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Political Psychology, Vol. 31, No.

3, 2010
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00762.x

Legitimizing the “War on Terror”: Political Myth in

Official-Level Rhetoric pops_762 357..392

Joanne Esch
University of Colorado at Boulder

This paper argues that mythical discourse affects political practice by imbuing language
with power, shaping what people consider to be legitimate, and driving the determination
to act. Drawing on Bottici’s (2007) philosophical understanding of political myth as a
process of work on a common narrative that answers the human need to ground events in
significance, it contributes to the study of legitimization in political discourse by examining
the role of political myth in official-level U.S. war rhetoric. It explores how two ubiquitous
yet largely invisible political myths, American Exceptionalism and Civilization vs. Barbar-
ism, which have long defined America’s ideal image of itself and its place in the world, have
become staples in the language of the “War on Terror.” Through a qualitative analysis of
the content of over 50 official texts containing lexical triggers of the two myths, this paper
shows that senior officials of the Bush Administration have rhetorically accessed these
mythical representations of the world in ways that legitimize and normalize the practices of
the “War on Terror.”
KEY WORDS: Political myth, Rhetoric, Legitimization, Narrative stories, War on Terror

When it comes to understanding the crucial political events of our epoch,

there is a temptation to believe that meaning is intrinsic and “facts speak for
themselves” (Jackson, 2005). This, of course, is never actually the case. In reality,
meaning is layered upon a narrative after the fact like Technicolor added to a black
and white film. The process of layering meaning over a narrative is complex and
contested; it mythologizes the narrative so that it holds shared significance for a
group. This is the process of work on political myth; and it is ongoing because
significance is never agreed upon once and for all. Bottici and Challand (2006)
defined political myth as “the continual process of work on a common narrative by
which the members of a social group can provide significance to their political
conditions and experience” (p. 320). Political myth operates within all political

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358 Esch

cultures, regardless of how “demythologized” or “enlightened” a group may

consider itself. Myth responds to the fundamental need to create significance in a
chaotic and perhaps indifferent world; thus, all societies have a mythical dimen-
sion, but what they differ in is the degree to which myth is exposed to critical
discussion (Bottici & Challand, 2006). An understanding of political myth can
shed light on the intersection of political discourse and political practice and
provide insight into the psychology of legitimization in political discourse.
This paper will address the following questions:

• What is political myth and why is it relevant in contemporary American

• How have the myths of American Exceptionalism and Civilization vs. Bar-
barism come to provide significance for America’s political situation follow-
ing 11 September 2001?
• How have these myths been accessed by senior officials in the Bush Admin-
istration in their rhetoric surrounding the “War on Terror”?
• How has myth-evoking language legitimized policy in the “War on Terror”?

In examining the role of political myth in American political culture, I will

first discuss the theory of political myth and establish a framework for my use of
the term. Next, I will explore two political myths that lie at the heart of American
political culture: American Exceptionalism and Civilization v. Barbarism. The
former defines America’s ideal image of itself and its place in the world, and the
latter defines American national identity in opposition to an “evil other.” Both
myths have been instrumental in providing moral justification for military violence
throughout American history and are important for understanding contemporary
war rhetoric. I will discuss how official-level rhetoric has tailored these myths in
order to provide significance for contemporary political circumstances and legiti-
mize the “War on Terror.”
In order to discover how political myth operates within the official-level
rhetorical construction of the “War on Terror,” I have qualitatively analyzed the
content of over 50 official texts (including speeches, interviews, radio addresses,
and reports to Congress) containing lexical triggers1 of American Exceptionalism
and Civilization v. Barbarism. In addition to presidential rhetoric, I have also
examined the rhetoric of senior members of the administration including Attorney
General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security
Advisor/Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rums-
feld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, so as to test the consistency
of the rhetoric across various speakers. I first selected words I consider to be
lexical triggers of the myths and then entered them as search queries in three

See the appendix for a definition and justification of “lexical triggers.”
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 359

different databases2 containing texts relevant to the “War on Terror.” Thus I

retrieved primary sources and qualitatively analyzed the content of each text. In
order to ensure that the texts I chose to analyze are representative of the larger
official-level discourse, I searched within the 117 official documents listed under
the subject of “terrorism” in the White House database for documents containing
lexical triggers. I discovered that of these 117 documents, 112 contained at least
one lexical trigger of either myth. Additionally, I entered “War on Terror” as a
search term into the Yale University Law Library terrorism database and manually
searched within the results for texts not containing lexical triggers. Of the first 50
relevant texts (i.e., briefings, speeches, and remarks by the speakers listed above)
returned in this search, nine did not contain any lexical triggers of either myth.
Eight of these nine texts were news briefings or press conferences rather than
prepared speeches, and several recalled one or both of the myths without the use
of the lexical triggers I identified. Some recalled the myths with synonyms of the
lexical triggers or with historical analogies (see, for example, Rumsfeld, 6 Mar.
2002; Wolfowitz, 12 Feb. 2002; Cheney, 18 Mar. 2002). In other cases, speakers
outside of the Bush Administration (i.e., heads of state speaking in joint press
conferences) used lexical triggers of the myths in the text, thus mythical discourse
was present in the text, but not in a way that is relevant to this study of legitimiza-
tion (see, for example, Bush, 28 Jan. 2002; Cheney, 18 Mar. 2002).
While lexical triggers are useful tools for detecting the presence of political
myth in a discourse, they are not by themselves sufficient analytical measures, nor
does their absence necessarily reflect an absence of political myth operating within
a text. I have used lexical triggers to identify texts for analysis, but my analysis has
gone beyond the words themselves and has always accounted for the broader
context that establishes their meaning. My analysis of each text has sought to
answer the following questions: (1) What political myths, if any, are recalled in the
language of the text? (2) How does the text recreate, reinforce, or challenge the
political myth? (3) What knowledge or practices are legitimized or normalized
through the use of political myth in the text? By focusing on political myth, these
analytical questions help situate the text within a broader social and cultural
context. By making political myth the central focus of my analysis, I hope to shed
light on the process of policy legitimization in political discourse and on the
broader importance of elite-led discourse in influencing political practice.

A Theoretical Understanding of Political Myth

The rise of social constructivism has brought in tow a vast body of work on the
roles of myth and symbolism in society and politics. Scholars such as Blumenberg

Databases include the U.S. government’s document archive database ( and two databases
at Yale University Law School titled “September 11, 2001: Attack on America—A Collection of
Documents” and “Terrorism: A Document Collection.”
360 Esch

(1985), Geertz (1983), and Malinowski (1992) have dealt with the concept of myth
broadly and noted its often-underestimated importance in society, particularly in
the form of symbols and religion. However, these studies tended to equate myth
with religion because they focused on traditional societies where religion and
politics were fused. Edelman’s (1975) assumption that “political language can
evoke a set of mythic beliefs in subtle and powerful ways” laid the groundwork for
subsequent studies on how myth operates in the political sphere and is the corner-
stone of the present study (p. 1). Recently, scholars such as Bottici (2007) and
Flood (1996) have turned their attention to the distinct concept of political myth
and its role in contemporary and secular societies. Stone (2001) has also
approached this concept in her discussion of symbolic representation. She defined
narrative stories as “explanations of how the world works . . . [that] are often
unspoken, widely shared, and so much taken for granted that we are not even
aware of them,” and, she explained, “They can hold a powerful grip on our psyches
because they offer the promise of resolution for scary problems” (p. 137).
This explanation touches on some key components of political myth: its
invisibility, its ubiquity, and its “powerful grip on our psyches”—all qualities that
allow myth to bypass critical scrutiny. Flood (1996) referred to this phenomenon as
the “primacy effect,” which he defined as “the power of a person’s earliest percep-
tion of a phenomenon to function as the basis for generalization, categorizations,
and expectations which are not easily or always adequately revised” (p. 87). In other
words, myth is powerful because it has the ability to remain invisible while
influencing basic perceptions of the world. As Bennett (1980) has proposed,
political myths act as cognitive lenses: “they are not the things people see when they
look at the world, but the things they see it with” (p. 167). Similarly, Edelman (1975)
conceived of myths as “prestructured beliefs regarding the nature and the causes of
public problems” and noted that they are situated outside critical reasoning (p. 1).
Myth is a cognitive device based on social cues that creates meaning and signifi-
cance and can easily serve as a basis for flawed but appealing reasoning. In this way,
myth is related to analogical reasoning. Borrowing from the field of cognitive
psychology, Khong (1992) viewed analogies as “diagnostic devices” and proposed
that analogical reasoning is a shortcut for processing information and making sense
of the world around us. The fact that we interpret new information by matching it to
preexisting schemata in our minds is responsible for the influential power of both
analogy and myth. The success of analogical arguments and reasoning depends on
mythological encoding of historical events. Like myth, analogical reasoning is
intuitively appealing (it gives us a blueprint for understanding and interpreting a
bewilderingly complex and structurally uncertain world) but overly simplistic and
rationally flawed (see Neustadt and May, 1986). Thus, myth and analogy are
relevant to one another, but they are conceptually distinct.
While Stone’s (2001) “narrative stories” explain “how the world works” and
offer to resolve problems, this is not necessarily true of political myths, which
more generally ascribe significance to common narratives and direct the determi-
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 361

nation to act (Sorel, 1975). Myths, as Edelman (1975) observed, “help us cope
with widely shared anxieties but typically fail to analyze problems adequately and
rarely solve them” (p. 1). Myths help us cope with “scary problems” because they
provide social cues for how to interpret problems and relate them to ourselves. And
while they may or may not propose a solution, they frame problems in a way that
validates certain courses of action while precluding others. Political myths do not
answer the questions “how?” and “why?” so much as “whence?” (Bottici, 2007).
Despite the growing body of literature on the political significance of mythical
narratives, the terms (“myth,” “symbol,” “narrative”) have not been employed
within a shared theoretical framework. Further, very few studies have examined
the different uses of the concept of myth, even fewer have done so specifically
within the context of political rhetoric, and most studies have failed to address the
question of the concept’s utility.
Bottici (2007) has provided a much-needed philosophical understanding of
political myth, which serves as a theoretical framework for my use of the term.
Bottici’s work draws heavily on Blumenberg’s (1985) understanding of myth as
work on myth, as well as Edelman’s (1967, 1975) belief that myth influences
politics in subtle and profound ways. Bottici (2007) also incorporates and cri-
tiques the work of Sorel (1975), Malinowski (1992), Flood (1996), and Strath

