George, are you listening?
Words matter. They can even kill. That’s one reason why, as the Associated Press reported a few weeks ago, 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 has noted, 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 United States 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.”
George W. Bush, are you listening?