‘Sticks and stones can break our bones, 

but words can really hurt us’

 By Joseph S. Nye Jr.

International Herald Tribune


Britain recently banned the words "war on terrorism." Late last year, the Foreign Office told cabinet ministers and British diplomats to stop using the phrase. According to the London Observer, the shift marks a turning point in British political thinking and underlines the growing gulf between British and American approaches to the continuing problem of violent Islamic militants.


Why would America's major ally, a country with troops fighting alongside us in Iraq and Afghanistan, take such an action?


Some attribute the change to cultural differences. Terrorism is an age-old technique, and although our shared language is replete with words like thug, assassin and zealot — all residual traces of ancient terrorist groups — it seems logically odd to declare war on a tactic.


Americans have a rhetorical tradition of declaring war on abstract enemies like drugs and poverty, while the British have focused on concrete opponents like the Irish Republican Army. The British also know that waves of terrorism often last a generation before dampening, and that it is best to be specific about immediate causes.


The basic cause of the British change, however, lies in a different analysis of the current problem. Both the United States and Britain have experienced horrific mass murders. The bombing of the London transport system by Islamist terrorists has made the date 7/7 as salient to the British as 9/11 is to Americans.


Moreover, the threat continues to grow. The head of MI5, the British security service, recently announced that it was investigating 16 major terrorist plots, and a poll revealed that 100,000 British Muslims believed the July 2005 bombings were justified.


When interrogating arrested terrorists, British officials have found a common thread. Al Qaeda and affiliated groups use a simple yet effective narrative to recruit young Muslims to cross the line into violence. While extreme religious beliefs, diverse local conditions, or issues like Palestine or Kashmir can create a sense of grievance, it is the language of war and a narrative of battle that gives recruits a cult-like sense of status and larger meaning that leads to action.


Al Qaeda focuses a large portion of its efforts on communication, and it has learned to use modern media and the Internet very effectively. Potential recruits are told that Islam is under attack from the West, and that it is the personal responsibility of each Muslim to fight to protect the ummah, or worldwide Muslim community. This extreme version of the duty of "jihad"(struggle) is reinforced by videos and Web sites that show Muslims being killed in Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir and Lebanon.


This grotesque message uses the language of religion as justification, but its dynamic is like an ideology that seeks to harness the energy from a great variety of grievances. British officials have concluded that when we use the vocabulary of war and jihad, we simply reinforce Al Qaeda's single narrative and help their recruiting efforts.


A recent conference of British and American experts at Ditchley Park in England concluded that while a hard-power response is necessary against the identified hard cores of terrorism, this might not amount to more than 10 or 20 percent of the whole defense effort. A larger effort should be devoted to public communication with mainstream Muslims.


Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once asked what metric we should use to measure success in a "war on terrorism." He concluded that success depended on whether the number of terrorists we were killing or deterring was greater than the number the enemy was recruiting.


By this metric, British and American intelligence estimates are not encouraging. While there have been important tactical and operational successes in the near term, we are losing the longer generational struggle because the number of new recruits has been increasing rather than declining. Small wonder, then, that even Rumsfeld finally expressed discontent with the term "war on terrorism."


Rumsfeld was not alone in this conclusion. A little over a year ago, U.S. State Department officials sent a memo to the White House suggesting a shift in vocabulary. President George W. Bush rejected the change.


More recently, when British reporters asked the State Department spokesman about American reaction to the British decision to drop the words, they were told "it's the president's phrase and that's good enough for us."


But a phrase that was helpful in rallying popular support in the first phase of a struggle, and may serve a president's political interests, is not good enough for the generational struggle to win hearts and minds of mainstream Muslims and hinder Al Qaeda's recruiting. It's time for the White House to realize that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can really hurt us.