The Presidential Rhetoric of Terror: The (Re)Creation of Reality Immediately after 9/11



This article examines six presidential speeches/statements ranging from Bush's remarks on the night of the terrorist attacks to his (in)famous State of the Union address declaring Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “Axis of Evil.” Using qualitative content analysis to investigate closely the six speeches for their “reality creating” and “persuasive” rhetoric, the study scrutinizes Bush's allegorical creation of the “identity” of the enemy. David Zarefsky's concept of the “Power of Definition” and Carl Schmitt's notion of the “state of exception” are applied to the shifting rhetoric of Bush's speeches. The article concludes that Bush used increasingly strong language after the September 11 attacks to create a war-like aporia and that Bush's rhetoric set the limits of discursive definition, and hence created the parameters of thought regarding the issue of terrorism.

The president is—with the exception of the vice-presidential running mate—the only U.S. politician elected by the entire nation (Crockett 2003; Tulis 1996). As such, the president's rhetoric, even if on a purely symbolic level, is extremely important to the polity. Presidential statements are often the springboard for national debate, solidarity, or outrage. Tulis (1996) argues in his classic The Rhetorical Presidency that Woodrow Wilson transformed the presidency and the government by advocating an executive that governed via persuasion and an appeal to universal principles. By the same token, Crockett (2003) views Wilson as a popular “leader/interpreter” who performs as “an agent of regular change” (467). Some scholars have even suggested that Wilson placed rhetorical leadership on such a privileged level that he actually sacrificed the power of executive action (Eden 1996).

Given the importance of presidential rhetoric, scholars have attempted to measure and/or analyze its influence in a variety of ways. Many studies suggest that the president is the central figure in the government and that he1 has a decisive role in shaping the legislative agenda (Kingdon 1995). Presidents rely on their inherent ability to persuade both the Congress and the public (Kernell 1997; Neustadt 1990; Smith and Smith 1994). Of course, presidential rhetoric is a key element of his persuasion, and many scholars have suggested that strategic rhetoric can help the president get his agenda passed (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Canes-Wrone 2001; Cohen 1995; Hart 1987; Kernell 1997; Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey 1987). Effective rhetoric can also drive the overall agenda of the nation, as Grossman and Kumar (1979), Sorenson (1994), and Covington (1987) show. By contrast, some writers have suggested that the president cannot move opinion much, and even where he can, it is more effective at the domestic level than when directed toward events on the “world stage” (Edwards 2003; Edwards and Wood 1999).

Notwithstanding the few perspectives that minimize the importance of presidential rhetoric, some recent work has greatly illuminated the role that such rhetoric has in the effective government of the nation. Whitford and Yates (2003), for example, offer an excellent study showing that the president's rhetoric shifted the U.S. Attorney's implementation of the “war on drugs.” Additionally, some have argued convincingly that the president has a “little appreciated role as rhetorical leader of the economy” (Wood, Owens, and Durham 2005). In an exceedingly perceptive piece of scholarship, Thomas E. Nelson (2004) argues that presidential “framing” is an excellent tool to drive the policy debate. Hence, even if a person's core beliefs remain the same, a president can shape the way citizens determine the outcome of a certain policy issue (582). Framing issues can help shape the debate. However, it is unclear whether framing—or any rhetorical strategy—can actually change people's minds (Edwards 2003). In fact, Nelson's argument indicates that explicit attitudes are rarely changed, yet the perception of the policy position is altered. In other words, “attitudes are seldom changed on the basis of a single message” (Zarefsky 2004, 608).

David Zarefsky (2004) makes the fair point that while quite rigorous, some of the scholarship regarding presidential rhetoric might be taking a slightly simplistic view of how that language is used. Presidential rhetoric, according to him, is not based on a strict sequence of cause and then effect (608). Instead, Zarefsky suggests that a “key function of presidential rhetoric is to define social reality” (607) [emphasis added]. Of course, it is difficult to measure the “effect” of this definition of social reality. Yet on Zarefsky's account, presidential rhetoric literally closes hermeneutic doors.

Nowhere is this “power of definition” clearer than in President George W. Bush's responses to the events of September 11, 2001. In those responses Bush helped shape the social reality concerning the tumultuous events. Applying Zarefsky's concept of the “presidential power of definition” to Bush's speeches immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 reveals an astonishing example of the shaping of “reality” and the closing of hermeneutic doors. Analyzing six presidential speeches/statements ranging from Bush's remarks on the night of the terrorist attacks to his (in)famous State of the Union address declaring Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “Axis of Evil,” this study traces the transformation of Bush's somewhat hesitant rhetoric directly after the terrorist attacks to the fully developed war-time language used in his “Axis of Evil” speech. In doing so, Bush's rhetorical creation of the “identity” of the “enemy” will be scrutinized. This article also uses qualitative content analysis to investigate closely the six speeches for the “reality-creating” rhetoric Bush employed during the aporia of the events of 9/11.

