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29 October 2014
by Richard Jackson

Islamic State and the language of terror

In a public context saturated with lurid daily warnings about the threat of home-grown terrorists, beheading plots and radicalised foreign militants, Tony Abbott recently intensified his rhetoric about the threat posed by Islamic State (IS) even further, calling them an "apocalyptic death cult". In doing so, he recalled the immediate days after the 9/11 attacks when George W. Bush warned that a global network of diabolical terrorists had launched a "new age of terror" against all "civilised nations".

Apart from being more than a little over the top, the danger of this kind of public language is that it simply adds to already over-inflated levels of public fear about possible terrorist attacks. At the very least, this does the work of the terrorists, magnifying their psychological force far beyond their intentions or actual capabilities to inflict harm on Australian citizens. It creates and sustains what sociologists call a moral panic – a situation in which an exaggerated threat by an overly broadly defined group comes to be seen as endangering the social order itself. After all, in reality, there has not been a single death caused by a terrorist attack on Australian soil in the past three decades at least. On the other hand, domestic violence, gun crime, car accidents and various diseases kill a great many Australians every single day without threatening a breakdown of the social order.

More seriously, the fear caused by this kind of language, and its obvious distortion of reality (IS is one of several local insurgent groups in Iraq trying to establish its own state, not a cult trying to bring about the end of the world), undermines the kind of thoughtful deliberation required when making security policies which could have far-reaching effects long into the future. Fear, exaggerated threats and hyperbolic rhetoric are not conducive to the thoughtful examination of evidence, the consideration of alternative arguments and the weighing up of different policy options. Instead, they are more likely to result in hasty overreaction, ill-considered and counter-productive actions, and even self-fulfilling prophesies such as the original attack on Iraq in 2003.

Moreover, in the fraught atmosphere created by such rhetoric, and the simplistic moral divisions drawn by the language of "good Western nations" versus "evil Islamic terrorists", it becomes extremely difficult for any individual or group to question or oppose government policies without appearing to be disloyal, traitorous or weak. Apart from the inherent restrictions this imposes on free democratic debate, and the consequent risk of passing bad legislation because few are prepared to risk asking questions, such rhetoric obscures the complex reality of the situation. Western foreign policy in the region has not always held to such rigid distinctions; frequently, yesterday's "good guys" have become today's "bad guys" – and visa versa.

This reveals other dangers inherent in the morally-infused, black and white language currently being used. Simply, it limits future options which we may want to keep open. As we discovered in Afghanistan, describing the Taliban as "evil terrorists" can be an obstacle later in the conflict when you need to negotiate an orderly withdrawal. Who knows, in the real world, after we've fought them unsuccessfully for several more years, we may need to negotiate with Islamic State, or factions within it, about prisoner exchange, troop withdrawals or a ceasefire. This will be difficult after we've labelled them an "apocalyptic death cult".

Related to this, such language undermines morality and makes human rights abuses more likely. In Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee, notes that "once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians". He goes on to describe the terrible violence that is then inflicted on those designated as "barbarians". We saw this process at work in Abu Ghraib after years of referring to the enemy as "evil", "animals" and "savages". The same process can be observed today in relation to the language used to describe IS and those who choose to join it. In part, the problem with this kind of dehumanising and demonising language is that most people cannot distinguish the intended nuances. In the process, all Muslims become potential "evil terrorists" and suffer suspicion and discrimination.

As a longstanding scholar of political language, and having written extensively about the many disastrous effects and costs of the language used about terrorism after 9/11, I would urge both politicians and the media in Australia to avoid repeating the same mistakes in relation to the current situation. It is not only dishonest and lazy to use such language, it is profoundly unhelpful in attempting to address a real problem in a manner that won't make the situation worse and cause a lot of harm to a great many innocent people.