No more ‘war on terror’

Words matter. They can even kill. That’s one reason why, as The Associated Press reported this week, the British government “has stopped using the phrase ‘war on terror’ to refer to the struggle against political and religious violence….”

Making that acknowledgement was International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, whom the AP describes as “a rising star of the governing Labour Party” and currently “the bookies’ favorite to become Labour’s deputy leader in a party election once [Prime Minister Tony] Blair steps down….”

This semantic shift is welcome news. As international-law expert Allen Weiner, of the Stanford Law School, noted during an April 5 talk at Chico State University (see “Was the U.S. invasion legal?” in CN&R Newslines, April 12), the use of the phrase “war on terror” is misleading and even dangerous.

In particular, Weiner said, it has led (or enabled) the Bush administration to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as if they aren’t subject to the Geneva Conventions. By labeling the enemy as “terrorists,” he said, the U.S. has been able to skirt international law, notably in its treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere—at great cost to this country’s image in the world.

Explaining the British government’s decision, Benn said: “We do not use the phrase ‘war on terror’ because we can’t win by military means alone, and because this isn’t us against one organized enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives.”

Indeed, he added, the conflict is between “the vast majority of the people in the world” and “a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from … their distorted view of the world and their idea of being part of something bigger.”

George W. Bush, are you listening? We’ll never stop jihadist terrorists with fighter jets and Bradley armored vehicles. And we won’t win the hearts and minds of young Muslims by abandoning our core values of justice, openness and the rule of law. The Brits realize this. Why don’t you?