07 May 2005

Warfare as metaphor

In North America we have become increasingly accustomed to the use of war metaphors in a variety of contexts where they can hardly be taken literally. Four decades ago US President Lyndon Johnson launched a war on poverty. A decade and a half ago the notion of culture wars came into the language, primarily through the writings of James Davison Hunter. In the latest Capital Commentary from the Center for Public Justice, James W. Skillen argues that such language is singularly unhelpful, especially as it applies to the current conflict in the Senate over President Bush's judicial nominees. Writes Skillen:

The spectacle of Republicans and Democrats ratcheting up the conflict in the Senate is a sorry sight. But those who object to current judicial, congressional, or presidential judgments should not respond as if this is the end of the world and that war is now justified. Regardless of who wins the current Senate fight over judicial appointments if a compromise is not reached, it will not be the end of the world and it need not be the end of the Senate and the courts.

What is needed today is for citizens and public officials alike to realize that justice cannot be done without functioning government institutions. Those who don't like current decisions should gear up for long-term public service to change policies and decision makers, while showing respect for public offices. Dishonoring government may bring about something far worse than a few bad appointments.

Is it possible that even the war on terrorism represents an abuse of the war metaphor? Skillen believes this is so and makes a case for this in his recent book, With or Against the World?:

My hypothesis is that the international effort since 9/11 to mount a cooperative international police and intelligence campaign to stop terrorism is not war and that the Bush administration and the media should never have called it war. The campaign to track down and stop international criminals of the Al Qaeda type may require some revision of laws governing domestic security and intelligence gathering, including a revision of laws governing immigration and travel. But the Bush administration has not made the case that the fight to stop international terrorism must be a war effort rather than a cooperative international police and intelligence campaign conducted in accord with domestic and international laws of criminal behavior and punishment. This is not to say that American military intervention in another country can never be justified on just war grounds. American military responses to the collusion of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and to Iraq'a invasion of Kuwait in 1990 could be so justified. For every goernment and alliance of states has a right to defend itself against attack. But terrorist networks like the ones that launched the 9/11 attackes will be stopped, punished, and eliminated only if many legitimate governments adequately police their own territories and cooperate with one another both within and beyond their territories to capture and punish such conspirators. This is different from governments fighting wars against other governments by military means (p. 6).

This is good reason for governments not to jump too quickly to the use of war metaphors when others are evidently more appropriate to the circumstances.

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