By analyzing this aporia, I intend to contribute to discussions of the sovereign rhetorical moment that occurred after 9/11 using Carl Schmitt's concept of “the political” and the “state of exception.” In 1922, Schmitt (1985, 5) argued that the power to define is key to a government and wrote that the sovereign “is he who decided on the exception.” I argue that Schmitt's sovereign “state of exception” enhances Zarefsky's understanding of the “power to define” and is especially suitable to identifying the reality-shaping strategy underlying Bush's post-9/11 rhetoric.

Zarefsky's Theory of Presidential Rhetoric

Zarefsky's (2004) argument that the president has the power of “definition” should not be taken as the power to “persuade” in the standard way this is understood. Rather, the power lies in setting the limits of debate and/or reality. In fact, Zarefsky agrees with Edwards (2003) that explicit votes or opinions are not often changed by presidential rhetoric. Yet Zarefsky argues that presidential rhetoric has an even more important role: the role to shape reality. On his account, social reality is not a predetermined set of ideas; it is a contingent set of social indicators. In this sense, all people participate in the creation of reality and its political ramifications. This “reality creation” is especially true for the president.

Naming a situation provides the basis for understanding it and determining the appropriate response. Because of his prominent political position and his access to the means of communication, the president, by defining a situation, might be able to shape the context in which events or proposals are viewed by the public. (Zarefsky 2004, 611)

Social reality is therefore not fixed—especially social reality that is mediated through news outlets and government spokesmen. “Reality” is fluid, and it is often shaped by presidential rhetoric (Miroff 2003, 278-80; Rubenstein 1989).

The president's greatest power in shaping reality rests in the power of definition. To “define” something is to set the limits of cognition regarding that concept. Zarefsky (2004, 612) articulates his theory of “definition” in the following way.

To choose a definition is, in effect, to plead a cause, as if one were advancing a claim and offering support for it. But no explicit claim is offered and no support is provided. The presidential definition is stipulated, offered as if it were natural and uncontroversial rather than chosen and contestable.

Hence, to “define” is to assert without argument that something is “true” or “real.” It is to claim, in a Jeffersonian sense, that such statements are “self-evident.” Of course, at the moment of definition those terms often become the parameters of definition. It is through this moment that the president creates a kind of intellectual sovereignty. As both the chief executive and the national spokesperson, the president occupies a unique position in which to create a moment of singular definition.

Zarefsky (2004) offers four main strategies that illuminate how presidents shape the definition of reality. The first is “association”: the linking of two concepts together. This is seen when the 9/11 “attacks” were defined immediately as an “act of war.” Association is also used in phrases such as “the war on poverty” or “the war on drugs.” The second approach can be viewed as the opposite of association: “dissociation.” This is when a president separates out two ideas once associated together. Zarefsky (612) notes that a good example of dissociation is Kennedy's use of the term “real peace” in the context of his arms control agreement (as opposed to, one might suppose, a “false” peace). Other examples of dissociation are Reagan's use of the term “truly needy” to help him justify his cuts in welfare and Johnson's “fairness of outcomes” to justify the beginnings of affirmative action (616-17). The third strategy is “condensation symbols,” which “designate no clear referent but ‘condense’ a host of different meanings” into one phrase or slogan (613). Good examples of condensation symbols are phrases like “Save Social Security First” and “Support Our Troops.” Zarefsky's final strategy is “frame shifting.” This is when a president shifts ex post facto the context of a debate. A recent example of this is the Bush Administration's justification of the Iraq war. The rationale for the invasion of Iraq shifted (Bush 2002a; White House 2002) from weapons of mass destruction to “spreading democracy” (Bush 2003; Sanger and Shanker 2003).

Zarefsky (2004, 613) admits that these are not the only rhetorical techniques employed by presidents, but they represent a useful framework by which to analyze presidential definition making. In developing his theory, Zarefsky addresses concerns that scholars of presidential rhetoric sometimes make sloppy causation claims. To help to counter this, Zarefsky asserts that a researcher should try to study rhetoric using counterfactuals so that one can (to a certain extent) test the degree of presidential “definition-setting” (618).

In this study I hope to show that Zarefsky's method is especially helpful in analyzing the shifting and evolving rhetoric of President George W. Bush in the days immediately after September 11, 2001. Within the framework provided by Zarefsky, I analyze six separate presidential addresses: (1) the president's initial remarks offered on the night of September 11, 2001; (2) Bush's brief statement to the nation on September 12th, 2001; (3) Bush's presidential radio address dated September 15, 2001; (4) the president's “Islam Is Peace” speech given on September 17, 2001; (5) Bush's address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People on September 20, 2001; and (6) Bush's State of Union /“Axis of Evil” speech delivered on January 29, 2002.

