In the Name of Terrorism: Presidents on Political Violence in the Post-World War II Era.
Carol Winkler's latest book explores the uses of the label terrorism in presidential rhetoric from the Kennedy administration to the present. Unlike some, who argue that George W. Bush's use (abuse?) of the term is unique, Winkler demonstrates that it was serving well established needs of the executive branch prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Applying Lucaites and Condit's trio of discursive units for cultural markers (labels, narratives, and ideographs), she suggests that the term became a negative ideograph (helping to define culture through opposition) as early as the Reagan administration. In fact, Winkler can be read as denying that the world changed fundamentally on 9/11, and demonstrating the danger of using those attacks as the starting point for political analysis.
The book is organized chronologically. Following Chapter 1's discussion of methodology, the book covers terrorism during the Vietnam conflict (Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), followed by a chapter on each administration from Carter to the present. Each chapter discusses the major incidents that provoked the terrorist label, exploring the purposes, motivations, and ideological implications of this language choice. Instead of settling on a preferred definition, Winkler suggests that terrorism's ambiguity is important to its rhetorical function. This approach is quite effective: The concluding chapter is packed with interesting observations and comparisons that significantly advance our understanding of the rhetoric of terrorism.
Chapter 2 explores terrorism rhetoric during Vietnam. Winkler argues that terrorism typically was linked to communism; the former was deployed more powerfully in South Vietnam, the latter in the United States. She suggests that references to terrorism were grafted onto the Cold War narrative, positing an American obligation to defend fragile democracies against aggression. Although Nixon once described antiwar demonstrators as terrorists, Winkler finds that presidents have been hesitant to use the term domestically. Carter (Chapter 3) also was hesitant to use the term internationally, even when confronted with the Iranian hostage crisis that threatened his presidency. Winkler argues that Carter should be viewed as a hero in a dramatic tragedy. Although generally well argued, equating the Shah's medical treatment with "an act of shame or horror involving a betrayal ... of humanity" (45) is a stretch. Regardless, Winkler's analysis demonstrates the political consequences of foregoing the power of the terrorist label.
Reagan's approach to terrorism (Chapter 4) is one of the most fascinating. Winkler argues that Reagan invoked terrorism in several contradictory ways. The new label state-sponsored terrorism enabled the targeting of disfavored regimes but led to questions about whether the U.S. should be on its own list. Later attempts to contrast it with insurgency (in the case of the Nicaraguan Contras) refocused terrorism on nonstate actors. Some rhetoric focused on the Soviet threat in order to unify disparate events and avoid the impression that the president was picking fights worldwide. This strategy exploited the Cold War narrative but failed to resonate domestically or internationally. A metaphor of terrorism as war, rather than crime, was extended via military options, particularly in the case of Libya. Although this chapter impressively examines these rhetorical shifts in reference to external advice, internal tracking polls, and changing political circumstances, a more chronological approach would have been clearer.
Chapter 5 treats George H. W. Bush's early refusal to use the term hostage as parallel to Carter. Eventually, however, Bush adopted hostage and other terrorist terminology (including accusations of murdering premature babies), as well as allusions to Hider, to justify a shift from diplomatic to military solutions in Kuwait. Chapter 6 explores Clinton's depiction of international terrorism as a countercovenant against God's will (and his hesitation to use the term to describe domestic violence), a framing which set the stage for Bush's post-9/11 response. Chapter 7's assessment of the current situation breaks little new ground for those following the topic, but its power emerges in comparisons with past deployments of the rhetoric of terrorism. Winkler finds that Bush's strategies, including simplification of motives ("they hate our freedom"), separation of domestic (isolated) and international (coordinated) actors, invocation of a war metaphor, and differentiation of Islam and Islamism, extend prior presidential rhetoric.
Winkler's well-developed, half-century narrative supports several interesting conclusions (Chapter 8). First, domestic terrorism is framed as the act of a lone individual while international terrorism is seen as a conspiracy led by unfriendly states. Both frames unify the national identity. Second, those presidents viewed as least effective in fighting terrorism (Democrats Clinton and Carter) actually experienced substantially fewer attacks and casualties per year (even when the 9/11 attacks are bracketed). While the reasons aren't fully explained, Winkler at least implies that treating terrorism as crime instead of war may account for this perception. Third, terrorists' motives are distorted systematically in order to avert sympathy. In fact, although nearly all attacks target business interests, the economic dimension is deemphasized and attacks are portrayed as random assaults on innocents. Why else would the World Trade Center have been such a priority target? Even the location of terrorism is distorted: Although most attacks occur in Latin America, Middle Eastern events are publicized due to the interests involved. These conclusions develop the identity dimension of the terrorism ideograph.
Winkler's study is not without minor shortcomings. First, the Cold War narrative is extended in terrorism discourses after the Cold War. While it seems true that terrorism is replacing communism in several ways, Reagan found it impossible to straitjacket terrorism as communism even before the Cold War ended. It seems that either the shift in circumstance forces the narrative to adapt or, more likely, the narrative form precedes (and is bigger than) the Cold War itself. Second, the book treats various manifestations of terror (used during Vietnam), terrorism (the primary topic), and terrorist as continuous. Given the significance of framing terrorism as unified or isolated events, however, it seems likely that variations on the root term might function differently. Third, Winkler acknowledges that public perceptions of terrorism partially shape presidential rhetoric, but she focuses on the reverse. Chapter 7, on the current Bush administration, suggests a greater public malleability than past presidents have faced. Finally, Winkler suggests that terrorism became ideographic during the Reagan administration. Interestingly, this suggests the possibilities that ideographs possess a life cycle and that locating an originary point can reduce the ambiguity of this theoretical concept. Being more explicit about the implications of the terrorism ideograph for the construct of the ideograph generally would have been useful.
Although Winkler seeks primarily to understand the particulars of terrorism as a negative ideograph, she also demonstrates the benefit of in-depth studies of particular ideographs. Hopefully, other scholars will be inspired to conduct similar studies, further demonstrating the practical benefits of this approach to research.
Missouri State University
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|Publication:||Argumentation and Advocacy|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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