One of the primary themes of the early coverage of the attacks
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was whether they should
be considered terrorism or acts of war. While most acts of "terrorism"
have elicited responses that rely on criminal justice procedures
(as in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 Oklahoma
City bombing, in which the culprits were arrested, tried, and sentenced),
"acts of war" belong to a different category and historically demand
a much greater scope and degree of force in response. Therefore,
it matters crucially how these attacks are labeled.
Unlike "war crimes," which are defined by U.N. conventions, acts
of war are more open to interpretation. However, the term has traditionally
been reserved for militant acts by nation-states: one nation-state
commits an act of war on another, with or without a formal declaration
of war, thereby threatening a nation's "territorial integrity, political
independence or security" (North Atlantic Treaty). As such, the
term "act of war" belongs to the geo-political language of governments,
armies, distinctions between military and civilian targets, etc.
Since the attack on Pearl Harbor is widely considered an act of
war, the parallels that many observers tried to draw between that
event and the events of 11 September work to shift the latter attacks
from the realm of "crime" into the realm of "war."
In response to an act of war, an armed retaliation at the level
of the nation-state has historically been seen as justified. However,
there is less consensus on the proper use of state force in cases
of terrorism, with many people arguing that a military response
not only feeds an endless cycle of violence but often plays into
the terrorists' hands. Given this absence of consensus, it is significant
that George W. Bush, who initially had refrained from calling the
attacks "acts of war," used the term on 12 September as he prepared
the U.S. for what he calls a "war on terrorism."
Questions to Consider
- What is at stake in calling the attacks "acts of war," "terrorism,"
"mass murder," or other terms that might be applied? What kinds
of responses does each label seem to elicit or justify?
- Do the attacks threaten the territorial integrity, political
independence, or security of the United States? If yes, in what
specific ways? How might the U.S. as a nation best counter those
specific threats? What new threats would military action introduce
to the citizens of the U.S.?
- If war is declared on enemies other than nation-states, how
are we to make sense of the term? Do earlier "wars" like the war
on poverty or the war on drugs offer insights into how a war on
terrorism might be waged, and to what ends?
- Is the geo-political language of war obsolete? Given that the
U.S. has not formally declared war since WWII, and that Article
V of the NATO charter has never been invoked, what meaning does
"war" still have? What does Bush accomplish by employing such
- What enemies would a war on terrorism include? What enemies
would it exclude? Would the war extend to all areas in which terrorists
operate, such as the Basque region or Northern Ireland?
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