The War on Terrorism: Term Definition

The ‘War on Terrorism’ as it is commonly referred to, is a phrase coined by United States government officials and is primarily used to justify the military or political initiative de jour or when the Bush administration believes it needs to circumvent the Constitution. The often-used phrase is generally defined as the current conflict between the U.S. and radical Islamic factions. As the ‘war’ has progressed, the Bush administration has lost much confidence among the American public who now better understand what the rest of the world has known since Iraq was first invaded. Bush’s foreign policy is based on greed, was promoted by lies, and has cost the U.S. worldwide respect that may never be recovered.

Immediately following and as a reactionary response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush stated the country’s intent to initiate a ‘War on Terrorism’ which he characterized as a prolonged battle against those that would employ terrorist actions along with the nations that enabled them. In addition, the U.S. Congress gave formal authorization to the President on 18 September 2001 to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons” (U.S. Code 2002). Following this proclamation, Bush made his infamous ‘dead or alive’ speech and on 10 October 2001, offered a list of America’s 22 most-wanted terrorists (White House, 2001a).

During his State of the Union Address on 20 September 2001, Bush presented his position to the American people and the assembled body of Congress. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated” (White House, 2001b). On 13 November 2001, in the first such occasion since World War II, Bush signed into law an executive order that allows military tribunals to use any actions they deem necessary. The U.S. military could now imprison for an indefinite period of time and without representation, any person of foreign nationality who is simply alleged to have associations with terrorist activities. For example, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, legal advisors tied closely to the ideology of the Bush administration within the Justice Department’s Office advised Bush that the U.S. was not legally bound by the U.N. Charter or international laws with regard to rules of engaging a perceived enemy.

These views were echoed by Alberto Gonzales, then-White House legal advisor for the President and now Attorney General of the U.S. He also advised President Bush that he did not have to comply with the Geneva Conventions in the handling of prisoners, or ‘detainees’ in this war on terror (Calame, 2006). This opinion, shared by legal counsels to the President, applied to not only those directly affiliated with al Qa’ida but to the entire ruling party in Afghanistan, the Taliban, because, as they argued, Afghanistan was a ‘failed state’ (Mayer, 2005, p. 32). The Bush administration chose to follow the advice of this jaded, self-serving legal opinion in spite of strong disagreement by the U.S. State Department which cautioned against disregarding U.N. and international laws as well as covenants of the Geneva Convention. The Bush administration was head-strong in its cavalier use of military force and lack of respect for laws agreed to by the world’s community of nations (Mayer, 2005, p. 34).

The ultimate culmination of the rhetoric and selective legal reasoning regarding the ‘War on Terror’ was Bush’s order of the U.S. military to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan, an illegal act on many fronts. Bush has constantly maintained that these actions against sovereign countries were legal. First, he argues, because of existing language within the UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq, and secondly, the invasions are an act of self-defense which international law permits. However, according to Richard Perle, a top official of the U.S. Defense Policy Board and advisor to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “international law… would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone” (Burkeman & Borger, 2003). Yet, this would have been “morally unacceptable” according to the Bush administration.

Critics of the invasion charge that no nation has the right, or the authority based on the UN Charter, to determine for itself whether or not Iraq was in conformity with UN rules or to take it upon itself to enforce them. The U.S. has also been widely criticized for applying a double standard in its reasoning. The logic of this action is in opposition to previous U.S. policies as it supplied chemical and other weapons systems to Iraq in the 1980s to use against Iran. When the U.S. was looking for the alleged weapons of mass destruction, the popular joke being circulated was ‘the U.S. knows Iraq has weapons because they have the receipt.’ The Bush administration also used illegal, clandestine threats against other nations in an attempt to coerce their support for the war. A report published by the Institute for Policy Studies analyzed what it termed the ‘arm-twisting offensive’ by high-ranking U.S. officials to garner support. Bush describes the nations that supported him as the ‘coalition of the willing,’ but as the report concluded, it could be better expressed as a ‘coalition of the coerced’ (Anderson et al, 2003).

The phrase ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ likely could be applied at least in part to all of the conflicts between nations throughout the history of the world. The current Iraq war, however, will be forever labeled as ‘the war’ that was based exclusively on lies. The truth died many deaths prior to any human casualties since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. During one of the 2000 presidential election debates, George Bush voiced his opposition to the idea of ‘nation building’ then as president invaded a sovereign country that had not attacked first. The Bush administration used the fear of terrorism as a political tool to garner public and congressional support for the invasion of Afghanistan, the country where the infamous Al Qaeda architect Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding. Bush quickly thereafter justified sending the bulk of the military to Iraq because it was also a terrorist threat because of its massive stockpiles of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Of the 13 terrorists linked with the 9-11 attacks, nine were from Saudi Arabia (none from Iraq) who obtained passports from Iran and took orders from an Afghanistan-based organization. No weapons, no link to terrorism, and no legal reason to attack. However, Bush decided to invade Iraq for causes deemed unacceptable to the vast majority of other nations so he repeatedly relied on and used false information to justify it.