Approaching Myth

In the popular vernacular, the word myth generally indicates falseness or

refers to fanciful tales, and it is often used pejoratively (i.e., myth v. reality).
Enlightenment thinkers dismissed myth as superstition. However, myth has thrived
throughout history, even alongside scientific rationality, demonstrating a need for
a theoretical understanding of myth that goes beyond its claims to truth (Bottici,
2007). Scholars such as Flood (1996) and Lincoln (1989) placed undue emphasis
on the validity of myth’s content. This is problematic because, as Bottici and
Challand (2006) explained,

Political myths cannot be falsified because they are not scientific hypoth-
eses as to the constitution of the world or astronomical almanacs that
foretell its future: they are determinations to act that always reinforce
themselves. (p. 321)

Myth ought to be approached from a phenomenological perspective that leaves

aside the question of the “reality of myth” and instead focuses on the process
through which a social group adapts and readapts a common narrative so that it
lends significance to their political conditions and experience (Bottici, 2007).
Thus, this study makes no attempt to determine the extent to which mythical
representations of the world actually reflect the “true nature” of reality.
362 Esch

What Makes a Political Myth Out of a Narrative?

Three key attributes distinguish a political myth from a simple narrative: First,
a mythical narrative provides significance. Second, it is shared by a group and
(re)produced at various levels. Third, it can come to affect the political conditions
of the group (Bottici, 2007).
Significance. Myth is a product of the endless human attempt to minimize
chaos and master the unknown. While myth sometimes has religious roots and
connotations, it is not exclusively a religious phenomenon. As Bottici (2007),
Cassirer (1973), and others have pointed out, myth answers a call for significance
that goes beyond the simplest form of meaning (wherever there is language there
is meaning) but stops short of providing ultimate meaning in matters of life and
death (this is the realm of religion). Blumenberg (1985) conceived of significance
as a grounding that draws events and narratives closer to the individual and renders
them less indifferent to him or her. Unlike science, myth does not simply describe
the world; by providing significance, it helps us reduce the world’s complexity.
Blumenberg (1985) has highlighted the difference between making sense and
making significance in order to explain the functional difference between science
and myth: science explains phenomena and can be universal, while myth brings
the phenomena closer to us and is always particular. Bottici (2007) has summa-
rized what I will call the “proximization” function of myth by explaining, “While
something can have a meaning but I can still remain completely indifferent to it,
something that has significance is something that I feel ‘close’ to” (p. 124). What
is myth for one person may simply be a story for another or even for the same
person at a different point in time.
Work on Myth. The second aspect that distinguishes myth from narrative is
that myth is interrelational—it is borne within a web of relationships in which it
is continually (re)produced, (re)interpreted, and (re)transmitted. Blumenberg
(1985) understood myth as work on myth—that is, as a continual process of
reworking by narrators and perceivers who can scarcely be distinguished from
one another. Myths are not singular entities stated or written at one point in
time; but rather, living entities that always relate to the present. The process of
work on myth takes place at innumerable sites: art, speech, rituals, and social
practices being only a few examples (Bottici & Challand, 2006). Myth is also
condensational—it can be compressed into symbols and words, and these con-
densed fragments can then recall an entire body of work on a given myth
(Bottici & Challand, 2006). Cumulative exposure to the work on myth thus
allows it to frame our understanding of the world without our consideration or
even awareness. Additionally, as a consequence of the interrelational and ever-
evolving nature of myth, there are often many variations of myth built around
one central mythical core. While this paper focuses on the utility of (re)produc-
ing myth at the level of official rhetoric, it must be understood that this is only
one of many sites for work on myth.
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 363

The Power of Myth. The third aspect of the definition of political myth is
that it addresses the political conditions and experiences of a group. Political
myths frame our perception of the world and shape how we feel about it;
consequently, they help determine how we act within it (Bottici & Challand,
2006). They shape political practice by giving language its reality-making effect.
Scholars such as Jackson (2005) and Wilmer (2002) have pointed out that wars
cannot be fought without a widespread willingness in society, and social will-
ingness requires a shared understanding of circumstances and significance,
which is constructed through language. Language and practice are two sides of
the same coin, and political myth has an exceptional ability to give power to
Iyengar’s (1991) idea that rhetoric “frames” issues so as to offer the addressee
implicit contexts for understanding information provides some insight into myth’s
utility for policy legitimization. Frames reside in the types of key words, meta-
phors, concepts, and symbols speakers choose to emphasize in their narratives
(Entman, 1993). Thus, the use of linguistic cues to encourage addressees to
perceive events through the lens of a particular myth may be understood as a type
of framing.3 Words may become mythically encoded and then serve as key words
or lexical triggers. When used in rhetoric, these words allow a myth to serve as an
implicit frame of reference for understanding the given narrative. Thus, myth is
subtle because it is condensable. As Flood (1996) explains,

Myths do not . . . have to be recounted in extenso in order to function as

elements of political discourse. Myths can be evoked by labels (“the
Aryan myth!”), watchwords and slogans (“Workers of the world,
unite!”), metonymic allusions (“the Vietnam syndrome”), echoes or quo-
tations (“I cannot tell a lie”) . . . [E]ven single words such as “Liberty,”
“Free Enterprise,” or “Communism” can carry a range of associations
with widely accepted, ideologically slanted accounts of historical events.
(p. 85)

For this reason, language that carries mythical connotations gives meaning
to statements that goes beyond what is actually said. Such mythical connotations
often preclude certain responses. For example, deeming someone “a Fascist”
renders the idea of negotiating with that person absurd and irresponsible because
the word is loaded with mythical associations as broad as “evil” and as specific as
“the historical lesson of the 1938 Munich Agreement.”4 Language that contains

Gamson (1992) has extended the study of framing from the “top” level (i.e., mass media and political
officials) to the “lower” levels of social discourse (i.e., citizens that consume mass media and
official-level rhetoric). Those wishing to examine public reception and reproduction of political myth
may find his work useful.
Khong (1992) referred to the Munich Agreement as an example of analogical reasoning. Note that
such powerfully mythologized events make for intuitively compelling historical analogies.
364 Esch

condensed fragments of myth can thus have powerful consequences for social
processes and structures. By influencing our perception, cognition, and emotions,
linguistic recollection of political myth can deeply affect what we consider to be
legitimate, making myth a pivotal intersection of discourse and political practice.
As Bottici and Challand (2006) put it, “a political myth is not simply a prophecy,
but it tends rather to become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. 329).
Mazlish (1981) postulated that leaders draw on a “psychic repository” which
embodies “recurrent themes, ideals, values, fantasies, imagery, symbols, myths,
and legends” (quoted in Kellerman, 1986, p. 278). The “psychic repository” may
be thought of as a basis for policy legitimization. Some of the most powerful
legitimization effects in political discourse are achieved with a proximization5
strategy involving political myth. Cap (2007) defined legitimization in political
discourse as “a linguistic enactment of a speaker’s sociopolitical right to be
obeyed,” and has discussed the concept of “legitimization via proximization” at
length (p. 1). Cap (2005) outlined three “proximization methods” by which speak-
ers make distant events and actors seem “closer” to the addressee: spatial, in which
events from outside the deictic center are construed as physically closing in on the
addressee; temporal, in which events “are construed as momentous and historic
and thus of central significance to the addressee; or, past events are evoked in
such a way that they determine the centrality of the current situation to the . . .
addressee”; and axiological, in which “events are construed as following from an
unprecedented and growing ideological clash between [those inside the deictic
center] and [those outside the deictic center]” (p. 14). Although Cap does not
employ the concept of political myth in his work, his proximization model for
analysis of legitimization in political discourse could benefit from a theoretical
understanding of political myth, because myth is an important mechanism of
axiological proximization.
In sum, myth is best understood as a relational process involving a cycle of
production, reception, and reproduction, wherein perceivers are also (re)produc-
ers, and vice versa (Bottici & Challand, 2006). Common narratives do not become
political myths because of their content or accuracy, but because of their ability to
provide and reproduce significance that is shared by a group in a way that impacts
the group’s political conditions and experiences (Bottici, 2007). Political myth is
a self-reinforcing determination to act rather than merely a description, so it
shapes political experience at least as much as it reflects it (Sorel, 1975). There-
fore, the most powerful political rhetoric makes use of existing myths and taps into
widely held, underexamined beliefs. The following sections investigate two long-
standing American political myths and examine both how they have been adapted
to provide significance for the political circumstances following 9/11 and how they

Cap (2005) defined proximization as a rhetorical strategy that “pictures the occurring events and their
actors as directly affecting the addressee,” often in a negative or threatening way (p. 14).
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 365

have been accessed in official rhetoric so as to normalize and legitimize policies of

the “War on Terror.”