The first five speeches represent Bush's initial public responses to 9/11.2 The last (“Axis of Evil”) speech portrays a more contemplated and planned response to the attacks. This speech is particularly interesting because it occurs after the fall of the Taliban, and it represents, to a certain extent, the foreign policy under which the United States still operates.3 The analysis here focuses on the evolution of three key themes: the link between security, safety, and solidarity; the narrative of divine providence and destiny; and the struggle to locate an “enemy.” An analysis of these themes shows the way President Bush's rhetoric helped define the “reality” of the events of September 11. Given the shattering moment that was 9/11, I argue that Bush's rhetoric represented a specific form of hermeneutic sovereignty, one that can almost only be employed by a figure like the president—a governmental figure that signifies a unified nation.

Security, Safety, and Solidarity

The president's initial focus after 9/11 was on reassuring the nation and making it feel safe. This feeling of safety is intimately connected to notions of national security and solidarity. On the night of September 11, Bush (2001a) stated:

I want to reassure the American people that the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks . . . I've been in regular contact with the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the national security team and my Cabinet. We have taken all appropriate security precautions to protect the American people. Our military at home and around the world is on high alert status, and we have taken the necessary security precautions to continue the functions of your government. We have been in touch with the leaders of Congress and with world leaders to assure them that we will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans.4

These comments were essentially the first public words Bush spoke after the attacks on New York and Washington. Immediately after the attacks, Bush felt the need to alert the nation that the government was working properly and that he and his security team were in control. This is especially interesting because despite calling the events an “attack,” Bush does not rush into emergency procedures. He stresses that the government is working. In this sense, Bush expressed his sovereignty by declaring the standard “functioning” of the government.

Shifting rhetorical gears a bit, Bush (2001b) began his September 12 comments with the following statements:

I have just completed a meeting with my national security team, and we have received the latest intelligence updates.

The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war. This will require our country to unite in steadfast determination and resolve.

Bush continued,

[t]he federal government and all our agencies are conducting business. But it is not business as usual. We are operating on a heightened security alert. America is going forward, and as we do so, we must remain keenly aware of the threats to our country. Those in authority should take appropriate precautions to protect our citizens.

But we will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms. This morning, I am sending to Congress a request for emergency funding authority, so that we are prepared to spend whatever it takes to rescue victims, to help the citizens of New York City and Washington, D.C. respond to this tragedy, and to protect our national security.

I want to thank the members of Congress for their unity and support. America is united[emphasis added].

Here, Bush again asserts that the government is working to secure the nation and to restore order to New York City and Washington, D.C. Also, Bush shows the beginnings of associating security and safety with a feeling of national solidarity. The country must “unite” and remain “steadfast” if it wants to stay secure. Even at this early date, the rhetoric of conformity is employed to create a narrative with a limited set of truth-value options. “Unity” is made equivalent to “safety;” hence, to be outside of that unity is to threaten the safety of the nation.

The fact that Bush, as the president, presented unity as strength provides a prime example of Carl Schmitt's determination of the sovereign: the ability to define the difference between “friend” and “enemy.” For Schmitt, this distinction had real “concrete” meaning, for, in his words, “[t]he concepts friend, enemy, and battle have a real meaning; they obtain and retain this meaning especially through their reference to the real possibility of physical killing” (Schmitt 1985, 4). The underside of Bush's rhetoric of “unity” and “strength” is the real possibility of bloodshed. “Unity,”“safety,” and “strength” are not just empty political slogans; such rhetoric—when connected to the sovereign decision to define the “enemy”—is attached to actual violence. This violence is the Schmittian “impact” of the use of such sovereignty (Frye 1966, 820). All this begins to highlight the pertinence of Schmitt's theory for understanding post-9/11 rhetoric.

In addition to defining “unity” in a certain way, Bush also offers a type of what Zarefsky calls “frame shifting” in this passage. The frame shifting here is not, however, of the standard kind. Bush asserts that the government is at heightened security, and it is not simply “business as usual.” Yet he also says we must “go forward” and not allow the attackers to “restrict our freedoms” or “challenge our way of life.” This can be interpreted as a kind of “exceptional” state of non-exceptionalness, a normal state of emergency. This is the exact moment that Schmitt's notion of the state of “exception” becomes relevant and useful in fleshing out Zarefsky's ideas a little further. Schmitt (1985) famously wrote that the “[s]overeign is he who decides the exception” (5). This is a moment of “lawful lawlessness” where the sovereign itself gets to define the power of life and death, of legal and illegal (Cooper 2004, 515). It is the instant that sovereignty reveals itself. Bush defines, as the sovereign, that we are in both a “state of emergency”and that such a state shall not “challenge our way of life.” Of course, this rhetoric implies the questions “who will be affected by this ‘emergency?’ ” and “what is our ‘way of life?’ ” When applying the law, it is the sovereign—in this case the executive branch of the government—that decides when this “rhetoric” is transformed into violence. Hence, this rhetorical sovereignty, as declared by President Bush, is key to the almost “total erosion of the conceptual distinction between war and politics” (Newman and Levine 2006, 23).