A close examination of the Patriot Act, which this paper achieves more so than members of Congress prior to voting, confirms that those that champion civil liberties as such are justifiably alarmed. It was quickly accepted by Congress just a month and a half following the September 11 attacks. Pressure to pass anti-terrorism legislation prevailed over the need to understand what the 342 page Act entailed and the Act became federal law in October of 2001. Provisions of the Act violate the Constitution and tear down the freedoms for which true patriots have fought and died. Critics of the Act suggest that is in contradiction to the tenants of the First Amendment. As an example, a citizen can be identified and treated as a terrorist if they are breaking federal law such as trespassing on public property during a protest when a federal official is injured, not by that person but simply injured during the protest.

This allows any person who was exercising their constitutional right of free speech to be arrested and detained indefinitely without the benefit of legal counsel, a violation of the Fifth Amendment. Though the Justice Department disagrees with this assessment of the Act, it is conceivable that a person could be prosecuted as a terrorist if that person played a part, however unintentionally, or is present while another person is injured while making a political statement. The Justice Department insists that individuals cannot be arrested if they are involved in a peaceful protest. The Department claims that domestic terrorism regulations instituted by the PATRIOT Act “is limited to conduct that breaks criminal laws (which results) in death and was committed with the intent to commit terrorism” (Ward, 2002). The ‘intent to commit terrorism’ is an ambiguous phrase open to wide interpretation as are many aspects of the Act which causes many to question to what extent civil liberties are affected by it. The dispatching of the due process of law has been the most visible of the civil liberties that have been curtailed by the Act. The reason is that due process is not only an individual right in the U.S. but when this right is violated, it results in the immediate and horrendous perpetuation of human suffering as well.

While that Act was being formulated, The Justice Department requested that it contain provisions that allowed the Department to detain suspects indefinitely without having been charged with a crime. The Act, in its final version, allows for an individual to be detained for an indefinite time for violating a slight technicality of immigration law. If the suspect for whatever reason cannot be immediately deported because, for example, they are legally in the country but had an insignificant flaw in their documentation, that individual can literally be lawfully detained for life. The attorney general simply must certify once every six months that this person is a ‘threat’ to national security (“U.S. Detention”, 2002: 472).

Most Congressmen admit to not have read the Act before voting to pass it but those voting in favor were overwhelming. Only one of 99 Senators (Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold) and 66 of 423 Representatives voted against the law. The PATRIOT Act, as many citizens and legal experts alike, have argued, violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. This includes the freedom of speech and assembly (First Amendment); the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure (Fourth Amendment); the right to due process of law (Fifth Amendment); the right to a speedy, public, and fair trial along with the right to counsel and to confront the accuser, (Sixth Amendment), the freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment) and freedom from punishment without conviction (13th Amendment). (Savage, 2006).

One of the most obvious tactics in the ‘War on Terror’ and the PATRIOT Act is the widespread use of racial profiling, described as when law enforcement officials use race, ethnicity, religion, and even color of skin to determine which persons are more probable to commit a crime such as terrorism. The term ‘War on Terror’ has been continually invoked to justify breaches of the Constitution as well as the basic civil liberties of citizens and foreigners alike. The invocation of this phrase has repeatedly prohibited rational discussions regarding civil injustices such as profiling individuals based on their race. Therefore racial profiling has continued unabated including the profiling of young black men since September 11, 2001. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that “one cannot condemn racial profiling because to do so will hinder the war on terrorism and undermine national security” (McDonald, 2001).

The popularly stated position is that racial profiling is necessary because not using this tool of law enforcement would compromise the effort against terrorism thus sacrificing national security. This argument is fundamentally flawed because it erroneously presupposes that racial profiling is an essential element of this emotion-evoking endeavor. However, the reverse is accurate. Profiling, as a tactic employed by law enforcement, redirects important assets, estranges and enrages prospective allies, and, most importantly, is contradictory with the uniquely American concept of equality and freedom. Undoubtedly, if profiling in the name of terrorism has not been proved effective, the profiling of black citizens in the name of ‘getting tough on crime’ is not effective as well and causes more harm, ultimately, than whatever good may come of it. “Racial profiling in any manifestation is a flawed law enforcement tactic that is in direct conflict with constitutional values” (McDonald, 2001). It is important at this point to note that feelings of mistrust and suspicion aimed at Arabs or Muslims as well as blacks or Hispanics with regard to racial profiling by law enforcement officials are infrequently motivated because of blatant racism. Instead, the motivation stems from the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the 9/11 attacks and the fear of future terrorist actions, a widespread phobia that has been fueled by a federal government so as to further its own agenda.

