of certain speeches and widely recognized statements made by political leaders, it is evident that the employment of fear exists in an effort to promote some political agenda. The use of fear, to promote a political agenda, is also an incredibly influential tactic utilized by many of the powerful people in today’s society who tend to be defined with another political term, “terrorism.” The purpose of these claims is not to state that the individuals who represent us as our political leaders are “terrorists.” The resolution that I attempt to promote is the theory that the strategies utilized by both terrorist organization and many political leaders, aside from the regular and absurd use of physical and lethal violence by contemporary terrorists, is disconcertingly similar, which should promote the advancement of knowledge within the common people and public to these tactics used by political leaders.

The influence of policy makers and legislatures is contingent upon a system of gaining the support from the citizens that they represent. The main tool that is utilized within the arsenal of these political agents is one that is commonly represented by the ideas of moral building and unity; but this, I argue, serves the purpose to merely disguise the actual tool that politicians tend to exploit — fear. To the extent to which politicians can coerce the citizens that they represent with fear can be seen as being comparable to that of violence and terror. The exploration of the use of fear to manipulate the constituents that these policy makers represent allows for the opportunity to delve into the methods by which politicians convince the public that a particular course of actions is the appropriate action for the state, even if the true motives rest in completely selfish political agendas. To state that this use of “political fear” seems to correlate in an eerily similar manner to the actions committed by modern day terrorists; not by the actions of physical violence, but by their methods of utilizing fear to accomplish certain political agendas.

In an effort to explain the claims that I make, the definitions of terms such as “violence” and “terrorism” must clearly be established from the perspective that I attempt to use them. The various versions that exist regarding the use of these words could easily lead to ambiguity, which I attempt to reduce or hopefully eliminate by explaining the specific characteristics that exist to cause these terms to be applicable to my claims. The method by which I utilize the term “violence” is not merely from an interpersonal or physical perspective, simply because these do not particularly explain the harms that violence from political leaders contribute to. Violence, as I describe it, attempts to employ any scenario that causes a change in people’s actions or mindset due to harmful methods or outcomes. This, one could say, is a modified version of Johan Galtung’s theory of violence, which is related to the reduction of one’s potential to make something more of themselves or their circumstances, but also highlights the ideas of manipulation and psychological damage that violence tends to cause. Since these tactics seem to be readily evident in the political sphere, this definition of violence serves an effective purpose for the claims I make.

With regard to the term “terrorism,” I genuinely seek to divert away from the contemporary view of what this word is associated with and focus solely on what the term actually describes. In the modern world, the term “terrorism” is usually used as a term regarding the physical use of violence, threats, and death of innocent civilians in order to evoke political change, promote awareness about a particular political issue or problem, or attempt to accomplish some political agenda or interest for the group. For the intents and purposes of my claims, this is not the association of the word terrorism that I utilize. With regard to the term “terrorism,” the definition that shall be used will be one that emphasizes the purposes more than the outcomes “terrorism.” The definition that I express is one along the lines of what Robert Goodin would exemplify; that being, that “terrorism” can be described with the statement that “the distinctive wrong that is terrorism itself, [which is] acting with the intention of frightening people for a political advantage” in order to describe that terrorism seeks to gain or accomplish a political goal through the use of fear and manipulation.[1] This seeks to explain that terrorism rests not only in the groups that seek to commit physical violence in an effort to allow a certain political agenda to occur; but, explains that terrorism is evident when the use of fear and manipulation is used in an effort to accomplish political ends.

In order to better understand the relationship that exists between this modified version of terrorism and the use of violence through a system of rhetoric in the political sphere, it is important to comprehend the method by which people are influenced by political leaders (especially regarding the actions being committed that may be considered to be violent). The scholar Michael Walzer, who generally deals in issues regarding warfare and the actions that are committed during wartime, critiques the ideas of aggression and violence in an effort to divulge the culpability of political leaders regarding these situations. In an effort to understand what causes the language of politicians to be able to even be described as violent, one must attempt to grasp that the language that politicians use has the ability to influence the mindsets of the people that follow their use of language as being appropriate and adequate for the safety and benefit of the their own well-being. As Walzer puts it, “[I]f there is such a thing as aggression, then there must be aggressors…But the theory of justice should point us to the men and women from whom we can rightly demand an accounting.” In other words, when acts of physical violence are committed in order to fulfill the state’s political agenda, it is normally the case that the individuals who are responsible for the occurrence of these violent actions are the political leaders holding the pens, instead of having most of the blame being placed in the hands of the many military personnel holding their guns.[2] Walzer exemplifies the idea that it is the political leaders that instigate violent activity through their use of language that creates an “us” versus “them” mentality. This, then, causes the physical violence that is committed to be seen as justified due to the fact that the members of the common body politic and military are highly influenced by the political leaders and the language that they employ.