Political Myth in the “War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” is the largest and furthest-reaching counter-terrorist

campaign in history, and it has come to define the domestic and international
political environment. It extends into multiple dimensions: a military dimension
involving two major wars plus covert assassinations, expansion of American
military presence overseas, and military assistance to other countries; a security
dimension including worldwide intelligence gathering and presidential authori-
zation of extreme means of interrogation (torture); a diplomatic dimension that
has included psychological operations as well as the use of coercion and foreign
aid to enlist support of other countries; and a domestic dimension, which
consists of military expenditure levels not seen since World War II
and the U.S. PATRIOT Act (Jackson, 2005). The open-ended definition of U.S.
strategic priorities in the “War on Terror” goes beyond what the United States
committed itself to during the Cold War. One American military official
expressed, “There should be no doubt, we are at war, and it is a world war.
There is simply no other way to put it” (Melshen, 27 June 2003; qtd. in Jackson,
2005, p. 9).
Since the beginning of “War on Terror,” it has become commonplace to
preface articles and scholarly writings in the field of international affairs with a
clause stating that “everything changed after 9/11.” But it was not the terrorist
attacks themselves that changed the global landscape, it was the United States’
response. And the social willingness for that response, which was not an inevitable
consequence of the attacks, was made possible through a shared, mythologized
understanding of the significance of 9/11.
Following 9/11, the myths of American Exceptionalism and Barbarism vs.
Civilization and their variations have been reappropriated to make significance of
the 9/11 narrative and the threat of “new” terrorism. These two myths have helped
to define American national identity and have been prominent elements of war
discourse throughout the country’s history. Because they have been tools of moral
justification for military violence since the Declaration of Independence, it is no
surprise that today they compound the “rally effect” (see Mueller, 1973) in the
“War on Terror.” These myths’ prominence adds to their power, as their ubiquity
enhances the primacy effect. Mueller (2005) drew attention to the mechanisms of
threat exaggeration and alarmism, comparing the statistical insignificance of ter-
rorism with the resources dedicated to its proposed “defeat.” To build on Mueller’s
point, it was not just “hype” that was behind the global crusade against terrorism,
it was myth. And myth is a wild card that must be accounted for in the analysis of
political decisions. The following sections explore the historical roots and con-
temporary roles of the myths and then examine where they are accessed in rhetoric
366 Esch

and how they are used to provide significance and legitimize policy in the context
of the “War on Terror.”

Historical Roots and Variations of American Exceptionalism and

Civilization v. Barbarism

American Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” is an old term with many meanings. Toc-

queville (1835) coined the phrase simply to refer to the fact that America is
qualitatively different from Europe, primarily in terms of class structure and
religion. Later on, American and European radicals used it to refer to the fact
that the United States was exceptional in that, unlike other industrialized nations,
it never had a significant labor party or socialist movement (Lipset, 1996). The
term is also used more generically in reference to the many ways in which the
United States is qualitatively different from other societies. Lipset’s (1996)
examination of the good and bad qualities that distinguish the United States
from other countries has been a notable contribution to scholarship on this topic.
As Lipset (1996) pointed out, the phrase also refers to the notion that America
is a providential nation—not only a special nation, but a better nation, a shining
city on a hill. This idea is rooted in the very founding of the republic and today
retains a strong cultural appeal. It is this aspect of American Exceptionalism that
has become most powerfully mythologized.
The myth of American Exceptionalism details America’s ideal image of its
place in the world. It consists of three main ideas: America is a “chosen nation,”
America has a “calling” or “mission,” and, in answering that calling, America
represents the forces of good against evil (Judis, 2005). The myth of American
Exceptionalism is grounded in the Protestant millennialism brought to America by
the English Puritans, who believed the battle of Armageddon foretold in the Book
of Revelation was to take place in America (Judis, 2005). In the late eighteenth
century, the myth evolved from a biblical vision of the “New Jerusalem” to a
nationalist vision of America as a God-given land destined for greatness and
triumph. Americans have approached grand objectives—from independence to
seizing Texas and Mexico to the World Wars to the Cold War to the first Gulf War
to the “War on Terror”—with an outlook reminiscent of seventeenth-century
Protestant millennialism (Judis, 2005). This religious-turned-nationalist mentality
can be considered “apocalyptic” in that it has portrayed America transforming
itself and the world in cataclysmic leaps and bounds rather than through subtle,
incremental changes (Judis, 2005). The myth can be broken down into three main
Nature’s Nation. The first aspect of the myth holds that America is God’s
nation, or “Nature’s Nation” (Hughes, 2003, p. 45). According to this element of
the myth, America’s founders masterminded a new political system guided by God
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 367

and Nature that, in Jackson’s (2005) words, “transcended the particularities of

time and space, and . . . owed no debt to history or culture” (p. 44). The religious
element of the founding documents bears witness to the idea that America is God’s
country—the colonies demanded the “separate and equal station to which the
Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” and put forth the Declaration of
Independence “with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” The
myth of Nature’s Nation provides significance beyond the context of the country’s
founding and serves more generally to decontextualize American experience from
history and politics. In Henry Ford’s words, “History is bunk” (qtd. in Jackson,
2005, p. 44). According to Ronald Reagan, “The calendar can’t measure America
because we were meant to be an endless experiment in freedom, with no limit to
our reaches, no boundary to what we can do, no end point to our hopes” (27 Jan.
1987). For Abraham Lincoln, America was the “last, best hope of the earth”; for
Madeline Albright, it is “the indispensable nation”; and for George W. Bush, it has
“a unique role in human events” (qtd. in Judis, 2005, p. 55).
America’s “Calling.” The second element of the myth holds that America has
a “calling” or “mission.” This notion can be traced to the early sixteenth century in
England, where William Tyndale had spread the idea that England had a covenant
with God: if it lived by God’s commands, it would be blessed; if not, it would be
forsaken (Hughes, 2003). The idea of the national covenant also held that
“England, like Israel of old, had been chosen by God for a special mission in the
world” (Hughes, 2003, p. 20). The Puritans carried the notion of a national
covenant with them to the new world. John Winthrop’s famous sermon aboard the
ship Arbella made this clear:

Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into a Cov-
enant with him for his work. . . . Now if the Lord shall please to hear us,
and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this
covenant and sealed our Commission. (qtd. in Hughes, 2003, p. 29)

Winthrop’s understanding of the covenant had more to do with responsibilities to

others than it did with special privilege. However, over time, the notion of the
covenant took more to meaning “chosenness,” and by implication, the “chosen”
had a calling to fulfill (Hughes, 2003).
The most obvious manifestation of the myth was the notion of “manifest
destiny,” a term that first appeared in the Democratic Review in 1845. Its editor,
John O’Sullivan, wrote:

To state the truth at once in its naked simplicity . . . our claim to Oregon
. . . is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the
whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the develop-
ment of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government
entrusted to us. (qtd. in Hughes, 2003, p. 106)
368 Esch

Manifest Destiny represented a significant transformation in how Americans saw

their calling in the world: in the early nineteenth century, America’s special role
was to lead and transform the world by example, to be John Winthrop’s “City on
a Hill.” George Washington emphasized that America was to lead by example—
preservation of the constitution, he proclaimed, would “acquire to [the people of
the United States] the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection,
and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it” (Washington, 1796).
Manifest Destiny, on the other hand, granted that America had the right (and
even duty) to extend its influence not only by example, but by force (Hughes,
2003). The myth of Manifest Destiny was used to legitimize the goal of west-
ward expansion during the latter part of the nineteenth century and remains
relatively confined to that period. However, the underlying sense of duty and
divine sanction endures to the present. Many presidents, including John Adams,
Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt,
and Ronald Reagan, attributed America’s role in the world to “Providence” or
“Destiny”; and many spoke of a “mission” or “calling” to “further freedom’s
triumph” (Judis, 2005). Richard Nixon proclaimed that America had “come into
the world 180 years ago not just to have freedom to ourselves, but to carry it to
the whole world,” while Ronald Reagan saw Americans as “one people, under
God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart,
called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world” (qtd. in
Judis, 2005, p. 54). Thus when George W. Bush declared in his 2005 inaugural
address that the United States had been given a “mission” by “the Maker of
Heaven” and the “Author of Liberty” to spread freedom and democracy, he was
acting in a long-held tradition and invoking a deeply rooted American political
myth (Judis, 2005).
America Represents the Forces of Good Against Evil. The third element of
the myth flows naturally from the first and second: the image of Nature’s Nation
setting out, unblemished by the mess of human history, to fulfill its God-given
mission makes obvious the ultimate meaning of America in the grand scheme
of good and evil (Hughes, 2003). As previously mentioned, American Excep-
tionalism comes from the Protestant millennialism of the English Puritans,
which was translated into a more secular and nationalist “civil millennialism”
in late eighteenth century (Judis, 2005, p. 55). The myth’s religious underpin-
nings are made particularly apparent by the aspect of the myth that defines
America as a force fighting for good against evil. Abraham Keteltas of the Revo-
lutionary Army articulated what Judis (2005) has called the “apocalyptic
outlook” when he declared in 1777 that American victory in the war would
mean triumph of

the cause of trust against error and falsehood; the cause of righteousness
against iniquity; the cause of the oppressed against the oppressor; the
cause of pure and undefiled religion against bigotry, superstition, and
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 369

human inventions . . . the cause of heaven against hell—of the parent of

the universe against the prince of darkness and the destroyer of the human
race. (qtd. in Judis, 2005, p. 56)