Libertarian organizations such as the Civil Liberties Union claim that the Bush administration has a proclivity for secrecy and rejects the concept of transparency. The PATRIOT Act has reproved its agenda for the “outright removal of checks and balances” (Etzioni, 2004: 9). Conservatives are alarmed as well including former Republican Representative Bob Barr, who is best known for leading the attempt to impeach President Clinton. Barr had led a group named “Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances” which focused solely on challenging the renewal of the Patriot Act in 2004 (Lakely, 2005). This multifaceted PATRIOT Act modified numerous laws including the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, Right to Financial Privacy Act, Fair Credit Reporting Act, and Immigration and Nationality Act among many others (Electronic Privacy Information Center, 2003).

Proponents of the PATRIOT Act are quick to point out that government intrusions into the private lives of citizens such as wiretapping and accessing records have not produced any substantiated allegations of abuse of power by the government. Abuse, according to the Bush administration, is the illegal use of surveillance information, for example, to blackmail an individual or to document the conversations of an ex-wife. Collecting data on innocent people, according to an official of the Justice Department, Jeffrey Breinholt, “does no harm unless someone decides to act on the information, put you on a no-fly list or something. Only a serious error could lead the government, based on nothing more than someone’s bank or phone records, to freeze your assets or go after you criminally and you suffer consequences that are irreparable. It’s a pretty small chance” (Gellman, 2005).

The Bush administration’s explanation of abuses of power relating to provisions of the PATRIOT Act misses the point, however. What bothers critics is the concept of government officials routinely intruding into the lives of private citizens. The power of intrusion is the abuse, abuse of Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. Former conservative congressman Barr said “the abuse is in the power itself. As a conservative, I really resent an administration that calls itself conservative taking the position that the burden is on the citizen to show the government has abused power, and otherwise shut up and comply” (Gellman, 2005). Jameel Jaffer, an attorney for the ACLU, agrees with this conservative viewpoint which gives the argument against the Act credibility because the two, the ACLU and conservatives are generally on opposing sides of most issues. Jaffer believes that First Amendment rights are suffering a “profound chilling effect” from the government’s use of surveillance techniques. “If the government monitors the Web sites that people visit and the books that they read, people will stop visiting disfavored Web sites and stop reading disfavored books. The FBI should not have unchecked authority to keep track of who visits Al-Jazeera’s Web site or who visits the Web site of the Federalist Society” (Gellman, 2005).

Congressional representatives and the Bush administration have put the burden of proof on the public that provisions within the PATRIOT Act lead to abuse of power. The proof is obvious and it is the responsibility of every patriotic citizen to inform the citizens in their area but their representatives in Washington as well. Wadsworth Publishing surveyed experts in the field of criminal justice. According to its findings, 95 percent believed the PATRIOT Act was passed without thoughtful consideration of the impact this legislation had on public policy. Most, 74 percent, responded that the PATRIOT Act violated the rights of individuals and a large percentage of these felt that laws already on the books, if implemented, could adequately and equally protect the country from terrorism (Thompson Wadsworth, 2003). One can surmise from these findings that those experts surveyed supported the government’s endeavor to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks but also felt that the Act is a threat to the nation’s freedoms. Many of the provisions it contains are inconsistent with the Constitution specifically the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth Eighth, and 13th Amendments, the violation of the First Amendment arguably the most egregious.

In President Bush’s handling of the war on terror, three facts stand out: Bush launched a sustained military action against an enemy that had not attacked the U.S., the rationale for the invasion of Iraq was not based on fighting terrorism and it has provided fresh examples of U.S. brutality for al-Qaeda recruiters. The illegal war in Iraq has caused terrorist attacks to increase as well as the loss of many thousands of Iraqi and Allied lives and as a consequence and has cost the U.S. dearly as far as international respect is concerned. Additionally, this ‘war’ has monetary costs reaching into the hundreds of billions of dollars which has crippled the U.S. economy and will continue to for many years in the future. It has caused the U.S. national debt to skyrocket to more than eight trillion dollars at present, which will have to be paid instead of spending federal revenues on healthcare, welfare programs, education, defense systems, etc. The U.S. military is crippled as well, both literally and conceptually. It could not respond to a crisis of any size which potentially could result in a disastrous situation. Maybe most importantly, the ‘war on terrorism’ has cost American citizens yet another piece of their civil liberties via the PATRIOT Act and other restrictive governmental policies. The biggest loser in the ‘war on terror’ is the U.S.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sarah; Bennis, Phyllis & Cavanagh, John. “Coalition Of The Willing Or Coalition Of The Coerced? How the Bush Administration Influences Allies in its War on Iraq.” (2003). Web.

