Emotional blackmail and the ‘war-on-terror’

Quite how the United States acquired for itself the right to kill whomever, wherever, without hindrance of evidence or trial—with barely a peep of opposition—is a lesson in emotional marketing.

This campaign was launched in President Bush’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, November 10, 2001. Here Bush comforts the assembled and tells the world what the events of 9/11 mean—for them—and declares war on ‘terror’.

The video recording of Bush’s Address (25:37) together with a transcript can be seen here. A pdf of the transcript is here.

His address poses a stark choice between these dichotomies:

civilization versus barbarism

good versus evil

light versus darkness

the dignity of life versus a culture of death

This was not an attack on the United States, Bush tells us, it was an attack on ‘civilization’. We are civilized. They are barbarians. The enemy is not a nation, or even a particular group of terrorists. The enemy are those who act out of hatred; terrorism everywhere and anywhere. Terrorists hate not just our policies, ‘but our existence’. They cannot be negotiated with; they must be eradicated.

Bush tells us that the war-on-terror is analogous to the war against Hitler and the Nazis. Compare it with Churchill’s House of Commons speech on June 18, 1940, after the fall of France, in which he rallied Britain against the National Socialist tyranny in Germany:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Bush is trying to be Churchillian. If terrorists are like Nazis, ‘we’ must be like the Allies.

We are told that terrorists search for weapons of mass destruction ‘to turn their hatred into holocaust’. For good measure, Bush tells his audience that they must work to deliver their ‘children from a future of fear’.

Lest there was any doubt, Bush informs his audience that this is a global war and they are at war too. Any nation that rejects his message ‘will know the consequences’. ‘For every regime that sponsors terror, there is a price to be paid. And it will be paid’. Like the Godfather, Bush makes us an offer we can’t refuse. ‘Do as I say, or there will be consequences’.

Just so we know not to question all this, Bush ring fences the moral basis for this war-on-terror:

We must speak the truth about terror. Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories, concerning the attacks of September the 11th. Malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists themselves, away from the guilty. To inflame ethnic hatred is to advance the cause of terror. (Bush, speech to United Nations, November 10, 2001. My emphasis).

At the time, it seemed an odd thing to say. Just two months after the attacks, ‘conspiracy theories’ were denounced before they had time to take shape. The denial preceded the accusation. It anticipates criticisms yet to be made. Were Bush speaking off the cuff we might regard it as a Freudian slip—like a murderer’s denial of evidence the police have yet to discover. Similarly, one has to know that a conspiracy exists to deny it.

But this was a carefully prepared written speech. It was a shot across the bows of those investigative citizen journalists who might feel inclined to think for themselves. It was an attempt to intimidate and deter through fear of ridicule.

Of course, these are not Bush’s words—Bush is no Churchill. That his delivery is flat suggests that they are not his sentiments either. He does not feel the words he gives voice to. His timing is off. He looks like some shady hoodlum asked to speak before a congregation of nuns. He knows he doesn’t belong there, and looks around shiftily, half-expecting the police to arrive before he’s finished.

The speech was written for Bush by Michael J. Gerson and his team of script writers. Gerson was much more than a scriptwriter. He worked with Bush since 1999 and later became Assistant to the President for Policy and Strategic Planning. Gerson shaped the policy he gave voice to. Gerson is a highly influential evangelical Christian (as Bush claims to be). He was Bush’s ‘spiritual scribe’. These beliefs are evident in the Biblical imagery in this and other speeches by Bush on the war-on-terror. Divine providence, God’s intervention in the world, is paramount and Bush claims to know what this is.

This speech sets a deliberate rhetorical, emotional trap. When presented with such an invidious choice, between good and evil, light and darkness, civilization and barbarism, who is going to opt for evil, darkness and barbarism? Who doesn’t want good to triumph over evil? Is there anyone who is in favour of Hitler, another holocaust and frightened children? No one would, and no one has. But it’s the choice itself that’s the problem. It’s called emotional blackmail.