“Language is a terrorist organization, and we stand united against terrorism.” So began Collateral Language, a book I co-authored with a group of my colleagues shortly after the 9/11 attacks. We wanted to call attention to the fact that in the aftermath of such a traumatic event, language can become a battlefield in a new kind of war – a war to leverage the event itself in the service of a response that stretches well beyond specific military campaigns.
9/11, we suspected, would become a key moment in a much longer story of political and social transformation. Language, we suspected, would be not only a casualty of 9/11, but also the currency through which these transformations would be sold to the American people and a central mechanism through which they would be carried out.
We didn’t know how right we were.
Ten years later, the U.S. is on an accelerated path of imperial decline (something that global analysts like Immanuel Wallerstein realized long ago), partly a result of its own militaristic choices and partly a result of broader structural shifts in the global economy. The U.S. decision to wage an open-ended “war on terrorism,” a decision lubricated by heavy doses of patriotic and alarmist rhetoric, has hastened this decline. The U.S. response to 9/11 has also had direct and often traumatic effects on people across the globe, including hundreds of thousands of immediate victims of war, counterinsurgency, torture, and dislocation. The human cost of 9/11 and the U.S. response is literally incalculable.
More generally, vulnerable populations at home and abroad are experiencing ever more acutely what it feels like to bear the brunt of a system where the economy is itself a form of war. It is a system that the French thinker Paul Virilio calls “pure war,” encompassing not only war itself but also the process of always preparing for war. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it the “military-industrial complex,” but over time it has come to extend to other sectors of the economy through the militarization of scientific research, entertainment, and information technology.
As with the economy, so with language. In hindsight we can see that language has done more than simply serve to justify a series of violent responses and associated policy changes. Language has become an integral part of the very machinery that continues to hijack our economy, our politics, our identities, and our future.
If all of this stretches beyond 9/11, 9/11 still remains a central touchstone shaping the process. For American society, 9/11 was and is a kind of frozen moment. Imagine it as the center point of an hourglass. Into the top of the hourglass was poured an entire history the details of which many Americans were largely unaware, a history of covert actions, unholy alliances, and imperial attempts to control the destiny of an entire region.
As the sand spilled out the bottom of the hourglass in the form of global war and its “collateral language,” it began to combine in new and unpredictable ways, but all of it remained marked by its association with that frozen moment. The word “terrorism,” for example, became almost indistinguishable from 9/11 itself. The word “evil” became fused in popular imagination with the figure of Osama bin Laden and later, thanks to one clever speechwriter, with an entire “axis” of characters who served as ready justifications for the reality of pure war. The word “freedom,” invoked more than forty times in President George W. Bush’s 2005 State of the Union Address, came to be understood primarily as the thing the terrorists hate. And so on.
A look around the political landscape today reveals the extraordinary and far-reaching ability of an event like 9/11 to shape language by pressing existing words into service for new purposes. Consider the word “robust.” Normally used to describe a healthy body or a rich cup of coffee, it has now become part of a linguistic arsenal designed to euphemize and normalize torture (“robust interrogation”). Soon it begins to find its way into other spheres of everyday conversation, and whether we realize it or not, our identities become a bit more militarized.
By far the best evidence of 9/11’s linguistic impact, however, is the growing centrality of the word “security” across all levels of society. When the Washington Post published the results of its “Top Secret America” investigation in 2010, for example, it revealed how the proliferation of national (or “homeland”) security projects and bureaucracies had quietly but decisively created what amounts to a new national infrastructure that is largely insulated from public scrutiny and democratic control.
This is only one part of the security picture, however. Security is now the idiom through which we make sense of entire aspects of our lives, from our bank accounts to our public health to our computers and information networks. It has arguably become the single most influential political and social term of the 21st century, spreading its fine particles into every nook and cranny of what we experience as reality.
In a moment of imperial decline, perhaps a metaphor from the country’s past can help us understand where we have arrived. We have become the latter-day equivalents of the old frontier sheriff. We imagine ourselves to be on the front lines of a daily struggle to “secure” our lives and families. In reality, though, we are being used. The frontiersman was used as a tool of colonial expansion, genocide, and resource extraction. Today we are being used to colonize ourselves.
A critical look at the language of “security,” in other words, reveals what is 9/11’s most insidious and damaging impact on American society: its success at helping make war, economy, science, and technology impossible to disentangle from one another. The more we hear about security, the more insecure we feel and the more power we cede to those who claim to be able to protect offer us round-the-clock protection. The more we see the world as a series of faceless threats, in turn, the slimmer the prospects for democracy become. Language, in other words, really is a terrorist organization.