Burkeman, Oliver & Borger, Julian. “War Critics Astonished as US Hawk Admits Invasion was Illegal.” Manchester Guardian. (2003). Web.

Calame, Byron. “Rewriting the Geneva Convention.” New York Times. (2006). Web.

Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The USA PATRIOT Act.” (2003). Web.

Etzioni, Amitai. “How Patriotic Is the Patriot Act? Freedom versus Security in the Age of Terrorism.” New York, Routledge. (2004).

Gellman, Barton. “2005 The FBI’s Secret Scrutiny.” Washington Post. (2005). Web.

Lakely, James G. “Conservatives, Liberals Align Against Patriot Act.” The Washington Times. (2005). Web.

Mayer, Jane. “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition.’” The New Yorker Magazine. (2005).

MacDonald, Heather. “The War on the Police … and How it Harms the War on Terrorism.” Supra. Vol. 7, I. 16. (2001). Web.

Savage, Charlie. “Bush Challenges Hundreds of Laws.” The Boston Globe. (2006). Web.

(The) White House. “President Issues Military Order Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism.” White House Press Release: Office of the Press Secretary. (2001). Web.

(The) White House. “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People.” United States Capitol Washington, D.C. (2001). Web.

Thompson Wadsworth. “Thompson Wadsworth Criminal Justice Survey.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company. (2003).

U.S. Code Collection. “Title 50 Chapter 33 § 1541: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution 2002.” Cornell Law School. (2002). Web.

“U.S. Detention of Aliens in Aftermath of September 11 Attacks.” The American Journal of International Law. Vol. 96, No. 2. (2002). pp. 470-475.

Ward, Elaine N. “USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.” The University of Texas at Austin. (2002). Web.


Book Evaluation

The book How Patriotic Is the Patriot Act as well as similar publications explaining the hidden consequences of the ‘war on terrorism’ was the inspiration for this essay. The author, Dr. Amitai Etzioni is the Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington D.C. He has published 24 books, served as an advisor on domestic affairs during the Carter administration and was named among the top 100 American intellectuals in the as measured by academic citations in the book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline by Richard Posner. Among Etzioni’s numerous awards was the John P. McGovern Award in Behavioral Sciences and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In How Patriotic Is the Patriot Act, Etzioni utilizes crime figures and polling data to provide evidence that security measures can be a threat to liberty. The steps taken by the government under the guise of protecting its citizens following the terrorist attacks of 9-11 is chronicled. He reviews the levels of security regarding electronic surveillance then balances the benefits against privacy concerns, discussions the idea of national identification cards and the concept of nation-building such as in Iraq as a method to combat terrorism. Though Etzioni agrees parts of the PATRIOT Act are practical and vital for national security but finds many parts disconcerting. He reserves his strongest comments for the idea and implementation of nation-building. He argues that the U.S. should respect the rights of individuals while waging the ‘war on terror’ and not involve itself in unnecessary conflicts using terror as justification.


The interview involved a retired ex-publisher of a politically motivated magazine in a small town. John Kelly is 67 years-old and a lifelong, dedicated Democrat. John was in the military during the Vietnam era but saw no combat. He has closely followed the actions of the government following 9-11 and is concerned about the loss of liberty in the pursuit of safety. John is a friend of my Dads who eagerly volunteered for the interview.

Is the nation safer than is was prior to 9-11?

No. Acts of terrorism are up worldwide. Invading Iraq has only strengthened the resolve of terrorists and has been al-Qaida’s greatest recruiting tool.

Why did we rally attack a sovereign country that has not attacked us?

The reasons keep changing, WMD, remove a tyrant, bring democracy to Iraqi’s, stabilize Bagdad until a political solution is reached, etc. I think Bush went into office looking for an excuse to invade Iraq, to finish the job his father started in 1991. He felt he was clearing his father’s legacy but has destroyed his own in the process.

Isn’t giving up a small amount of freedom such as wiretapping international telephone calls and emails worth being safer from the threat of radical terrorist actions?

No. Those that would sacrifice liberty for freedom deserve neither, not my words, Ben Franklins. We cannot allow fear to dissolve the freedoms that were won with the blood of many thousands of Americans throughout the history of the country.

How should the government approach terrorism without encroaching on the civil liberties of its citizens?

We must not be afraid to talk to our enemies and resolve issues across a table rather than with intimidating actions. You don’t stop a bully by pushing them, you must become their friend.


“Iraq War US and Coalition Casualties”
“Iraq War US and Coalition Casualties” (2008).