According to Christopher Menke, the ability to make laws as a political leader creates a cycle of violence that is incredibly difficult to escape. Menke contends that “Lawmaking is power making, and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence.” Those who have the capability to make the law consistently cause violence to continue to reoccur.[3] This shows that the ability of political leaders to influence the everyday lives of their constituents simply through the use of their language enables them to have a significant influence in determining, for the people that encompass the common public, the manner by which they should or should live their lives and the actions that they should (according to the law) accept as right or wrong. This then expands to the fact that whenever a political leader attempts to gain support for a certain political endeavor, the most effective method to gain this support is by causing their constituents to fear an alternative idea or group of people who support this idea. Though this method is disguised as being simply a morale building method of gaining political imfluence. But when we examine how this political rhetoric is used, we can see that the portrayal of alternate ideas and the fear of the outcomes should these “evil” ideas prevail is truly a form of violence through the use of language and rhetoric.

This expresses further the idea that the language that is used by political leaders attempts to gain support for their own political agendas, even if this risks the safety and security of the public or military personnel. This is not to say that all decisions that are made regarding the military are decisions that are centered on simply being means to a selfish end, but this claim merely attempts to point out the influence that political leaders’ language has to persuade, and even coerce, the constituents that they represent. Political leaders have the ability to use their language in an effort to place the idea of committing physical violence in a good light by utilizing words such as “unity” or “against,” which causes those who listen to this language to be forced to establish themselves with one of two groups: either with and supporting the state and its decision, or being not on the “side” of the state and, henceforth, being against the state and opposing its endeavors. These political leaders understand that the common public and military have a natural inclination to exercise self-preservation, especially when safety can be provided for the state. This means that if the political leaders of the state can cause the public to understand that an enemy exists, and that there is some force that should be united against, then the political leaders of the state have the opportunity to utilize fear of this enemy, and accomplish whatever political agenda this process seeks to procure.

When it comes to actually applying the term terrorism to this use of violence through political language, there exist some of the most influential scholars that have addressed the issue and were able to express that there may be strong reason to believe that a direct connection exist with regard to the methods and motives of both “contemporary terrorism” and political violence through rhetoric and language. According to Robert Goodin, certain actions include “the intention of instilling fear of terrorism to advance [one’s] own political agenda. And on the definition…that would count as an act of terrorism in itself.”[4] The “intent to instill fear” that Goodin addresses explains the idea that politicians, especially in the United States, understand that people respond to fear. The members of common public are conditioned to trust political leaders, at least to the extent that they will employ the necessary tactics to provide protection for the state should the need for it arise. This means that if these political leaders can produce an enemy, then they can convince the public that a need for protection is evident and that the members of the public should unite with the state against a common enemy. Another important scholar, Benjamin Barber, has expressed views specifically related to the United States and its “war or terrorism.” As Barber puts it, “the President’s rhetoric [insists] that the world choose sides — that it join the U.S. or be numbered among the supporters of terrorism.” That is, the President of the United States utilized language in order to attempt to coerce the public and leaders of the rest of the world that it had a legitimate concern, and that if these people were not with them, then they were against them.[5] What clearly makes this use of language also a use of violence is the fact that the political leaders in the United States attempted to coerce of members of the human population to make an inescapable choice for a decision that did not necessarily need to be made: it was an ultimatum that was not exactly a necessary measure that needed to be taken.

The distinction as to how one could transition from this use of language as simply violence to that of terrorism arises when the existence of more than just the tools of persuasion are utilized: when there exists an intent to cause fear within the people receiving the information in order to manipulate their decision or change their mindset toward a particular circumstance. The fact of the matter is that terrorist organizations attempt to utilize this device of fear in the minds of the public in order to gain support for certain views or political agendas that they wish to see accomplished. The genuine misconception that exists regarding many terrorist organizations is that their main objective is simply to commit acts of physical violence in an effort to eliminate the people who may stand in the way for them to accomplish their goals. But this does not seem to be the case. The main tool utilized by terrorist groups is not destruction, but it is the incorporation of fear in society that allows terrorists organizations to thrive and gain support for their political goals. Terrorist organizations benefit from being able to exemplify the idea of an “enemy” and a force that should be feared and opposed. As I have shown in previous statements, political leaders utilize this same tactic of fear and opposition towards another entity in order to accomplish a particular political end. Though these tactics are not as obvious as when they are used by contemporary terrorist organizations, as they are disguised as tactics such as “rally building” and “gaining support for a cause,” the awareness of the existence of this use of sphere by political leaders is the most significant aspect to realize.

