After bin Laden's Death, the Clash of 'Terror' Terminology Continues

Politicians are united, but the linguistic politics of 9/11 won't go away any time soon

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Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, is the U.S. still engaged in a "Global War on Terror"? It depends whom you ask.

Nearly 10 years after 9/11, Republicans and Democrats continue to use different terms to describe international anti-American terrorism, and the death of bin Laden is reminding us again of the linguistic politics at play.

During his time in office, Obama has sought to do away with Bush-era terminology. His Department of Homeland Security stopped using the phrase "Global War on Terror," which President Bush coined after 9/11, and replaced them with the term "Countering Violent Extremism." For this, Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took some criticism.

The goal was to reject the notion of an ideological war, in which, neocons firmly believed, America was engaged -- though President Bush had made it clear the U.S. was not at war with Islam, especially in its mainstream form.

When he announced bin Laden's death Sunday night, Obama made no mention of "radical" "extremism," "war," or "Islam," except to note that:

As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

House Republicans, by contrast, used all those words Monday afternoon as they reacted to the news in a press conference at the Capitol.

"The death of Osama bin Laden is an important moment in the war against radical terrorism and extremism," House Speaker John Boehner said.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor mentioned the shared goal of "defend[ing] the American people against the spread of radical Islam and the threats that it continues to pose to our country."

To revisit the politics of these words, briefly: They reflect different interpretations of 9/11 and different opinions on how the U.S. should have responded.

Some see the U.S. as engaged in an ideological war against radical Islam, and any assertion to the contrary as naive, relativistic, and weak in the face of a direct attack on U.S. soil. Others see such a "war" as preposterous and neverending, taking on unnecessary religious connotations that alienate Muslims.

In many ways, the meaning of 9/11 has been the dominant political question of the last decade, and it plays out whenever politicians describe 9/11's aftermath.

There's no question that political enemies are united in the wake of bin Laden's demise, in a way they haven't been since 9/11 itself. But the big, underlying disagreements are showing themselves nonetheless, and they haven't gone away.

Image credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP