The Plague of Terrorism: More Than a Metaphor
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
The Plague of Terrorism: More Than a Metaphor
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Story Stream
recent articles

In his 2017 New Year address, Pope Francis urged world leaders to fight against “the plague of terrorism.” The Pope was not the first to make use of this metaphor, of course. Equally serious sources speak in similar terms. While The Economist magazine has measured with charts the “plague of global terrorism,” The National Interest has identified terrorism as the “plague of the 21st century.”


The use of plague as a metaphor for terrorism is not limited to religious leaders and magazine writers. Just ask readers of The Plague, Albert Camus’s postwar novel about German-occupied France that celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The story is as simple as it is sobering. In the near past, a plague settles upon Oran, a city in then-French Algeria. Quarantined from the rest of the world, the city must first accept its new normal before it finds an effective form of resistance. As the city’s body count climbs during the torrid summer months, the efforts at stopping it seem derisory.

Even the novel’s narrator, Dr. Rieux, minimizes the impact of the sanitation teams in halting the plague’s advance. Tellingly, Rieux believes that resistance begins with language. In his world, words matter as much as acts. He and his fellow resisters believe that finding the right words to express their thoughts is an ethical duty. The man responsible for organizing the sanitation teams, Jean Tarrou, insists that all of humankind’s troubles “spring from our failure to use plain, clear-cut language.” Similarly, Rieux tells his readers that “so as not to play false to the facts, and not to play false with himself,” he will strive for objectivity. He is someone who “recognizes what has to be recognized.”

What Rieux does not recognize, though, is that language, no matter how simple and clear it appears to be, is inevitably infused with metaphors. They mold our recognition of “what has to be recognized,” just as they shape our response to those recognitions. Not only do we live our lives by metaphors, as linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson famously observed, but we also kill and die by them. “Metaphors may create realities for us,” they argue, “especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense, metaphors can be self- fulfilling prophecies.”

Metaphors in the real world

With the rise of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, we have seen several instances of the power of metaphors to burrow into public discourse and public policy. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush described American policy as a “crusade” against terrorism. Critics denounced the metaphor of “crusade” as divisive and destructive — as one that reinforced the notion that we were engaged in a clash of civilizations. Trying to correct course, the Bush administration then glommed onto the phrase “war on terror.” In effect, they replaced one misbegotten metaphor with another. Not only did Bush confuse a political phenomenon, terrorism, with an emotional state, terror, but he also declared we were at war with it. As Bruce Hoffman observed, the United States had launched itself into “a virtually open-ended struggle against anyone or anything that arguably scared or threatened Americans.”

As recent events remind us, there are still other metaphors that can make or break careers as well as lives. Sebastian Gorka insisted that he stepped away from his never fully defined position as White House advisor — and was not pushed out, as seems to be the case — because U.S. President Donald Trump did not use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech on Afghanistan. Trump tirelessly harped on this phrase during his presidential campaign, lambasting the refusal of the Obama Administration and Hillary Clinton to use it. “To solve a problem,” he explained, “you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name.”

"Every bit of that phrase is analytically unhelpful,” observes Will McCants, the well-known scholar on the Islamic State. It may well be that McCants, though, gives Trump too much, or too little, credit. Rather than a tool of analysis, the phrase is, well, a metaphorical Molotov cocktail, meant to incite fear and spark division.

But if we compare terrorist acts to plague outbreaks, we discover that some metaphors are more equal than others. For example, a growing number of researchers are applying epidemiological models to the study of terrorism. Such an approach, argues Bryan Price, a terrorism specialist at West Point, “encourages policymakers to see terrorism for what it is (an all but inevitable facet of modern life that can be managed but never fully eliminated), and not what they wish terrorism to be (a national security problem that can be solved, defeated, or vanquished).” Whereas Price finds cancer as a useful metaphor, others focus on casting terrorism in the role of plague. As Paul Stares and Mona Yacoubian argue, this particular epidemiological analysis offers several advantages. Not only does it present terrorism as a dynamic and shifting phenomenon, one shaped by its particular environment and host, but it also offers strategies for containing, if not eradicating it.

It is unclear whether such approaches can be translated into effective counter-terrorism strategies. What does seem clear, though, is the need to recognize how metaphors can either raise or debase public debate and government policy. We cannot escape their use, but we must attend to their uses and abuses. For Camus’s contemporary, the philosopher Simone Weil, paying attention entails the effort to shed the metaphors that shape the way we see. This is too much to ask of most human beings, of course, but at the very least it is an effort we should expect from those in power.