This apocalyptic outlook has been applied to subsequent international con-

flicts involving the United States, where U.S. victory has been seen to signify a
“triumph of civilization,” a “new world order,” and “an end to war” rather than
merely a temporary relief from conflict (Judis, 2005, p. 56).
In his memoir, Lawrence Wright recalled the confidence in America’s virtue
that characterized the World War II period:

When my father went off to war, I understood that he was going to

make the world safe for democracy and that that was what the world
wanted. . . . [He had] matured in a magic age, the 1940s, when great
evil and great good faced each other. In that splendid moment he knew
which side he was on. He was an American farm boy doing what God
and his country has designed for him. . . . Here he was, saving the
world. I grew up expecting to inherit his certainty. (qtd. in Hughes,
2003, p. 153)

To an extent, Americans have inherited the sense of certainty Wright described,

albeit a version of it that has been adapted through the process of work on myth to
fit a new era and a new villain. A mythical encoding of the “War on Terror” that
recalls the “magic age” and reliably casts America as a hero has a powerful
legitimization effect.
Like all political myths, American Exceptionalism has been adapted
throughout history to apply to changing circumstances and to provide signifi-
cance for various narratives. The founders’ generation sought to trounce Old
World tyranny and build what Thomas Jefferson called an “empire of liberty”;
Jacksonian Democrats wanted to defeat the “red demons” and build a Christian
civilization; and the generations since the nineteenth century aimed to triumph
over imperial Germany, then fascism, then communism to create a global demo-
cratic order (Judis, 2005). The Cold War was conveyed as a battle of good
against evil (Reagan’s “evil empire”), with the God-fearing United States con-
fronting the Godless Communists.
The aspect of American Exceptionalism that grounds the meaning of America
in the overall battle of “right against wrong, virtue against vice, and democracy
against tyranny” also lies at the heart of Civilization v. Barbarism (Hughes, 2003,
p. 153). While the third aspect of American Exceptionalism is closely related to
Civilization v. Barbarism, the key difference is that the former tells a story about
the essential goodness of American actions and objectives, while the latter relates
to national identity and tells of the good nature and good character of Americans
vis à vis the “evil Other.”
370 Esch

Civilization v. Barbarism

The myth of Civilization v. Barbarism (also known as the “new barbarism

thesis”—see Richards, 1996) and its variations are an outgrowth of the third aspect
of the myth of American Exceptionalism: America represents the forces of good
against evil. This myth is a classic story of “Us versus Them” that favors cultural
or civilizational explanations for conflict over political or economic ones. The
myth’s central dichotomy appeals to identity and makes it powerfully intuitive.
Linguists and anthropologists have noted that language has a binary structure
wherein almost every noun, adjective, and verb has a direct opposite. Generally,
one term has positive connotations while the other does not, and using one term
brings to mind its value-opposite. This underlying architecture of language is
relevant to the study of this myth, because it means that either word—civilization
or barbarism—alone can conjure the larger body of work on myth. If a speaker
talks about the “triumph of civilization,” it can be understood that (good) civili-
zation is triumphing over (bad) barbarians (Jackson, 2005). Thus, words that have
clear opposites—for example, justice, western, evil, freedom, and hate—are espe-
cially powerful lexical triggers of political myth. According to Cap (2005),

The present formula of social communication in the US demonstrates a

striking proportion of language which portrays reality in terms of a
necessary division into “two,” which the latter usually means different
and opposing. Such a stance is hence expected of politicians, and non-
compliance is scarcely tolerated—President Bill Clinton . . . got under a
massive wave of criticism for being “too conciliatory” in his 1997 State
of the Union Address. (p. 14)

This sheds light on the groundwork and intuitive appeal of Civilization v. Barbar-
ism. Huntington’s 1993 thesis, The Clash of Civilizations, and Barber’s (1992)
Jihad vs. McWorld are reified traces of work on this myth. Today, Civilization v.
Barbarism acts as a classic story of “Us versus Them,” in which a politically and
culturally civilized western world is defined in opposition to a violent and barbaric
eastern world. Edward Said (1978) drew attention to this construct in his famous
book, Orientalism. The lasting influence of Rafael Patai’s (1973) book The Arab
Mind is an especially relevant example of (neo-)Orientalism. Patai claimed that
psychological and cultural factors intrinsic to the “Arab mind” account for what
he described as the violence, stagnation, and backwardness of Arab populations.
Such (neo-)Orientalist explanations for violence have served as a sort of pseudo-
scientific alibi for the Civilization v. Barbarism myth, illustrating the sometimes
porous boundary between myth and scientific theory.

The myth is grounded in foundational myths that, according to Slotkin

(2001), represent American history as an Indian war, in which white
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 371

Christian civilization is opposed by a “savage” racial enemy: a nation

whose hostility to civilization is part of its nature or fundamental char-
acter, an enemy who is not just opposed to our interests but to “civiliza-
tion itself.” (qtd. in Jackson, 2005, p. 48)

Certainly, rhetoric of the time accessed this myth in order to legitimize and justify
acts of genocide against Native Americans throughout the eighteenth century. In
fact, William McKinley’s secretary of state, John Hay, combined the third com-
ponent of American Exceptionalism with Civilization v. Barbarism when he
described the Indian wars as “the righteous victory of light over darkness . . . the
fight of civilization against barbarism” (qtd. in Judis, 2005, p. 55). Cold War
rhetoric also conveyed the myth of Civilization v. Barbarism, and Reagan’s rheto-
ric in particular used the language of “good versus evil.” As the discourse and
practice of the Cold War reveals, the significance of the conflict between the
United States and the Soviet Union went far beyond politics and economics; it was
understood that a Godless “evil empire” was threatening our way of life. Implicit
in the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate was the idea that the encroachment of
the Soviet Union would threaten the commodity-rich lifestyles of average Ameri-
cans. The discourse around the threat of Communism was largely an exercise in
axiological proximization, whereby the evil ideology of the enemy was conveyed
as encroaching on everything we know to be good and right. Because of the
ideological nature of the Cold War, We and They could not be reliably defined by
geopolitical borders; so the myth of Civilization v. Barbarism served as a discur-
sive compensation for blurred boundaries.
George H.W. Bush’s public opinion polls and focus groups showed that the
public found rhetoric emphasizing axiological considerations such as the “evil”
deeds of Saddam Hussein to be more compelling in justifying the Gulf War than
rhetoric emphasizing economic reasons, such as jobs and oil (Rottinghaus,
2008). Thus, the legitimization effect of “good versus evil” rhetoric is widely
Crucially, the two myths work together and are mutually reinforcing. For
example, America is understood to be exceptional in that it embodies the very
concept of civilization and is the primary defender of civilization. Jackson’s
(2003) work details the reconfiguration of American Exceptionalism into a larger
notion of “civilization” in order to legitimize NATO following World War II.
Consequently, American Exceptionalism became even more focused on notions of
leadership, and became very much intertwined with Civilization v. Barbarism.
Although visions of the world Americans have sought to create and the
antagonists in the way of those visions have changed over the centuries, the shared
mythical framework of American Exceptionalism and Civilization v. Barbarism is
threaded throughout American history. The historical continuity of political myth
adds to its power and utility as a rhetorical legitimization strategy. Today, “terror-
ism” (vaguely defined) is the antagonist in the way of America’s ideal world.
372 Esch

Political Myth in the “War on Terror”

American Exceptionalism

In order to discover how the myth of American Exceptionalism has been

called upon in contemporary official rhetoric, I have analyzed the presence of
lexical triggers that recall contemporary forms of the myth in a multitude of
official-level texts. This section discusses three meta-narratives that recreate the
myth of American Exceptionalism in the context of the “War on Terror” and
illustrates each with examples from the texts. The meta-narratives include the
myth of Exceptional Grievance, the notion that America has a calling and unique
responsibility to fight terrorism, and the idea that America is fighting a “good war”
against evil. These meta-narratives roughly correspond with the three elements of
the myth of American Exceptionalism.
Exceptional Grievance. The first meta-narrative, the myth of Exceptional
Grievance, is linked to the idea of “chosenness” or Nature’s Nation, as it casts
America as an extraordinary kind of victim suffering a unique, historically and
politically decontextualized injustice (Jackson, 2005). Lexical triggers of Excep-
tional Grievance include “tragedy,” “suffering,” “loss,” “horror,” and “calamity”
(see the appendix). Of course, it is not surprising that the worst terrorist attack ever
committed on American soil would be described in these terms. Of interest is how
these words, through continual repetition in hundreds of texts, have served con-
struct a profound sense of collective national grievance and victimhood (Jackson,
Crucially, the myth of Exceptional Grievance emphasizes American owner-
ship of said “tragedy,” “suffering,” “loss,” “horror,” and “calamity.” If the rhetori-
cal construction of the event that prompted the “War on Terror” did indeed rely on
the myth of American Exceptionalism, lexical triggers of grievance should appear
linked in the text to words such as “us,” “our,” “we,” “national,” and “American”
to emphasize the specifically national ownership of the tragedy.
Immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center, President
Bush remarked: “Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have
crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our
country” (11 Sept. 2001a). Throughout the following months, he continued to
reiterate that the attacks were “a terrible national shock, an act of evil that
caused, and continues to cause, so much suffering” (24 Nov. 2001), and a
“wound to our country” (20 Sept. 2001). He continued, “Each of us will
remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened” (Bush, 20 Sept.
2001). During the bombing campaign on Afghanistan, Bush again reemphasized
the nation’s collective suffering:

One month after great suffering and sorrow, America is strong and
determined and generous . . . there’s a certain sacrifice when you lose a
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 373

piece of your soul. I was standing up there at the Pentagon today, and I
saw the tears of the families whose lives were lost in the Pentagon. And
I said in my talk there that America prays with you. (11 Oct. 2001)