Schmitt's notion of the “state of exception” clearly influenced Giorgio Agamben's work to the point where he titled one of his most famous books after the concept.5 Agamben is fascinated by the notion that the “state of exception” is both “outside of” and “contained in” the law. Like Derrida's famous notion of a “pharmakon,” the “state of exception” is both within and outside. Newman and Levine (2006, 24) capture the basic point when saying that “enshrined within the law is the legal provision that enables the law itself to be suspended.” This illuminates Agamben's (2005, 50) view of the state of exception, which “is not a dictatorship (whether constitutional or unconstitutional, commissarial or sovereign) but a space devoid of law, a zone of anomie in which all legal determinations—and above all the very distinction between public and private—are deactivated.” For both Agamben and Schmitt, it is at this moment that one can see the inner workings of the power of sovereignty. So, applying such analysis to Bush's statements, the president himself claims the power of sovereignty by deciding that a “state of emergency” exists and by defining this using presidential rhetoric. For many, it appeared as if the United States had entered a world of a permanent state of exception and/or emergency, where the old divisions now exist in a “through-the-looking glass” universe. This is the moment of hermeneutic sovereignty on the part of Bush. He defines, or claims the right to define, the state of “emergency.” It is at this moment of decision—the moment of exception—that one can witness the rhetorical sovereignty of the president.

Of course, Schmitt was also concerned with the inner workings of the decision to implement the “exception” on the material world: in other words, the moment when the exception becomes violence. This is also an interest of Agamben (1998, 168-9), who argues that the “camp” has become the physical manifestation of the “state of exception.” That said, in the context of the United States the physical manifestation of the “state of exception”—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the detainee camps—have been “implemented” by many people; the conceptual world in which such things can exist is defined in Bush's state of emergency. In other words, the “state of exception” is more than a purely theoretical complaint or puzzle. This “state” has physical manifestations in, among other things, the Guantanamo Bay detainee camp and the Abu Ghraib prisons. Bush's rhetoric—his power of definition—helped create a reality where the disturbing pictures of the mistreatment at Abu Graihb can coexist alongside the persistent belief that the United States still has moral responsibilities and duties in the world. The actions at Abu Graihb and the corresponding images are the fruits sown from the seeds of Bush's post-9/11 rhetoric.

Nevertheless, in a world defined by a state of exception, the government must still stress security. Hence, when Bush (2001c) spoke to the public two days later, on September 15, he began by stating, “[g]ood morning. This weekend I am engaged in extensive sessions with members of my National Security Council, as we plan a comprehensive assault on terrorism.” Here, the president has associated the attackers with “terrorism” and has explained that the National Security Team is planning a “comprehensive assault on terrorism.” Again, security is the primary issue, and it is the first topic of the speech.

Later in the same speech Bush (2001c) opines that “[i]n Washington, D.C., the political parties and both houses of Congress have shown a remarkable unity, and I'm deeply grateful. A terrorist attack designed to tear us apart has instead bound us together as a nation.” Again, unity is a key to the nation being safe from terrorists. There is a strong association between unity and security. In fact the point may be pushed further; Bush now associates disunity with the goal of the terrorist attack. Hence, to not be unified is to play into the terrorists' hands. Once more, we see Schmitt's notions of sovereignty come into play, this time with a combination of the power to define an “us” and a “them” as well as the power to declare a “state of exception.” According to Bush's rhetoric, the attacks will fail because we have clearly defined who the “us” is, and—in this state of emergency—we will remain united against the “them.”

Even in Bush's (2001d) gallant “Islam Is Peace” speech, he employed the rhetoric of unity—and hence the concept of sovereignty as theorized by Schmitt—when stressing the sameness of Muslim Americans.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads . . . This is a great country. It's a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They're outraged, they're sad. They love America just as much as I do.

Bush admirably attempted to quash the torment of Muslims by casting them as ordinary Americans. In fact, he stated, they “love America just as much as I do.” Hence, he used association to blend Muslim-Americans into the fold of “normal” Americans like himself. Also, Bush disassociated the terrorists' versions of Islam from the “real” Islam: the real version of Islam teaches “peace,” not violence. Bush again claims a kind of hermeneutic sovereignty in this moment by claiming to know the “real” Islam.

During Bush's (2001e) September 20 speech in front of both houses of Congress, he again emphasizes the importance of unity.

We have seen the state of our Union in the endurance of rescuers, working past exhaustion. We have seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers—in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. We have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own. My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union—and it is strong.

The Union (standing in for the “Nation”) is strong, and presumably safe and secure, because of the unity of all Americans. The unity of the nation also led to an action that directly helped secure the country: namely funding for the military.

I thank the Congress for its leadership at such an important time. All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol, singing “God Bless America.” And you did more than sing; you acted, by delivering $40 billion to rebuild our communities and meet the needs of our military. (Bush 2001e)

Hence, the unity of “Republicans and Democrats” leads directly to rebuilding “our communities” and meeting “the needs of our military.” This unity is the basis of strength and of safety. It is as if, echoing Lincoln, any fragmentation would be “half a nation” and that such a nation could not stand.

During Bush's (2002b) “Axis of Evil” speech, he once again associated security and safety with unity and steadfastness.

Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun. This campaign may not be finished on our watch—yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch. We can't stop short. If we stop now—leaving terror camps intact and terror states unchecked—our sense of security would be false and temporary. History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom's fight. Our first priority must always be the security of our nation, and that will be reflected in the budget I send to Congress. My budget supports three great goals for America: we will win this war; we'll protect our homeland; and we will revive our economy. September the 11th brought out the best in America, and the best in this Congress. And I join the American people in applauding your unity and resolve. Now Americans deserve to have this same spirit directed toward addressing problems here at home. I'm a proud member of my party—yet as we act to win the war, protect our people, and create jobs in America, we must act, first and foremost, not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.

Bush defines the response to 9/11 as one that requires solidarity, a fundamental unity. In this unity rests the security of the nation. Hence, to the extent that people act outside of the consensus, they are acting against the national unity. In the moment of the “state of exception,” Bush attempted to define unity as a key to democracy. Of course, this misses an essential element of democracy: disagreement and conflict. If the United States is essentially a democratic nation, then unity cannot be the only basis of our strength; diversity of ideas and commitment to democratic principles themselves are the underlying factors of American political life. Nevertheless, in a moment of rhetorical savvy and sovereignty, the aftermath of 9/11 saw Bush associating unity with both security and safety and offering fragmentation as the road to an unstable society.

The United States as the “Hero” of History: Destiny and Providence

There was a grand irony to George W. Bush facing possibly the greatest challenge of any president since Franklin Roosevelt: Bushwas the first president in over a century whose opponent received more popular votes than the elected president. Additionally, it was “conventional wisdom that [Bush was] not a gifted rhetorician” (Crockett 2003). Yet after September 11, Bush often spoke as if God had willed the electoral map, and it was divine intervention that placed him in charge of the country. In fact, immediately after 9/11, Bush employed strong themes of historical destiny and providence. On the night of the terrorist attacks, Bush (2001a) ended his brief statement with the sweeping claim, “make no mistake: we will show the world that we will pass this test.” Similarly, in his September 15, 2001 radio address, Bush ended the speech with the declaration of America's freedom, ending with “this is why we shall prevail.” It was as if God spoke to Bush and alerted him of the divine providence of his cause. There was more than a mere rallying call to Bush's statements; there was a sense of destiny personified.

Soon this theme of “freedom” being linked to God's providence became a mantra of the Bush Administration. In Bush's (2001e) speech before both houses of Congress on September 20, he equated his self-described “war on terror” as part of the history of the battle for freedom.

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other . . . These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us, because we stand in their way . . . We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions—by abandoning every value except the will to power—they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.

Bush skillfully associates the terrorists with oppressive regimes of the past (Hyde 2005, 12). Islamic fundamentalists are the heirs of fascism, totalitarianism, and Nazism. Hence, in this association, Bush places the United States at the forefront of a historical battle for freedom (this battle is somewhat ironic given the non-secular orientation of Bush's ideology). Additionally, he rhetorically frames the demise of Islamic fundamentalism as inevitable yet still a struggle that will take much American work and sacrifice. Nevertheless, because the United States is on the side of “freedom,” and thus of divine providence, the terrorists will eventually be placed in “history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Later in the same speech, Bush (2001e) opines that

[s]ome speak of an age of terror. I know there are struggles ahead, and dangers to face. But this country will define our times, not be defined by them. As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world . . . The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.

God, freedom, justice, and destiny are all associated with the United States' struggle, and fear, terror, and cruelty are associated with Islamic fundamentalism. The room for debate is closed—the “good” has been defined. In another moment of rhetorical sovereignty, Bush assumes, rather hubristically, that the God of Abraham—the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims—favors liberal-style “freedoms.” How can one argue with “God?”

In Bush's (2002b) state of the union address, he echoed many of the same themes.

When I called our troops into action, I did so with complete confidence in their courage and skill. And tonight, thanks to them, we are winning the war on terror. The man and women of our Armed Forces have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of the United States: Even 7,000 miles away, across oceans and continents, on mountaintops and in caves—you will not escape the justice of this nation . . . So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk. And America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it . . . But some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will . . . [The terrorists] embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice, made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life. Steadfast in our purpose, we now press on. We have known freedom's price. We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, my fellow Americans, we will see freedom's victory.

In this language, Bush associates the founding of the United States, our virginal birth, with the continued war on terror. In the frame of Bush's rhetoric, the United States is the “superhero” in the grand narrative of the divine crusade for freedom. Once again the truth-value options are limited because the “players” in the drama, the United States and the terrorists, have been defined by the rhetorical flourishes of Bush's speech.

One could imagine another possible frame for the attacks of 9/11: they could be seen as isolated events of madmen or as a systemic problem of the inequities of the world. Yet those frames are not comforting to the public. An isolated event seems too random, too arbitrary. It would render the suffering of 9/11 meaningless. Plus, there did appear to be a pattern of events: the bombing of embassies, the Cole, and so on. However, even this “pattern” did not dictate the rhetorical choices of the Bush Administration. For example, there was an alleged “pattern” of gun-violence and “anti-federal” acts in the 1990s, and yet President Clinton did not choose to frame the Oklahoma City bombing in the context of a larger “threat” from, for instance, “militia fundamentalists.”

The moment that Bush framed the attacks in his peculiar way is the key moment of sovereignty. The theoretical work by Schmitt (1985) and Agamben (2005) is seen in action at this instant. As the “exception” is defined, Bush's sovereignty is expressed. Schmitt (1985, 5) writes that this

definition of sovereignty must therefore be associated with a borderline case and not with routine. It will soon become clear that the exception is understood to refer to the general concept in the theory of the state, and not merely to the construct applied to any emergency decree or state of siege.

The power of the “state” is revealed when Bush employs his rhetorical narrative about the 9/11 bombings. It is at that moment that sovereignty is used in a complete way.

One can speculate on the self-interested motivations of the Bush Administration in its response to 9/11. Then again, the public did not respond well to the a diagnosis of the 9/11 attacks that placed even some blame on the overall global system of late-capitalism as well as on the West's support for Israel. When some leaders—in the United States and abroad—suggested that although the attacks were despicable, one should look at them in the context of the United States' overall foreign policy; the leaders were derided and ridiculed. Many claimed that these “freedom-haters” where engaging in a game of “blame the victim” (Hollander 2001, 22; Ponnuru 2001, 30).6 This is still seen years after the event; Republican/Libertarian Ron Paul has been blasted for suggesting that the United States had some culpability in 9/11 (Roberts 2007). To many, Paul's words seemed absurd, precisely because the parameters of the debate had already been set: the United States was the victim, the martyr for the struggle of freedom.7 And this struggle, although supremely difficult, will ultimately end with freedom and with the United States prevailing.

Like the “state of emergency/state of normalcy” dichotomy implied by Bush's comments regarding the security of the nation, here, Bush attempts to make the seemingly contradictory argument that we must “struggle” for freedom, yet God is on freedom's side. This argument is made using techniques of association-definition as outlined by Zarefsky: freedom, the United States, and divine destiny are associated against the backdrop of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The example is especially interesting because Zarefsky's techniques are used by Bush at the precise moment that he defines the state of exception. In other words, the rhetorical techniques used by Bush help establish the foundation for a moment of sovereignty, understood in a Schmittian sense: a moment of sovereignty that rested in the state of exception.

Finding Our Enemy

The attacks of September 11 were devastating for many reasons, yet one of the scariest facets of the attacks was the lack of a definitive enemy. The ambiguous statements by President Bush (2001a) on the evening of the attacks evidence this lack of a clear enemy. “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” The president did not specify a particular enemy, although this is not especially strange given it was the day of the attack. That said, Bush was clear that those responsible will be “punished.” Yet he does not identify how they will be punished, whether in a military or a criminal context.

Four days later, Bush (2001c) is more candid about the nature of the “enemy” that attacked the United States. For example, he states that

[t]his is a conflict without battlefields or beachheads, a conflict with opponents who believe they are invisible. Yet, they are mistaken. They will be exposed, and they will discover what others in the past have learned: Those who make war against the United States have chosen their own destruction. Victory against terrorism will not take place in a single battle, but in a series of decisive actions against terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them.

In this passage, Bush tries to disassociate traditional war from the “new” war against terrorism. However, in the same words he is associating the attacks with an act of war against the United States. This association with “war” is possibly the most powerful of all rhetorical associations. David Zarefsky (2004, 616-17) writes that

simply put, a crisis (such as war) rearranges the rhetorical ground. The urgency of the situation requires quick response and establishes a presumption in favor of action. There is no time to consider carefully all the arguments and objections that might arise during peacetime. So debate is truncated . . .

The final example returns to the metaphor of war, as it is deployed in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush instantly and instinctively reacted to the news of the attack by saying simply, “We are at war.”

Hence, at the same moment Bush is associating the 9/11 attacks with warfare—and hence silencing an aspect of debate about them—he is also disassociating the “new” war from the old-style wars. This is a double act of rhetorical and hermeneutic sovereignty. Bush is again employing rhetorical techniques to define reality in a new way. Not only does this new reality conform to Bush's policy decisions, but it renders other definitions of reality automatically “in opposition” or “at the periphery.”

During Bush's September 17 “Islam Is Peace” speech, the president attempts another association/disassociation rhetorical move. This time the rhetoric dealt with the “true” nature of Islam and, in contrast, the evil of the terrorists. Bush (2001d) stated, “[t]he face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.” In this passage Bush disassociates the “true faith of Islam” from the faux-Islam of the fundamentalist terrorists. Additionally, he associates the terrorists with “evil” and “war.” Like all effective associations/disassociations, Bush does not offer any actual definition or argument for his interpretation.8 The terrorists are again treated as an amorphous group, almost like a primordial force of evil. In fact, “terrorists” almost act as an empty signifier—a symbol that can be used and employed as a placeholder for “evil” or “enemy.” In this creation of a kind of “blank” signifier enemy, Bush rests in himself the Schmittian ability to define “us” and “them.”

Of course, the military loathes fighting “empty signifiers” or “primordial forces,” and it is difficult for the United States populace to embrace such an amorphous enemy. Therefore, and interestingly, Bush's rhetoric changed a bit during his September 20 address to the houses of Congress. In that speech, Bush (2001e) sought to link specific nations with the threat of terrorism. His telling language is worth quoting at length.

On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars—but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941.

The leadership of al Qaeda has great influence in Afghanistan and supports the Taliban regime in controlling most of that country. In Afghanistan, we see al Qaeda's vision for the world. Afghanistan's people have been brutalized—many are starving and many have fled. Women are not allowed to attend school. You can be jailed for owning a television. Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate. A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough. The United States respects the people of Afghanistan—after all, we are currently its largest source of humanitarian aid—but we condemn the Taliban regime. It is not only repressing its own people, it is threatening people everywhere by sponsoring and sheltering and supplying terrorists. By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder.

The Taliban must act, and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate. I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.

Bush employs several rhetorical moves in the previously cited passage. The most obvious move is to call the attacks explicitly an “act of war.” This allows the United States a frame of reference for the violence committed on 9/11. Yet Bush also attempts to associate the “enemies” with both the actors (the terrorists) and the states that harbor them (in this case, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan). Of course, Bush must also separate unelected and nondemocratic states from the United States.9 This mirrors Wilson's rhetoric concerning Germans during World War I, where the “transformation of the American ‘self’ was part of a wider rhetorical restructuring of America's image of the war and was inextricably connected to the transformation of the ‘other’ into the enemy of liberty” (Flanagan 2004, 116).

Although Bush associates the Taliban with the terrorists, he also attempts to disassociate the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban. The people of Afghanistan are innocent, yet the regime is evil. Similarly, Bush is once again disassociating the “real” or “good” Muslims around the world from those who commit “evil in the name of Allah.” Hence, the “enemy” exists in the “regime” of the Taliban and the terrorists themselves. The harboring of terrorists is associated, via definitional rhetoric, with being a terrorist.

During Bush's (2002b) “Axis of Evil” speech, he went even further in locating the “enemy” in various regimes around the world.

[W]e must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world.

Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September the 11th. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an un-elected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens—leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections—then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic [emphasis added].

After the fall of the Taliban, Bush deliberately associated “regimes” and “states” ruled by the “unelected few” with terrorists. In a certain sense, he actually frame shifted the blame for (or risk related to) 9/11 to the regimes that could potentially ally with terrorist organizations. So the threat of terrorism is now rhetorically rooted in the governments of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and other similar regimes.

This rhetoric is another example of Schmitt's (1985) notion of sovereignty explicitly at work. Here, Bush defines in very certain terms who the enemy is. He isolates three states and declares them the enemy. At that moment Bush is beginning his action as the sovereign. It is telling that these enemies are somewhat arbitrary, at least by Bush's own standards. For example, Pakistan has a nondemocratically elected leader and a populace that is somewhat supportive of Al Qaeda and nuclear power. Yet Pakistan was not defined by Bush as an enemy. China, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait are all countries with abusive and nondemocratic oligarchies. Yet these countries have explicitly been defined as “friends” in various contexts. In other words, it is in this power, the sovereign power to define, that rests much of the official power of the president. And, as Schmitt (1985) repeatedly points out, these definitions have “concrete” effects. One need only look to Iraq to see the effects of Bush's hermeneutic sovereignty.

Additionally, Bush's term “Axis of Evil” itself employs unique rhetoric. First, it creates what Zarefsky calls a “condensation symbol” for the complex web of anti-American governments and networks. Hence, one does not need to analyze the complex structures or causalities of separate nations and/or groups—they can be reduced to the signifier “the Axis of Evil.” Second, it associates these regimes and groups with one of the United States' greatest enemies, the Axis Powers of World War II. Hence, the “Axis of Evil” countries begin to exude characteristics of fascism in mid-century Germany and Italy, as well as the imperialist notions of Japan. This association has been continued in latter days with the term “Islamic Fascism” that has been adopted by many right-wing politicians and pundits. The association functions the same as the use of the term “axis;” it evokes the United States' great “moral” victory in World War II. And third, by equating these countries with the “Axis”—as well as the biblical notion of “evil”—Bush defines the regimes as inherently our enemies. It is this power—the sovereign power of definition—that rests at the core of the political and the sovereign.

Conclusion: The Rhetoric of Today . . . and Tomorrow?

Writing over five years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I am amazed that the presidential rhetoric has not changed much from Bush's (2002b) State of the Union Address. Bush has not strayed from his positions vis-à-vis safety, providence, and “our” enemies. It is possible that Bush was simply “correct” about the nature of the threat—but that would imply that it is possible to be “correct” by a meta-standard.10 The rhetorical consistency could also be attributed to Bush's notorious intellectual obstinacy or his refusal to listen to contrary voices. Despite the 2006 elections, the GOP presidential field—with the exception of gadfly Ron Paul and possibly Newt Gingrich—have all roughly embraced the rhetorical flourishes of the Bush Administration. Also, the center-left candidates in the Democratic Party have at least partially endorsed Bush's definitional categories that stem from the sovereign moments after 9/11. Consequently, one can conclude—in accordance with David Zarefsky's theory—that Bush's rhetoric set the limits of discursive definition and hence created the parameters of thought regarding the issue of terrorism.

This definitional sovereignty marks the moment that Schmitt's notion of “the political” can be fruitfully blended with Zarefsky's theories of presidential rhetoric. Given the current state of affairs, some thinkers on the left have claimed that Bush's rhetoric regarding terror has placed us in a perpetual “state of emergency” (Hardt and Negri 2004, 7; Neocleous 2006, 193; Panitch 2002, 42). These thinkers have gestured toward Walter Benjamin's (2003, 392) initial claims about the state of emergency becoming permanent. Other thinkers have argued that the state of exception is simply part of modern liberal democracy (Neocleous 2006; Scheuerman 1996; Zizek 2002). The general argument here is that although “liberal legalism is hostile to dictatorship, even liberals outfit state authorities with far-reaching powers during an emergency” (Scheuerman 1996, 307) to a certain extent. As both Zizek and Neocleous argue, liberalism needs the state of emergency to deal with situations that cannot be labeled by standard liberal norms and the rule of law. Thus, the state of exception keeps liberalism alive by being a “legal” way to produce “nonlegal” results. The material results of the “nonlegal legality” have been seen at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Yet according to this line of thought, liberal-democracy needs Gitmo; “[e]mergency, in this sense, is what emerges from the rule of law when violence needs to be exercised and the limits of the rule of law overcome” (Neocleous 2006, 207).

Whether liberalism has an innate “state of emergency” is beyond the scope of this article. That said, the sheer capacity of Bush to define both the “state of exception” and our concept of “friends” and “enemies” is a testament to how powerful the moment of hermeneutic sovereignty is. It is also important to note how commanding the combination of Schmittian sovereignty and Zarefsky's rhetoric is in shaping the current “reality.” In fact, to the extent that these parameters of thought are “useful” to the administration or the country, they will likely be retained. However, when too many anomalies begin to form on the margins of his “definitions,” then the pragmatic value of Bush's rhetoric is likely to wane. The 2006 mid-term elections might be an indication that a counter-reality is beginning to take hold. Yet even that counter-reality must be employed within or against the reality “created” by Bush's rhetoric concerning terrorism during the time directly after 9/11.


  • I would like to thank Richard Conley, Marissa Silber, Beth Rosenson, Dustin Fridkin, Leslie Thiele, Daniel O'Neill, Richard Yon, Michael Heaney, Naomi Nelson, Thomas Biebricher, and the anonymous reviewers at Politics and Policy for their feedback, support, and/or encouragement.

  • 1

    I use the term “he” in the context of the presidency merely for pragmatic reasons. I understand that the word contains a normative judgment, despite the fact that the United States has not yet elected a female president.

  • 2

    Since they are of differing significance, I do not comment on all the speeches equally.

  • 3

    As of this writing, the Democrats' control of Congress after the 2006 elections has not changed the United States' overall policy. The Democrat's margin in Congress is thin and, of course, Bush is still the president with all appropriate constitutional powers.

  • 4

    All quotations to Bush's speeches will be identified in the text. They are all archived at The exact citations are included in the references list.

  • 5

    It should be noted that Walter Benjamin, another famous thinker who discussed the “state of exception,” also influences Agamben's work.

  • 6

    Among the left-wingers who were attacked were Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Edward Said.

  • 7

    This frame was particularly strong in the years immediately after the attacks.

  • 8

    Bush does quote a single line from the Koran. Yet this is hardly an “argument” or a rigorous examination of the nature of Islam or the motives of the terrorists.

  • 9

    Given the circumstances of the 2000 election, the irony of these statements was not lost on commentators.

  • 10

    Such a contention would violate one of the assumptions of Zarefsky's theory.

About the Author

J. Maggio is a Ph.D. candidate working in political theory at the University of Florida's Political Science Department. He is interested in the intersection of aesthetics, rhetoric, and politics. His dissertation tracks the effect of the form of art on politics and political thought. In addition to working on his doctorate, J. Maggio is also a graduate of the University of Florida's College of Law.