CDA and the events of 11 September 2001
P.A.Chilton at UEA.AC.UK
Wed Sep 12 17:39:29 UTC 2001
Below and as an attached file are some reflections on the the events of 11
September 2001. It is possible that some of our American colleagues will not
concur with some of the remarks. I want to assure them, however, of our
sincere sympathy and ask them to enter into dialogue. This is a Critical
Discourse Moment, if ever there was one. It seems to me that only a radical
critique, and transformation, of the discourse environment in which
powerful states operate will resolve issues of international security and
Notes on 11 September 2001
1 To my American friends. I can only guess how you as Americans are
feeling after yesterday. We as mere spectators are shocked to a degree and
can only send sympathy. But also we feel concern for the world. How will the
President and the State Department respond?
2 It is almost trivial to speak of discourse analysis in the
circumstances. But remember--what happens next will be the outcome of talk
and text (cabinet meetings, public statements, media representations,
), and the text and talk will be governed by cognitive
and interactive habits. Under stress pre-wired patterns of thought come into
their own. Policies and the orders to execute them are linguistic acts with
psychological, social and ethical underpinings. These we can at least try to
be aware of as potential impediments to just and effective response.
Commentators have expressed surprise that US intelligence did not foresee
the attack. Why not? The intifada has been raging, Palestinian anger
mounting, and American policy in the Middle East increasingly criticised.
Iraq is bombed almost daily by British and American planes. The extent to
which the US is perceived as a regional and global perpetrator of economic
and political injustice is simply ignored. One does not have to defend
inhuman actions, one certainly does not need to claim the Palestinians are
the perpetrators, to make the point that numerous groups around the world,
but particularly in the Middle East, are being handed the materials to
concoct their own scripts of self-legitimation.
Consider too the conjuncture with the promotion of national missile defense.
The disavowed word "national" is used advisedly here--national in motive and
intention it surely is. The perceived aim--to construct an impenetrable
protective shell around the continental United States. The perceived
motive--to have a free hand for American action world-wide.
An d consider the reach of globalization, which is perceived as sheer
americanisation. The pivots are money military might and money, symbolised
by the Pentangle and the twin Towers of the center of world trade.
Ignoring these largely semiotic facts makes the "intelligence" gathered
irrelevant. Actually, semiotics is just a fancy term for sensible humane
political intelligence and understanding.
2.2 More context
How do American policymakers now make sense of the crisis? The context of
conceptualisation has clear historical components. Some of these are being
invoked overtly, others surely are covertly present in a historical chain of
text and talk.
Strikes at the American symbolic heartland--the president's residence--took
place in 1812. "America invulnerable" has been a constant in policy ever
since (cf. Chace and Carr 1988). In conscious historical memory, Pearl
Harbor is salient--and almost instantaneously invoked, for its similarities
and its differences, on September 11 2001. For Brits, there is
mythologization of the Blitz, and for the US ambassador in London, the story
of Brits and Americans standing shoulder to shoulder in World War II.
Equally of interest, in my view, is the following. In 1946 the question What
to do about the Communists? became answerable when Kennan formulated policy
in language that used a set of cognitive (metaphorical) structures which
cohered with concepts of national security, and with (i) fundamental human
conceptualisation of secure spaces, (ii) fundamental human fears about the
penetration of secure spaces, and (iii) the virtually paranoid belief in the
ubiquity of threat (evil). Cuba is perhaps the most salient consciously
shared memory of penetration of America's sphere and threat to the American
soil. September 11, 2001 must be the most terrifying of breaches. How it is
conceptualised, coped with psychologically and politically, not just by the
US but by the rest of us, is crucial.
2.3 Understanding the attackers' script
This will probably be sidelined, though some International Relations theory
does say we should not. The point is, those in the "West" have no clear
grasp they are confident of. This is dangerous; it is analogous to the
incomprehension of the Soviet Union at the end of WWII, but more hazardous.
Kennan, the State Department, the national Security Council, Rand
Corporation and others gave us the communist threat, containment and
deterrence. These concepts cannot now be crudely re-applied mutatis mutandis
in the new world situation.
It would be naïve to think the workings of the attackers' mind/discourse can
be easily surmised and simply stated. But let us hazard a few suggestions.
Metonymic thinking, and processes of culture-relative symbolisation are
involved. One thing, one detail of a script or frame stands for a whole
complex gestalt. The White House stands for America--in the perception of
both Americans and potential attackers. Metonymic thinking is probably
central to all forms of terrorist thinking and self-legitimation. Suppose
you believe that your culture, land and wealth are under threat from
American companies, American consumer products, American globalized
entertainment--you cannot attack the individual agents of implementation, so
you attack something that is metonymically liked, that "symbolises", stands
for these implementing agents that you perceive to harm you economically,
psychologically and territorially. New York, Manhattan stands for American
culture, money, global financial reach. The World Trade Centre not only
stands (on the skyline) for New York, it stands for the intangible tentacles
of money and culture. As for American military power, you cannot attack
American bases, aircraft, ships, vehicles, so you attack a building that
stands for it. You are not attacking the world trade centre and the pentagon
(just) because you hope to physically eliminate the controlling centres of
So much is obvious. Less obvious is the possibility of other psychological
levels of symbolisation involved. The Tower as an ancient symbol of power
and arrogance. Five-sided forts are militarily ancient; five-pointed stars
have supposedly magical properties in certain semiotic systems. (M. Casaubon
Credulity & Incred. (1672) 71 By certain pentacula, and seals and characters
to fence themselves and to make themselves invisible against all kinds of
arms and musquet bullets. W. G. S. Excurs. Vill. Curate 128 Had I but shown
him the pentangle of Solomon
, how the fiend would have howled at me in
vain.) This is risky territory. But consider: the pentangle of Solomon, the
state of Israel and the metonymy, surely at work in this crisis, whereby
Israel is linked to the United States.
Note also that "The Pentagon did so and so, says so and so" involves a
common metonymy in which the building stands for the people and the
organisation that work there. Of course, bombing the building will kill the
people in it and damage the organisation, but is there some mental process
by which harm can be denied because you can think "I am just attacking a
There is much more, of far greater importance than all this, that we in the
West do not begin to understand, whether through psychological, political,
cultural or discourse analysis. In particular we do not understand the
conceptualisation and discourse of holy war, jihad, intifada, and most
crucially the discourse and conceptualisation of self-sacrifice and the
3 American response: Discourse-conceptual strategies
Ordinary and Americans and policy makers will reach for pre-existing
discourses/conceptualisations. Here are some of the probable patterns of
thought and talk.
3.1 Categorize the Crisis
Essentially, the process is one of metaphorical mapping from source to
3.1.1 It's a war. Media headlines, comment by reporters, and reported
comment of ordinary people use phrases like: "it's a declaration of war on
America". If the crisis is conceptualised as a war, the entailments are:
there is a state waging war against us, we must defend the US against that
state, we must retaliate against that state, we must use military power...
The premise (source domain) can be unfounded. But the pressure to adopt this
frame of thought can force its adoption and lead to militarisation, false
identification of targets, provocation of states (e.g. in the Arab world),
escalation of war.
3.1.2 It's World War II. Historical analogy. Common in foreign policy
thinking, because it seems to have a rationale, but basically metaphorical.
Thus Sadam Hussein was Hitler. The analogy for the September 11 attack is
Pearl Harbor, but more "symbolic". In general, the September attack
announces a World War II analogue. If the crisis is so conceptualised, the
entailments are: we must not appease (a strong strain in American foreign
policy principles), we must stand by our allies the British (conversely),
somebody is Hitler (and if so anti-Jewish and anti-Israel?), the patriotic
blitz mentality will prevail
3.2 More discourse/conceptual strategies
3.2.1 Polarise. America represents "The West", "The Free World" (this is the
Cold War expression), "Free Democracies" (the more recent phrase, adopted by
the British prime minister). The conceptual process restores the bi-polar
geopolitical map, familiar to American strategists, and anyway cognitively
"natural", since a war prototypically has just two sides. There is a
ready-made script for bi-polar conflicts. It is also a metonymic
process--whereby one element (the USA) stands for another entity--a supposed
collectivity labelled "free democracies", whose real-world referent,
however, is not determinate. What is wrong with polarisation? The entity
"free democracies" cannot be simply determined, nor can its complement set.
It risks recycling old (Cold War) scripts that will be dysfunctional. It
buys into manichaean irrationality.
3.2.2 Rally round the flag. No need to comment on this
The Senators meeting
President Bush on 12 September are reported to have "spontaneously" broken
into "God Bless America". Presidential speeches will seek to stimulate
patriotic feeling. This is doubtless humanly understandable and necessary:
its dangers are that its conceptual corollaries are: militarization,
polarization, revenge scripts.
3.2.3 Take Revenge. Warnings have already been made against adopting "an eye
for an eye" legitimations of military response. The dangers are that this is
a pre-existing script, requires no detailed ethical justification for many
people i.e. it is itself regarded by many as ethically axiomatic), responds
to "gut" feelings. Further, it can be bolstered by rationalisations taken
from International Relations discourse/concepts--specifically Realism, the
doctrine according to which expression of power is what maintains
international order. Supported in popular discourse by phraseology: "force
is the only thing they respect".