Rhetorical emphasis on national grievance following 9/11 was achieved largely

through repetition of the words and sentiments quoted above, which appear in
virtually every press interview and speech given by the administration in the
months following the attacks. So, while expressions of national grievance are
overwhelmingly abundant in the texts, additional examples would be redundant.
Despite Bush’s and Powell’s acknowledgement that citizens of many coun-
tries died in the attacks (see Bush, 14 Sept. 2001, and Powell, 18 Oct. 2001),
official rhetoric overwhelmingly depicted Americans as a special, united people
suffering a uniquely obscene tragedy. Alternatively, the rhetoric could have framed
the events as an attack on humanity or expressed solidarity with victims of political
violence in other countries (Jackson, 2005). However, through continual emphasis
of American ownership of the tragedy, the official rhetoric succeeded in bestowing
upon America the politically valuable status of primary victim (Jackson, 2005). As
Bowman (1994) has pointed out, creating or sustaining a sense of national vic-
timhood and grievance promotes a discourse of violence that rallies support for
war. So while the sense of victimhood and grievance that was emphasized and
reemphasized in hundreds of texts was in no way invented or falsely manufactured,
it did serve the political purpose of justifying American military action in the
subsequent “War on Terror.” Reinforcing America’s primary victim status at the
hands of a vaguely defined enemy (“terrorist networks of global reach”) makes it
possible for military actions that are prima facie offensive (i.e., preventative wars)
to be understood as retaliatory. Rhetorical recollection of America’s Exceptional
Grievance also served to shift the moral responsibility for the suffering and
civilian deaths resulting from American military action onto the original attackers
(Jackson, 2005).
For example, in a press conference, Rumsfeld stated with regard to the U.S.
attacks on Afghanistan: “There are (sic) going to be a loss of life—there already
have been. It started on September 11th in this building [the Pentagon]. And there
are going to be more” (24 Oct. 2001). At a Defense Department briefing the
following week, Rumsfeld responded to the question of whether the United States
should have done more to avoid civilian deaths in Afghanistan:

As a nation that lost thousands of innocent civilians on September 11th,

we understand what it means to lose fathers and mothers and brothers and
sisters and sons and daughters. [. . .] We did not start the war; the
terrorists started it when they attacked the United States, murdering
more than 5,000 innocent Americans. The Taliban . . . started it when
they invited the al Qaeda into Afghanistan and turned their country into
a base from which those terrorists could strike out and kill our citizens.
374 Esch

So let there be no doubt; responsibility for every single casualty in this

war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the
feet of Taliban and al Qaeda. (29 Oct. 2001)

Here, Rumsfeld shifted the attention from Afghan civilian deaths onto American
civilian deaths by stressing that America is the primary victim—and America’s
victim status relieves it of moral responsibility for civilian deaths.
The myth of Exceptional Grievance also decontextualizes American suffering
from global realities. As Jackson (2005) pointed out,

The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the suffering they caused in
America were in reality far from exceptional: more than double the
number of people killed by al Qaeda were killed everyday for a hundred
days in Rwanda in 1994 . . . the UN estimates that more than three
million people have died the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of
Congo since 1998; terrorists have killed tens of thousands of civilians in
the last few years in Algeria, Sri Lanka, Israel and Chechnya; and on
September 11, 2001 itself, an estimated 30,000 children died of hunger
and preventable diseases across the developing world, as they do every-
day. (p. 37)

The belief that America is a special kind of victim suffering an exceptional

grievance is linked to the well-established myth of American Exceptionalism in
that it assumes that America is special among the world’s nations. While rhetoric
emphasizing grief and unity is to be expected under such circumstances as
9/11, the significance that “9/11” came to have was not simply intrinsic to the
events. The constant reiteration of national injury and victimhood in the tradi-
tion of American Exceptionalism served to justify subsequent policies and mili-
tary actions in what has become the most intense counterterrorism effort in
America’s Mission against Evil. A second manifestation of American Excep-
tionalism is seen in rhetoric that frames the “War on Terror” in apocalyptic terms
and portrays American actions as a response to a larger “mission” against evil. As
previously mentioned, American Exceptionalism retains an apocalyptic mentality
suggestive of the Protestant millennialism in which it is rooted. Accordingly,
America approaches grand objectives with a vision that it will “transform the
world in the face of great evil” (Judis, 2005, p. 56). Judis (2005) has noted that this
mentality can “shape the way people see reality, inclining them toward revolu-
tionary rather than evolutionary change,” and that it “discourages complex dis-
tinctions and shadings in favor of generalities and absolute dichotomies” (p. 56).
Official rhetoric of the “War on Terror” has employed this apocalyptic outlook
insofar as it has set its sights on extensive global transformation—“what we have
to do,” according to Powell, “is not just go after these perpetrators, and those who
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 375

gave them haven, but the whole curse of terrorism that is upon the face of the
earth” (15 Sept. 2001). And it has divided the world into two simple categories:
friends and enemies. Overall, it has relied on the notion that America holds a
special place in world—and thus has a special calling to bring about this trans-
formation. Lexical triggers include: mission, call/calling, role, responsibility,
indispensable, rightness/righteous, and the phrases “freedom’s defender” and
“defend freedom.”
As Judis (2005) pointed out, previous wars have been viewed with an apoca-
lyptic outlook: “The First World War was ‘the war to end all wars’ ” and “The cold
war was ‘Armageddon’ ” (p. 56). Similarly, Bush proclaimed, “Our war on terror
begins with al Qaeda, but does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist
group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated” (11 Sept. 2001b). In
his second inaugural address, he affirmed, “it is the policy of the United States to
seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every
nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world” (20
Jan., 2005). Speaking specifically about the “War on Terror,” he proclaimed,

What is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight.
This is civilization’s fight. [. . .] 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. (11 Sept. 2001b)

In other words, liberty (good) and terror (evil) are at war, and it is up to America
to see that liberty triumphs.
By the end of the day on 9/11, Bush had established a broader significance for
America’s circumstances and future actions: “America has stood down enemies
before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go
forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world” (11 Sept.
2001b). Notably, the entity against which freedom, goodness, and justice are to be
defended is broad and simple: enemies. In this instance, the “enemies” are both
present and historical, so that the main point is not a specific issue, but rather, the
larger, ongoing struggle to defend universal (or God-given) values (like freedom,
goodness, and justice) against their value-opposites, personified by the enemy.
Since the speech was given on the day of the attacks, it is not surprising that the
enemy in question was ambiguous. Nevertheless, this text represents the beginning
of an ongoing tendency to construct “the enemy” as not only evil, but also
monolithic. Official rhetoric has repeatedly conflated various targets and threats in
the “War on Terror” into a single enemy: “the terrorists.” They have often been
referred to even more broadly as “the enemies of freedom” or the “evildoers” (see,
for example, Bush, 20 Sept. 2001, or Bush, 20 Jan. 2004). Rhetoric that folds
diverse (and often adversarial) groups into a single enemy draws upon and recre-
ates the myth of American Exceptionalism by downplaying nuances that would
undercut the image of America as an indispensable nation fulfilling a divine
376 Esch

mission, and by overlooking complex details in favor of dichotomous generalities.

Bush divided the world into those who are “with us” and those who are “with the
terrorists” (20 Sept. 2001), and he grouped three countries with vastly divergent
interests and agendas (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) into a unitary “axis of evil”
(29 Jan. 2002). By neglecting to disaggregate rival groups, and instead clumping
them into a monolithic category of “terrorists” or “Islamist terrorists,” official
rhetoric embraced the apocalyptic outlook that characterizes the myth of American
Official rhetoric has also portrayed the “War on Terror” as a cosmic battle
between good and evil. Bush put it plain and simple: “We are in a conflict of good
against evil, and America will call evil by its name” (1 Jun. 2002). Further, many
texts have portrayed the “War on Terror” as a struggle of divine significance. For

Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we
know that God is not neutral between them. (Bush, 11 Sept. 2001b)
War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. (Bush,
14 Sept. 2001)
We will not rest until we stop all terrorists of global reach. And for every
nation that harbors or supports terrorists, there will be a day of reckon-
ing. (Bush, 7 Dec. 2001)
Those of us who have lived through these challenging times have been
changed by them. We’ve come to know truths we will never question:
evil is real, and it must be opposed. (Bush, 29 Jan. 2002)
[O]ur cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human
dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal
of America is the hope of all mankind. [. . .] [L]ight shines in the
darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it. (Bush, 11 Sept.

