Speaking of Terrorism: Gordon Brown’s War of Words

The language employed to describe, explain, and condemn terrorism matters. The words used by politicians to discuss violence not only help structure the ways in which terrorism is understood, but also have a role in stimulating emotional responses to particular attacks, whether past or projected. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the language used in reference to terrorism helps determine available policy options at particular historical junctures, as the phrase ‘War on Terror’ did, while also (at times imperceptibly) standing in the way of other plausible courses of action.[1] Given the importance of these rhetorical struggles in which politicians attempt to persuade and convert, how are we to assess the present British prime minister’s use of language?

Constructing Terrorism

Notwithstanding the occasional metaphorical extravagance – as in the prime minister’s depiction of Al-Qa’ida as a ‘cancer’[2] – Gordon Brown’s government has tended, by and large, towards a relatively restrained discourse of terrorism. In the linguistic output they have produced – both written and oral – terrorism has been positioned consistently and carefully as a product of specific, identifiable, social and historical contexts. The simplistic, aggressive, vocabulary of ‘evildoers’ and ‘crusades’ that infused the immediate post-9/11 political climate (if more conspicuously in the US than UK) has been refreshingly absent under the current administration.  Instead, it has been replaced by a more sophisticated engagement with the range of possible motivations that inform those that would wield violence.

By opting consistently for this more cautious register, the Brown government has returned debate over terrorism to a political realm of decisions and interests: positioning the actions of terrorists and counter-terrorists as choices amongst alternatives.[3] They have also moved us beyond the crudest formulae for dehumanising our ‘others’: the metaphysical, Manichean, and essentially moralised post-political language of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that condemns without ever really explaining. At its most developed (as in the recently re-issued CONTEST Strategy), we now encounter a multi-causal conception of terrorism as the product of ideological, geopolitical and technological variables.[4] In more truncated opinion pieces and public speeches, however, the language translates far more frequently into a concern with failed or failing states, or when the focus turns to domestic politics, with the radicalisation of young people. Let us briefly consider each of these in turn.

Following the unsuccessful Christmas Day attack on Detroit, recent interest in failed states has, unsurprisingly, centred on Yemen, as ‘…both an incubator and potential safe haven for terrorism’.[5] This vocabulary presents a welcome departure from that of the ‘rogue state’ which preceded it, whose use was explicitly condemnatory in its employment of that most basic of state/person analogies implied in the term ‘rogue’. Importantly, this new vocabulary also legitimises an engagement with the complexities of internal political dynamics for those seeking to understand the emergence of global, systemic, problems or threats. And, by opening space for this sort of intellectual reflection, the differences between Iran, North Korea and Cuba, for example, may be far more readily recognised. The corollary of this discursive shift, however, as critics have noted, is that the presumed linkage between failed states and terrorism also implies a paternalistic impression of other (non-Western) states as, in effect, deviations from an ideal norm of responsible statehood. An ideal norm embodied, of course, by the UK and its allies.[6]

Similarly, the current emphasis on  understanding radicalisation should be welcomed as an attempt to position terrorism as a product or symptom of other processes and variables, rather than as an isolated phenomenon. The danger of this particular rhetorical schema, however, lies in the potential it poses for reproducing rather crude divisions of Muslims into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Despite denials of such readings by the advocates of this explanatory framework, and despite the complex understandings of terrorism proffered in more detailed presentations, this language risks splitting Muslims between those that are radical or extremist on the one hand, and those that are moderate on the other. Such a division flattens the diversity of Muslim and Arab identities into two readings. As such, this second trope replicates a connection between terrorism and particular national, racial or religious others: a connection between terrorism and ‘the foreign’. In this sense, an emphasis on ‘failed states’ and ‘radicalisation’ threatens to re-institutionalise a link between terrorism and immigration that surfaced in British political discourse following 9/11, but seemed subsequently, and desirably, to fall out of favour.[7]

Constructing Danger

If the present language of terrorism offered up by the government is both preferable to its antecedents for its political and historical nuance, yet still problematic in its linkage of violence with ‘foreignness’, further work remains to be done in discussions of the threat posed by actors such as Al-Qa’ida. Too often the risk of terrorism is magnified and couched in provocative phrasing with projections of future danger presented as simultaneously calculable and vast by representatives of Brown’s administration. For the then-home secretary’s assertion that ‘the greatest security threat we face comes from Al-Qa’ida and related groups and individuals’[8] to be accurate, for example, a geopolitical shift of quite radical proportions would be required. Terrorism has caused far fewer deaths than many alternative bringers of harm – direct or otherwise – and the likelihood of this changing soon is, bluntly, remote.

What is more worrying, however, is the interweaving of these exaggerated discussions with the claims to novelty underpinning the ‘new terrorism’ thesis so promiscuously recycled in the post-9/11 era. This thesis – one that asserts a recent movement towards new forms of structurally de-centralised, geographically de-territorialised, and ethically de-sensitised mass casualty terrorism – offers a partial, selective reading of the history of unconventional violence. More importantly, it legitimises ever more extensive expansions of anti-terrorist mechanisms to counter a spectre that is always on the horizon.[9] As such, a more cautious and reflective account that considers terrorism comparable to (rather than unlike) threats faced in the past would be preferable. This would be an account shorn of the wide-eyed hyperbole permeating claims like ‘the current international terrorist threat is quite different from the terrorist threats we faced in the past’.[10]

Constructing Security

The Brown government has tended primarily towards a more sophisticated language of terrorism than one might have expected, albeit one that has still over-emphasised the threat. Of more interest than this, however, is the manner in which this language has been woven into – and indeed has facilitated – a broader discourse of security within which considerable rhetorical progress has been made. Here, the present leadership appears largely to have embraced the lessons of contemporary academic debates over the concept of security,[11] replacing hitherto dominant conceptualisations of this term with a far more nuanced and potentially productive understanding. How?

In the first instance, the prime minister and those around him have regarded security as a complex political value. As the 2008 National Security Strategy makes clear, it is far too simplistic to reduce security to a condition marked solely by the absence of external military threats to the state and infrastructure.[12] New challenges – economic, environmental and so forth – continue to emerge. These challenges operate at a variety of levels: the individual, the communal, the national, and the global. Secondly – and nowhere is this more prominent than in discussions of Afghanistan – the administration has also repeatedly approached security as a near-indivisible phenomenon. Presented in this way, security becomes a positive-sum game, such that one’s own safety relies on, rather than conflicts with, that of others. In the prime minister’s words to the UN General Assembly: ‘A safer Afghanistan means a safer world’.[13]

This double effort to reframe security is amongst the most important rhetorical manoeuvres attempted by this government. If accepted as credible by domestic and international audiences, it may facilitate a rethinking of contemporary challenges such as terrorism, helping not only to question the ostensible exceptionality of this violence, but also to locate it within a framework of interconnected political contexts. Underpinning this movement, of course, is an internationalist political agenda (albeit a limited, incomplete one) that this administration has articulated repeatedly: an agenda stressing the importance of co-operative approaches to the resolution of global problems, be they terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or economic crisis. Yet, to be truly plausible, further consistency in the use of this language would appear to be necessary, not least in relation to the risk posed by this threat vis-à-vis other dangers. Achieving this could well represent one of the most significant achievements of this government and/or its successors.

Lee Jarvis
Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Department of Political and Cultural Studies
Swansea University


[1] Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005); Lee Jarvis, Times of Terror: Discourse, Temporality and the War on Terror (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009).

[2] Gordon Brown, ‘Speech on the strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan’, 29 April 2009.

[3] Lee Jarvis, ‘The Spaces and Faces of Critical Terrorism Studies’, Security Dialogue (Vol. 40, No. 1, 2009).

[4] Home Office, ‘The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism’, March 2009.

[5] Gordon Brown, ‘Vigilance is key to tackling terrorist threat’, 1 January 2010.

[6] Pinar Bilgin and Adam David Morton, ‘From “Rogue” to “Failed” States? The Fallacy of Short-Termism’, Politics (Vol. 24, No. 3, 2004), pp. 173-74.

[7] Jef Huysmans and Alessandra Buonfino, ‘Politics of Exception and Unease: Immigration, Asylum and Terrorism in Parliamentary Debates in the UK’, Political Studies (Vol. 56, No. 4, 2008).

[8] Jacqui Smith, ‘Oral Statement to Parliament’, 24 March 2009’.

[9] See Jonny Burnett and Dave Whyte, ‘Embedded Expertise and the New Terrorism’, Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media (Vol. 1, No. 4, 2005).

[10] Home Office, op. cit.

[11] For excellent recent overviews of the relevant debates on security, see both: Paul D Williams (ed.) Security Studies: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2008) and Alan Collins (ed.) Contemporary Security Studies 2nd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[12] Cabinet Office, The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an Interdependent World (London: The Stationery Office, 2008).

[13] Gordon Brown, ‘Speech to UN General Assembly’, 23 September 2009.

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