3.2.4 The global policeman, and the outlaw script. These are already
perceptible in public discourse. They are old Cold War metaphors, in which
the US is supposed to be the sole arbiter and enforcer of global law and
order, because it is the sole superpower. The cultural roots of the outlaw
script make it powerful domestically. America is the sheriff, the terrorist
concept assimilates easily to the wild west outlaw concept. If America is a
policeman, or the sheriff, the entailments are: there is someone breaking
the law, who must be chased and caught. In the language of the wild west
used by Bush in his early post-crisis speeches--"we must hunt down those
folks responsible". Then "punishment" must be inflicted.
3.2.5 Evil. Some discourse presupposes an entity labelled "Evil", or the
"forces of Evil". Maybe this is conceptually linked in American domestic
discourses to various religious discourses/concepts.
3.2.6 I leave on one side aside categorisations such as "it's world war
III", "it's the end of the world" and "it's a James Bond movie", potent as
these scripts might be for certain individuals and groups.
3.2.7 Find a target. This is the most serious problem. Since there is no
evident perpetrator at the beginning of the crisis, effort will be put into
asserting that there is an identifiable, unitary enemy. The preference will
be for that enemy to be a state. All the scripts and concepts likely to be
mobilised posit some perpetrating agent or agents. The pressure to identify
specific real-world referents is enormous;the credibility of the presidency
depends on it.. There will be a two-track discursive solution to this
problem. One well-tried discursive route is: like the communist after World
War II, the terrorist is one whose centre is everywhere and whose periphery
is nowhere. The enemy will be imagined is lurking everywhere. That schema
entails the "tightening" internal security checks. The other, and extremely
dangerous, conceptual strategy is another essentially metonymic mental and
discursive move. President Bush already on 12 September stated that the US
would "make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and
those who harbor them". This is a discourse move of the utmost significance,
one that seems designed to adjust conceptualisations. It was repeated by
several spokespersons, including Colin Powell, during the day of 12
If the premise is the metonymic mapping of perpetrator onto person(s)
harbouring the perpetrator (the latter notion awkwardly lexicalised during
the discourse as "harborer"), then the entailments are very serious. Given
the militarization, the container, and other scripts likely to work
together, "harbourers" can be targeted because they are identified with the
perpetrators. It is likely that Afghanistan's hosting of Osama bin Laden is
at issue here. Discursive effort will be put into establishing bin Laden as
the perpetrator, whatever the evidence. It is of course possible that some
state could in fact be protecting, promoting and sponsoring attacks. The
serious point here, is that even if evidence for such connections is not at
hand, the metonymic semiotic is powerful enough, given other factors (such
as policymakers' perception of an urgent need to satisfy public feeling) to
drive retaliatory attacks on some superficially plausible target. There is a
record of this type of thinking leading incorrect identification of targets.
Proportionality would be overridden. The political and military consequences
could be disastrous.
3.3 Close the container
In my view the CONTAINER schema (its elements are inside, outside, centre,
periphery) is the fundamental conceptual source for "national security". (On
such schemata, see Johnson, The Body in the Mind, etc.)The human mind is
possibly prewired for spatial relations (up-down, trajectory, contained
spaces); in any case territorial enclosure is embedded historically in the
discourse of communities, and metaphorized in the defence doctrines of
nation states, and in the discourses of national sovereignty. For a couple
of decades some scholars have pointed to the irrelevance of thinking based
on the notion of the impenetrable shell of defence. Yet (national) missile
defense is the continuing and potent manifestation of this type of
The discursive knee-jerk will be to close the container ("tighten
security"). If the state and its security are a container, the entailments
are: close the container, seal routes of entry (and maybe exit), establish a
"roof" to defend against missiles, establish internal surveillance to defend
against subversion and undermining. This logic, involving billions of
dollars of expenditure on research, an inestimable cost in ill-will, has
lead to an unaccomplished an possibly unaccomplishable quest for a defense
"shield". The September 11 attack made this logic, as so far implemented,
totally beside the point. Nonetheless, it is probable, such is the cognitive
strength of the container schema, that policymakers will simply seek to stop
the gaps, by seeking to install low-level anti-aircraft detection and
defense systems for key installations. This already the case for some
Why this line of thought will lead to unworkable policy? The technology of
fool-proof and complete anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense is in doubt.
The "holes" in the container uncountable and unforeseeable. There would be
endless expenditure--and it should be noted contracts for the
military-industrial complex, which, it can still be argued, drive the entire
vicious circle. More importantly, it leaves untouched the problem of
political causation--what drives people to select the US as a target in the
first place. Indeed, it would ratchet the up the mechanism of provocation by
reinforcing the perception that America is seeking further invulnerable
dominance. It would leave the search for political and economic solutions
low on the priority list.
12 September 2001
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