One particular instance that corresponds incredibly accurately to the use of fear in order to evoke a political advantage, and can be classified as using this form of “political terror,” is the 2002 State of the Union Address made by President George W. Bush. Throughout the entirety of this incredibly popular speech, President Bush expresses statements that seem to promote unity and strength within the union that is the United States. Whether or not these feelings may have been experienced within the minds of those who the speech was relayed to, the intent of the speech was not to provide these feelings or emotions, but mainly to evoke fear within the minds of the American public against a force that the President seemed to express as a threat to the safety and sovereignty of the state. Certain statements from President Bush during this speech are direct statements that engage the incorporation of fear into the minds of those who hear it, such as, “The men and women of our armed forces have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of these United States,” “We have seen the depth of the enemies hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design,” and “So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk and America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it.”[6] By establishing this system of fear in the American public, President Bush sought to gain support against a common enemy in an effort to purport the political agendas that he and his administration wanted to accomplish through the situation that occurred on September 11, 2001.

The fact of the matter was that President Bush did have his own agenda for wanted to gain support from the American people, in order to allow the public to support a decision to go into Iraq for a certain period of time. Whether the purpose of this military operation in Iraq was evaluate the oil supplies, or search for nuclear weapons, or attempt to establish a democratic system is irrelevant. There did exist some sort of political agenda that existed that caused President Bush to feel the need to intent to instill this fear within the minds of the American public. President Bush also recognized at the time that the most effective manner in order to gain this support was to allow for the presently recognizable and hated enemy of the state to become to target for this aggression that needed to be directed in order for the fear to be attached to a certain entity. The fear that President Bush attempted to instill within the minds of the American public and the rest of the world was used for manipulative purposes in coerce people into supporting the political agenda of the President and attempt to accomplish his political goals.

This wrongful use of power by political leaders can no longer be so overlooked by members of the American public and many people throughout the rest of the world. Truthfully, the examination of this State of the Union Address by President Bush created an awkward instance of realization within my mind due to my high acclamation and support that I have for the Bush Administration and the manner by which I viewed the United States as being safe and secure during his presidency. This exemplifies even further the ease that exists with regard to following blindly the ideas and actions that are being promoted by political leaders, especially when certain language and rhetoric is used by these individuals. It is possible that President Bush did have noble and truly beneficial reasons (at least where the state is concerned) for advocating the ideas that he did; but, the fact that he utilized fear in an effort to accomplish a political agenda provides a ridiculously similar model for the method by which the enemies that he was advocating for the elimination of. The process of gaining support for the “war on terror” seems to involve an extensive use of political terror itself.

It still remains, however, that it is not my purpose to categorize many political speeches, legislation, and other uses of political language within the confines of what today’s society would deem as a contemporary form of terrorism. The term terrorism is so deeply engrained into the perceptions of today’s citizens that a re-defining of the word itself seems to be virtually impossible at this time. It is the case, though, that the similarities that exist between the use of fear by which terrorist organizations and political leaders gain support for their own political agendas is too similar to ignore. Whereas contemporary terrorist organizations seek to integrate fear into the minds of the people through acts of direct physical and interpersonal violence, the use of violence that political leaders instill into people’s minds through language is merely through the use of psychological forms of violence. The use of manipulation and coercion of the public through their use of language cause these political leaders to exploit an advantage that they have solely through their position as a political leader and their ability to use language to greatly influence the people that their message is relayed to.

The awareness of this use of fear and an installment of terror must continue to expand and be much more readily comprehended by citizens of the state when they encounter certain rhetoric from political leaders. This awareness of this use of language by political leaders is not simply for the purpose of criticizing our political leaders, but will hopefully enable the citizens of the state to make more informed decisions regarding the policies and procedures from certain political leaders that they tend to support. It may be the case then that these people will become more accustomed to further evaluating the language expressed by their political leaders and will be able to better express their opinions as responsible and efficient constituents within a society.


Works Cited

[1] Goodin, Robert E. “Terrorizing Democracy” and “Conclusion.” What’s Wrong with Terrorism? Chapters 7-8 (2006): p. 156-186

[2] Walzer, Michael. “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.” Basic Books. (1977): Part V p. 287-328.

[3] Menke, Christopher. “Law and Violence.” Law and Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1. (2010):  1-17.

[4] Goodin, Robert E. “Terrorizing Democracy” and “Conclusion.” What’s Wrong with Terrorism? Chapters 7-8 (2006): p. 165-170

[5] Barber, Benjamin R. “The War of All Against All: Terror and the Politics of Fear.” (2003) p. 84

[6] Bush, George W. 2002 Presidential State of the Union Address. (2002)

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