08 February 2010

Article: Terrorism's Cause and Cure: The Rhetorical Regime of Democracy in the US and UK

Fahed Al-Sumait, Colin Lingle, and David Domke, "Terrorism's Cause and Cure: The Rhetorical Regime of Democracy in the US and UK" ("Critical Studies on Terrorism", 2 [1], April 2009: pp. 7-25).

Abstract: "Political actors and commentators in the global 'West' have often used two key rhetorical approaches to explain terrorism. On the one hand, they ascribe attacks to terrorists' violent hatred and resentment of democracy. On the other hand, they assert that democracy is the essential panacea for terrorism. These two approaches are linked through a process of discursive 'articulation' that inhibits public debate and disagreement. Specifically, the ideological power and unassailable goodness of 'democracy' become the simultaneous, self-evident cause of and cure for terrorism. Using five major terrorist events from 1993 to 2005, the article illustrates how political leaders and news outlets advanced a 'rhetorical regime' that suppressed oppositional discourse and rationalised innately anti-democratic policies. One result of this rhetorical regime is the hegemonic maintenance of power through new representations of global terrorism."

The full text of the article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpts: "By establishing the unassailable goodness of democracy in associative ways, it became possible to pre-empt broader discussions about terrorists' motives. Any attack became an irrational objection to the cluster of incontrovertible blessings of freedom, peace, and health, instantly invalidating alternative explanations. That is, since we 'know' what the problem is (irrational hatred), we can simply acknowledge it and move on to 'fixing' it. [...]

"This seemingly mortal conflict compelled specific types of responses, such as the need to protect the sanctity of democracy by invoking international alliances and, later in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, taking military action toward this end. [...] Manichean visions always demand action to defend the good – in this case the state and its values, particularly democracy – and to rid the world of danger and evil. [...]

"Over time, the terrorism versus democracy binary grew increasingly complex, eventually developing into four principal variations, distinguishable according to their emphasis on democracy as a cause of or a cure for terrorism. We identified two central 'cause' variations in the media and two 'cure' variations. The first of the 'cause' variations was the foundational idea we have presented so far: certain targets were attacked because they are democracy. The subsequent 'cure' would be solidarity among the world's democracies, an all-for-one ethic that would align the goals of many nations in the interest of safety.

"The second cause, related to the first, was that the absence of democracy also leads to terrorism. The obvious cure for such an absence is the establishment of democracy in 'trouble spots' in order to defeat terrorism. These variations were intricately cross-linked, inasmuch as causes and cures may reinforce or even generate one another (for example, if the 'cure' of establishing a democracy leads to new insurgent groups, it establishes a further cause for terrorism). [...]

"[I]f the terrorists hate democracy, democracies must band together. In much of the early discourse, this simple anti-democratic feeling was used as a relatively blunt instrument. But it also became the basis for further variations of the terrorism versus democracy articulation. [...]

"We lay out these cause/cure linkages to demonstrate how powerful this rhetorical regime can be. To state it plainly: in the context of a violent attack, by invoking either the presence or the absence of democracy, the rhetorical regime allows political actors to capitalise on a moment of democratic solidarity, even in pursuit of policies that strain traditional democratic values, both on a pragmatic level (e.g., deliberation, rational-critical debate, and fostering an informed public) and on an ideological level (e.g., the right to self-determination, privacy protections, and human rights). [...]

"One needs only to look at how such discourses have impacted the perceived legitimacy of democracy in the Middle East, even among
self-declared democrats in the region. Since 11 September and subsequent wars, the connotations and representations of 'democracy' have become complicit with perceived US imperialism and an inherent incompatibility with many of the forces in the region. Thus, 'democrats' in the Middle East now face an exceedingly difficult task of promoting participatory governance and deliberative institutions without associating too closely with the term 'democracy'."

The authors of this article unfortunately failed to take into account statements made by terrorists themselves that causally link democracy to "jihad" (something I studied for a paper in 2004).

Fahed Al-Sumait is a doctoral student, Colin Lingle is a doctoral student, and David S. Domke is Professor and Chair, all in the Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle.

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