These texts are heavy in religious (more specifically, evangelical and mil-
lennial Christian) imagery and symbolism—light and darkness, unquestionable
truths, a day of reckoning, and evil that must be purged. Bush also used a
biblical term when he referred to Osama Bin Laden as “the evil one” (11 Oct.
2001) and al-Qaeda as “the evil ones” (29 Nov. 2001). Language that appeals to
the religious moorings of hundreds of millions of Americans has obvious per-
suasive advantages and is a powerful way to elicit intuitive support for both a
speaker and his policies.
Although the president’s speechwriters quickly abandoned the word
“crusade,” extensive use of dichotomous language still served to conjure images of
holy war. Along with constructing the “War on Terror” as a struggle between good
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 377

and evil, the rhetoric drew on the second aspect of American Exceptionalism when
it emphasized that America had “found our mission” to fight the battle (Bush, 20
Sept. 2001). Simply put, “our responsibility to history is clear: to answer these
attacks and rid the world of evil” (Bush, 14 Sept. 2001). The idea that “History
has called us into action” became a running theme in the rhetoric (Bush, 9 April
2002). In the 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush proclaimed, “History has
called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our
privilege to fight freedom’s fight” (29 Jan. 2002). He went on to say, “In a single
instant, we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that
we’ve been called to a unique role in human events. Rarely has the world faced
a choice more clear or consequential.” Bush further portrayed America’s role as
indispensable when he said,

[T]his 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. (20
Sept. 2001)

In portraying the events as a crucial and decisive moment in history, Bush’s

speechwriters (intentionally or otherwise) employed what Cap (2005, 2007) called
a temporal proximization strategy. Portraying events as historic and momentous is
one strategy by which a speaker can bring those events closer and make them more
important to the addressee, which serves the larger purpose of legitimization in
political discourse.
Historical allusions have also played an important role in rhetorical legiti-
mization of the “War on Terror.” By alluding to World War II and the Cold War, the
texts have recalled past victories with longer-established mythic significance in
order to portray the present war as just and winnable. Soon after 9/11, American
officialdom began comparing the attacks to those of Pearl Harbor:

Americans have known wars—but for the past 136 years, they have been
wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. (Bush, 20 Sept.
For my country, the events of September the 11th were as decisive as the
attack on Pearl Harbor and the treachery of another September in 1939.
(Bush, 31 May 2003)
Until two months ago, the date most synonymous with surprise was
December 7th. But as we mark the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor
next month, we may also recall that Japan’s attack drove us not to fear,
but to action; not into isolation, but to accept a greater role in the world;
not to forsake our friends, but to form with them the most powerful
alliance against evil in history. December 7th was a turning point for the
378 Esch

world, and September 11th should be no less a turning point. On 9/11, our
generation received one of history’s great wakeup calls. Like the Great-
est Generation, we must answer that call. (Wolfowitz, 14 Nov. 2001)
What happened at Pearl Harbor was the start of a long and terrible
war for America. Yet, out of that surprise attack grew a steadfast resolve
that made America freedom’s defender. And that mission—our great
calling—continues to this hour, as the brave men and women of our
military fight the forces of terror in Afghanistan and around the world.
[. . .] The attack on Pearl Harbor was plotted in secret, waged
without mercy, taking the lives of 2,403 Americans. [. . .] On Decem-
ber the 8th, as the details became known, the nation’s grief turned to
resolution. During four years of war, no one doubted the rightness of
our cause; no one wavered in the quest of victory. As a result of the
efforts and sacrifice of the veterans who are with us today, and of mil-
lions like them, the world was saved from tyranny. (Bush, 7 Dec.

The last two quotations make explicit what the audience is supposed to infer
from Pearl Harbor analogies: a “treacherous” enemy has taken a cheap shot at
America, and “freedom’s defender” has been called upon once again to defeat evil.
The significance of World War II is already well established in the American
psyche as history’s most just and necessary war, as “the Good War.” Historical
analogies to an event with a fixed meaning imbue contemporary events with
significance and a reassuring understanding of what must be done and what the
outcome will be. The following texts do just that:

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, 20 Sept. 2001)
We’ve seen their kind before. The terrorists are the heirs to fascism. They
have the same will to power, the same disdain for the individual, the same
mad global ambitions. And they will be dealt with in just the same way.
Like all fascists, the terrorists cannot be appeased: they must be
defeated. This struggle will not end in a truce or treaty. It will end in
victory for the United States, our friends and the cause of freedom.
(Bush, 7 Dec. 2001)
Across the world and across the years, we will fight these evil
ones, and we will win. Great causes are not easy causes. It was a long
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 379

way from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. It was a long way for the 101st from
Normandy to final victory over fascism in Europe. When wronged, our
great nation has always been patient and determined and relentless. And
that’s the way we are today. We have defeated enemies of freedom before.
And we will defeat them again. (Bush, 21 Nov. 2001).

In these speeches, President Bush impresses the certainty of “the Great

War” upon the “War on Terror” by portraying terrorists as the latest incarnation
of fascism, and thus the audience is meant to assume that anything short of a
full-scale “War on Terror” would amount to appeasement of the latest “murder-
ous ideology.” Bush evoked the lesson of the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement
when he said, in reference to terrorists, “Those who hate all civilization and
culture and progress, those who embrace death to cause the death of the inno-
cent, cannot be ignored, cannot be appeased” (Bush, 20 Oct. 2001). Neustadt
and May (1986) have written extensively on the danger of misusing historical
analogies in decision making and have aptly noted that decision makers some-
times intentionally misuse history to justify policies. Recall that both World War
II and the Cold War, when viewed through the lens of American Exceptionalism,
are examples of America answering its calling to fight and triumph over evil. In
referring to these two wars, the rhetoric uses analogical reasoning to superim-
pose on the present not only past victories, but also past vindication of American
In addition to the World War II narrative, official rhetoric has compared
terrorism to another historical “evil”: communism. Deputy Secretary of Defense
Paul Wolfowitz compared the threat posed by terrorism with the threat posed by
nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War:

The American people breathed a sigh of relief when the Cold War ended
a decade ago. [. . .] And there was a temptation to believe that this
favorable circumstance was a permanent condition. On September 11th,
America learned that it was not. [. . .] This threat is as great as any we
faced during the Cold War. (4 Oct. 2001)

In this instance, the Cold War analogy serves to emphasize the threat of terrorism
and also to encode the “War on Terror” as both necessary and winnable (Jackson,
2005). Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld implied that victory was more or less
inevitable when he compared the “War on Terror” to the Cold War: “If you think
about it, 50, 40 years, however long it was with the Cold War . . . but here we are.
No Soviet Union” (24 Oct. 2001). Vice President Cheney also used the analogy to
imply a historical precedent for American triumph:

Your faith in freedom’s ultimate triumph was vindicated when the

Berlin Wall was toppled, when an evil empire vanished from the face
380 Esch

of the earth. Today, freedom has a new set of totalitarian enemies. (1

May 2003)

As Jackson (2005) has pointed out, the controversial and often-repeated

term “axis of evil”—which Bush used in reference to North Korea, Iran, and
Iraq in his 2002 State of the Union address—recalls both the axis powers of
World War II and Reagan’s “evil empire” (the Soviet Union). According to
Jackson’s (2005) analysis, “This implies not only the vast threat posed by ter-
rorism (it is like fascism and communism combined), but also that the United
States has a historic role to play in protecting the world from this menace” (p.
44). By recalling past evils and triumphs, official rhetoric of the “War of Terror”
has tapped into America’s mythic past in a way that both recalls and reproduces
the myth.
As he concluded an address to a joint session of Congress, President Bush
recreated the various elements of American Exceptionalism:

Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in
our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.
Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom—the
great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time—now
depends on us. Our nation—this generation—will lift a dark threat of
violence from our people and our future. We will rally to this cause by our
efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will
not fail. (20 Sept. 2001)

Here, Bush has reiterated the magnitude of the country’s grievance and stated that
the country has a mission and an indispensable role in determining the outcome of
a great battle between “freedom and fear,” where the “great hope of every time” is
at stake. So, official rhetoric has made clear that, as America responds to its
“historical calling” to fight a “War on Terror,” it is fighting the larger battle of good
(freedom) against evil (terrorism).
Rhetoric that situated America and its political circumstances within a battle
of good and evil has served to imbue the “War on Terror” with a sort of “divine
sanction” (Jackson, 2005, p. 143). The official rhetoric has been rife with pseudo-
theological language that has ascribed apocalyptic significance to the “War on
Terror.” Further, it has left no question that America’s role in this divine struggle
is indispensable and that it has been called upon to ensure the triumph of God-
given values such as liberty, justice, and freedom (Jackson, 2005). In these ways,
official rhetoric has reproduced the myth of American Exceptionalism; and in
doing so, has built a powerfully intuitive message on the edifice of the country’s
mythic past.
In constructing a battle of divine significance between the forces of good and
evil, the official rhetoric has also made heavy appeals to identity in casting the
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 381

actors in the struggle. The construction of a national identity vis á vis the terrorist
Other has taken place largely within the framework of Civilization v. Barbarism.

Civilization v. Barbarism

Presently, the myth of Civilization v. Barbarism links America’s struggle

against terrorism with a larger, ongoing clash between civilization (Us) and bar-
barism (Them). The post-9/11 revival of Civilization v. Barbarism has been widely
observed. After the attacks, many feared that Huntington’s (1993) prediction of a
clash between Islam and the West had come to fruition. Edelman’s (1967) account
of how myth becomes self-perpetuating is relevant here:

As its chief terms are unobservable motives, intentions, traits, and cause-
effect assumptions, observation cannot disprove it but can only provide
material that in turn can be perceived as evidence for its validity. (p. 222)

Significantly, the revival of the myth quickly became evident in media rhetoric
following 9/11, providing an important backdrop and context for the reception of
the official rhetoric that recalled it. Two independent news media analyses (Abra-
hamian, 2003; Seib, 2004) have documented this phenomenon, citing as evidence
an onslaught of articles in prominent American newspapers that framed world
affairs in terms of civilization-based conflict. For example, the New York Times
published the following headlines in a section called “A Nation Challenged” in the
months following 9/11: “Yes, this is about Islam,” “This is a religious war,”
“Diffusing the holy bomb,” “Barbarians at the gate,” “Faith and the secular state,”
“A head-on collision of alien cultures,” and “Hair as a battle field of the soul,”
among many others (cited in Abrahamian, 2003). Ancient enmities and the Cru-
sades were recalled in both text and image, and pictures of Richard the Lion Heart
accompanied several articles (Abrahamian, 2003). Other major publications
repeatedly posed the question “why do they hate us?” and answered it in terms of
values and culture rather than politics and economics. As a case in point, the Wall
Street Journal quoted Norman Podhoretz6 saying that a “barbaric culture had
declared war not because of our policies but for what we stood for—democracy
and freedom” (quoted in Abrahamian, 2003, p. 533). Thus the post-9/11 environ-
ment was rife with political and journalistic shorthand that relied on the myth of
Civilization v. Barbarism. This environment of mythical revival allowed its recol-
lection in official rhetoric to resonate powerfully in American society. Official
rhetoric has accessed the larger body of work on the myth by employing a number
of lexical triggers that dramatize binaries such as good/evil and us/them. Refer-

Norman Podhoretz has been an adviser to the U.S. Information Agency and an influential neocon-
servative columnist. George W. Bush awarded him the honorable Presidential Medal of Freedom in
382 Esch

ences to the myth have served to legitimize policies in the “War on Terror” through
a proximization strategy that portrays the current situation as a function of an
“unprecedented and growing ideological clash” between those inside the deictic
center (Americans, the “west”) and those outside the deictic center (Saddam
Hussein, terrorists, the “Islamic world”; Cap, 2007, p. 14).
Wisely, the Bush Administration has made a point of denouncing the idea of
a clash of civilizations, and has explicitly stated, on multiple occasions, that the
“War on Terror” “has nothing to do with differences in faith. It has everything to
do with people of all faiths coming together to condemn hate and evil and murder
and prejudice” (Bush, 11 Oct. 2001). Yet, the rhetoric has nonetheless encouraged
dichotomous thinking in its construction of an irrational, depoliticized, evil Other.
So even though it is stated that the administration’s “evil Other” is not Muslims or
the Islamic world in general, the ever-present “Us” and “Them” dichotomy creates
fertile ground for (neo-)Orientalist interpretations, as seen in the aforementioned
media rhetoric.
The myth of Civilization v. Barbarism is seen most notably in the way Bush
Administration officials have answered the questions “who was responsible for the
9/11 attacks?” and “why did they do it?” In response to the first question, the
answer has been unambiguous: “freedom’s enemies,” “savages,” and “barbarians.”
These and other lexical triggers (such as civilization, innocents, cruelty, and
hatred) that recall the larger body of work on Civilization v. Barbarism abound in
the texts.7 A sharp linguistic boundary has been drawn between “Us” and “the
terrorists,” who epitomize savagery: “The terrorists despise creative societies and
individual choice—and thus they bear a special hatred for America. They desire
to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and to force every life into grim and
joyless conformity” (Bush, 7 Dec. 2001). Further, they “hate all civilization and
culture and progress” (Bush, 20 Oct. 2001), they are “devious and ruthless”
(Bush, 24 Nov. 2001), and “their hatred is equaled by the madness of the
destruction they design” (Bush, 29 Jan. 2002). Bush recommended that Americans
“go about their business on Monday, but with a heightened sense of awareness that
a group of barbarians have declared war on the American people” (Bush 15 Sept.
2001). In contrast, America is made to embody enlightened civilization in the
discourse and is defined in opposition to the terrorist Other. Attorney General John
Ashcroft affirmed,

[T]he attacks of September 11th drew a bright line of demarcation

between the civil and the savage, and our nation will never be the same.
On one side of this line are freedom’s enemies, murderers of innocents
in the name of a barbarous cause. On the other side are friends of
freedom; citizens of every race and ethnicity, bound together in quiet
resolve to defend our way of life. (24 Sept. 2001)

See the appendix.
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 383

Bush further constructed the “righteous We” when he expressed astonishment

that anyone could hate the United States:

[H]ow do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is

vitriolic hatred for America? I’ll tell you how I respond: I’m amazed. I’m
amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about,
that people would hate us. I am, I am—like most Americans, I just can’t
believe it. Because I know how good we are. (11 Oct. 2001)

The boundary between “Us” and “Them” has also been maintained in more
recent rhetoric. In a speech honoring an American doctor (incidentally named Dr.
Christian) who performed heart surgery on an Iraqi civilian as part of a charity,
Bush stated,

[T]he contrast couldn’t be more vivid. We got people in Iraq who

murder the innocent to achieve their political objectives—and we’ve
got Americans, who heal the broken hearts of little Iraqi girls. Ours is
a compassionate nation, that believes in the universality of freedom—
and ours is a nation full of loving souls that when they find a stranger
in need will lend their God-given talents to help that stranger. (11 Mar.

The appeal to identity has been an important feature of the “War on Terror”
discourse. It has identified and “othered” the enemy, which is always a necessary
part of war, and it has done so in a way that allows the administration great
flexibility in determining who, exactly, that enemy is and how that enemy should
be defeated (Jackson, 2005). By portraying terrorists as mad, hateful, and simply
evil by nature, the rhetoric has deflected questions about political motivations of
terrorist attacks (Jackson, 2005). This function of the rhetoric can be seen very
clearly in how the Bush Administration has answered the second question, “why
did they do it?”:

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. (Bush 20
Sept. 2001)

The idea that “they hate us because of what we love” has been repeated in
numerous texts (Bush, 25 Nov. 2002). To offer just a few examples:

[T]hese people can’t stand freedom; they hate our values; they hate
what America stands for. (Bush, 13 Sept. 2001)
384 Esch

They can’t stand what America stands for. It must bother them greatly
to know we’re such a free and wonderful place—a place where all
religions can flourish; a place where women are free; a place were
children can be educated. It must grate on them greatly. (Bush, 29 Nov.
They hate us because we love the idea that people can worship an
Almighty God any way he or she sees fit. They hate us because we love
political discourse and a free society. They hate us because of our free
press. They hate everything about us, because of our freedom. And
there’s another—there are a lot of distinguishing features, but one of the
most clear ones to me is this. We value life in America. We say every-
body is precious, everybody counts, every life has worth, every life has
dignity. They don’t value life. (Bush, 4 Oct. 2002)

This rhetoric depoliticizes the conflict by attributing terrorism to the barbaric

nature of certain individuals. According to President Bush,

We learned a good lesson on September the 11th, that there is evil in this
world. I know there’s a lot of children in America wondering what took
place. I think it’s essential that all moms and dads and citizens tell their
children we love them and there is love in the world, but also remind them
there are evil people. (11 Oct. 2001)

This rhetoric has grounded the significance of the 9/11 narrative in the char-
acter of the actors involved: They attacked us because of who we are (virtuous,
freedom loving people) and because of who they are (“criminal barbarians” who
hate freedom). In doing so, it has constructed the “War on Terror” within the
framework of an old, reliable myth. If they hate us for who we are rather than
what we do, nothing can be gained from reexamining our own policies. Thus,
the myth has enhanced the rhetoric’s success in discouraging alternative under-
standings of the events that could implicate American foreign policy (Jackson,
Since it is difficult to be neutral between civilization and barbarism,
dichotomous language, paired with the construction of savage and barbarous
terrorists, facilitates a “you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” mentality
(Bush, 20 Sept. 2001). U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos illustrated the utility of
this construction when he stated in a press conference in Berlin, “This is a war
of civilization against barbarism, and certainly Germany knows its place is on
the side of civilization” (22 Feb. 2002). Like the battle of good and evil, a
confrontation between civilization and barbarism carries an inbuilt logic about
what must be done. In justifying the long struggle ahead in the “War on Terror,”
Bush stated,
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 385

We haven’t seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time. [. . .]

This is a new kind of—a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the
American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on
terrorism is going to take a while. (16 Sept. 2001)

Language that construes a battle of divine significance between “the civil and
the savage” plays a central role in legitimizing and mobilizing support for a long,
violent, and vaguely defined counterterrorism campaign. The following text, in
which President Bush appeals to identity in order to justify an increase in the
defense budget, illustrates how the myth can be used to make policy choices seem
natural and even unavoidable:

[T]he best way to secure the homeland is to find the enemy wherever they
try to hide and bring them to justice. The best way—make no mistake
about it. You should not be confused about the nature of the people
we’re dealing with. They hate us, because we’re free. They hate the
thought that Americans welcome all religions. They can’t stand that
thought. They hate the thought that we educate everybody. They hate
our freedoms. They hate the fact that we hold each individual—we
dignify each individual. We believe in the dignity of every person. They
can’t stand that. And the only way they know to express themselves is
through killing, cold-blooded killing. And so we need to treat them the
way they are, as international criminals. And that’s why my defense
budget is the largest increase in 20 years. You know, the price of freedom
is high, but for me it’s never too high because we fight for freedom.
(9 Apr. 2002)

Overall, rhetoric evoking the myth of Civilization v. Barbarism has accom-

plished several things. It has depicted a less-than-human enemy whose savage
ideology threatens all that civilization holds dear. It has extended the discourse
of Exceptional Grievance and victimhood by emphasizing American innocence
and virtue vis á vis the barbarians; in other words, it has constructed the
“enabling other” that empowers America’s ideal image of itself (see Anderson,
1983; Campbell, 1998). Further, it has employed absolute dichotomies in a way
that has imbued “who we are” with a sense of duty, which has helped legitimize
America’s use of force in the “War on Terror.” The “bright line of demarcation
between the civil and the savage” leaves little room for alternative readings both
of the circumstances and of how to respond (Ashcroft, 21 Sept. 2001).
The “War on Terror” rhetoric has constructed powerful categories of identity in
order to satisfy political objectives and has breathed new life into the long-
standing myth of Civilization v. Barbarism. Thus, historically grounded and
intuitively appealing political myths can be valuable rhetorical tools for policy
386 Esch


This paper has argued for a theoretical understanding of political myth that
views it as a process of work on a common narrative that answers the human
call for significance. Political myths help us come to terms with our political
circumstances and they also drive our determination to act (Bottici, 2007). This
paper has illustrated how political myths play an important role in shaping
political discourse and political practice; and their recollection in official rhetoric
can resonate powerfully throughout society. For this reason, political myth is
especially relevant to the study of legitimization in political discourse. The ubiq-
uitous yet largely invisible political myths of American Exceptionalism and Civi-
lization vs. Barbarism, which have long defined America’s ideal image of itself
and its place in the world, have become staples in the language of the “War on
Terror.” Senior officials in the Bush Administration have relied on the conden-
sational power of these myths to legitimize and normalize the practices of the
“War on Terror.”
Normative considerations regarding political myth ought to focus on the
conditions that prevent the possibility of critical discussion rather than on whether
myth is itself “good” or “bad.” Myth carries an elusive and deeply effective kind
of power—a power that can be felt without being seen (Bottici & Challand, 2006).
The power to construct and entrench a dominant version of reality underscores
other forms of power (political, economic, and even coercive) and is a crucial
aspect of legitimization in political discourse. Myth is a crucial site for under-
standing (and perhaps controlling) the means of interpretation in a given society.
Political myth is a process of constructing significance—it is not propaganda.
Thus, to look solely at the official-level (re)production of myth leaves a large blind
spot in our understanding of how myth operates within societies. The obvious
question remaining is, to what extent has the official-level rhetoric actually suc-
ceeded in legitimizing policies? It seems reasonable, given that the public has been
at least permissive, and often supportive, of “War on Terror” policies, to assume
that the rhetoric has been very successful. Civilization v. Barbarism and American
Exceptionalism could not have come to provide significance for the “War on
Terror” if the official-level mythic narratives discussed in this paper had not been
repeated and amplified at various levels of civil society in a range of social and
political institutions. However, further study is needed to deepen our understand-
ing of how political myth is operating in discourse at other levels. Future studies
should examine the extent to which the mythical narratives of the “War on Terror”
have been absorbed and recreated by the mass media, by political opponents of the
administration, and by scholars and academics.
Additionally, it is clear that political myth plays an important role in the
rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Islamist terrorist organizations
such as al-Qaeda. The rhetoric of terrorist leaders similarly relies upon mythical
representations of the world that portray the actions of the addressee as heavily
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 387

influencing a cosmic battle between good and evil. Our understanding of the role
of political myth in “War on Terror” rhetoric would benefit greatly from another
discourse analysis examining rhetoric inside terrorist organizations and its recep-
tion and reproduction within larger societies.


Lexical Triggers

Definition: Myths do not have to be recounted en extenso in order to have a

presence in rhetoric; they can be accessed with words or short phrases that carry
connotations, implications, and cognitive associations that tie the word or phrase
to the larger body of work on myth (Flood, 1996). Lexical triggers are words and
phrases that serve as linguistic cues to evoke prestructured and mythologized
understandings of a narrative.

Lexical Triggers of American Exceptionalism

I have identified the following words as lexical triggers of American Excep-

tionalism: mission, call/calling, role, responsibility, indispensable, rightness/
righteous, and the phrases “freedom’s defender” and “defend freedom.” The first
two words are selected because in certain contexts they imply the second aspect
of the myth: America has a special calling or mission. Clearly, the word mission
is ubiquitous in the military lexicon; it has only been considered a lexical trigger
when it refers to an overarching vision rather than a specific military engage-
ment. The words role, responsibility, indispensable, and the phrases “freedom’s
defender” and “defend freedom” are chosen because they are often used to
define or draw attention to America’s vision of itself vis à vis the rest of the
world. In context, these words frequently carry the broader implication that
America is ontologically unique compared to other countries and therefore has
a unique role or a unique responsibility. Similarly, the words rightness/righteous,
usually used to describe “our cause,” recall the third aspect of the myth—
America’s mission is to defend good against evil.
The following words are lexical triggers of Exceptional Grievance, an off-
shoot of American Exceptionalism: tragedy, suffering, loss, grief, victim, horror,
and calamity. The first four words connote victimhood. Common synonyms of
tragedy include heartbreak and misfortune while synonyms of loss include (but of
course are not limited to) bereavement, slaughter, and defeat. Sufferer is a
synonym for victim, and synonyms for suffering include pain, anguish, distress,
torment, grief, and agony. Through their connotative and denotative meanings,
these words suggest victimhood and grievance. An understanding of post-9/11
America as a primary victim that has suffered a profound grievance is the skeletal
framework beneath the myth of Exceptional Grievance.
388 Esch

Horror denotes fear, shock, and disgust and is synonymous with repulsion,
terror, and awfulness. Calamity denotes disaster and sudden damage or distress,
and its synonyms include tragedy, catastrophe, and disaster. When used to
describe the events of 9/11, these words help solidify the myth of Exceptional
Grievance by further emphasizing America’s victim status. By encoding the
events of 9/11 as calamitous—that is, sudden, shocking, and unexpected—the
rhetoric has discouraged addressees from reading the events as a calculated act of
war or retaliation. Even after the Bush Administration began referring to the
terrorist attacks as “an act of war,” the rhetoric still emphasized that the attacks
were a Pearl Harbor-esque cheap shot. This emphasis was accomplished in part by
the use of lexical triggers such as horror and calamity that keep America’s shock
and innocence in view.
When these words appear linked in the text with plural possessive pronouns
or the modifier national, their status as lexical triggers is enhanced. Phrases such
as our suffering, national tragedy, and we grieve emphasize American owner-
ship of victimhood and grievance and thus build up the myth of Exceptional

Lexical Triggers of Civilization v. Barbarism

The following words are lexical triggers of Civilization v. Barbarism:

freedom, enemy, savage, barbarians, civilization, innocent, cruelty, evil, and
hatred. These words are lexical triggers because they necessarily imply binary
opposition and are defined by their value opposites. Each lexical trigger carries an
opposite cognitive association: freedom/terror, enemy(/ies)/friend(s), savage(s)/
civil, barbarian(s)/civilization, innocent/guilty, cruelty/benevolence, evil/good,
and hatred/love.
Each of these pairs has a normatively positive word and normatively negative
opposite. When used as lexical triggers, the positive word is linked in the text,
either implicitly or explicitly, with Us, and the negative with They. These words
become lexical triggers in this way, because their use mimics the binary frame-
work to which the myth owes its intuitive appeal.
Note that the mere presence of these words in the text is not enough to qualify
them as lexical triggers; they must be used in a context that suggests the myth in
order to be counted in this study. For example, the word “freedom” obviously does
not function as lexical trigger of Civilization v. Barbarism in the context of
Secretary Powell’s remark, “parliamentary life . . . dictates that freedom of the
press should be granted” (3 Oct. 2001). However, “freedom” does function as a
lexical trigger in the context of Bush’s statement, “Our enemies . . . embrace
tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. . . . We choose freedom and the dignity
of every life” (29 Jan. 2002). Thus, this study has accounted for context in its
analysis of lexical triggers.
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 389


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Tocqueville, A. (1835). Democracy in America. Ed. & Trans. H. C. Mansfield & D. Winthrop. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Wilmer, F. (2002). The social construction of man, the state, and war: Identity, conflict, and violence
in the former Yugoslavia. New York and London: Routledge.

Speeches and Documents

Ashcroft, J. Attorney General, Testimony to the House Committee on the Judiciary, 24 September
Ashcroft, J. Attorney General. Remarks from Press Conference at WTC. Attorney General Ashcroft,
FBI Director Mueller, Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, 21 September 2001.
Bush, G. W. Text of the President’s Inaugural Address, 20 January 2005.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President to Journalists at Emma Booker Elementary School, Sarasota,
Florida, 11 September 2001a.
Bush, G. W. Statement by the President at his Address to the Nation, 11 September 2001b.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President in Telephone Conversation with New York Mayor Giuliani and
New York Governor Pataki, 13 September 2001.
Bush, G. W. President’s Remarks at National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, the National Cathedral,
Washington, DC, 14 September 2001.
Bush, G. W., Powell, C. L., & Ashcroft, J. Remarks at Camp David, 15 September 2001.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President Upon Arrival The South Lawn, 16 September 2001.
Bush, G. W. Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, 20 September 2001.
Bush, G. W. Press Conference, The East Room, Washington, DC, 11 October 2001.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President to the CEO Summit, Pudong Shangri-La Hotel, Shanghai,
China. 20 October 2001.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President to Troops and Families at Fort Campbell, 21 November
Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric 391

Bush, G. W. Radio address of the President to the Nation, 24 November 2001.

Bush, G. W. Presidential Remarks to U.S. Attorneys Conference, Dwight David Eisenhower Office
Building, 29 November 2001.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President on the USS Enterprise on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7 2001.
Bush, G. W. Remarks By The President And Chairman Of The Afghan Interim Authority Hamid
Karzai, 28 January 2002.
Bush, G. W. President’s State of the Union Address, 29 January 2002.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President at Connecticut Republican Committee Luncheon, 9 April 2002.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President at the 2002 Graduation Exercise of the United States Military
Academy, West Point, NY, 1 June 2002.
Bush, G. W. The President’s Remarks to the Nation on the Anniversary of September 11, 2001, Ellis
Island, NY, 11 September 2002.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President at Massachusetts Victory 2002 Reception, 4 October 2002.
Bush, G. W. Remarks by the President at the Signing of HR 5005, The Homeland Security Act of 2002,
The East Room, Washington, DC, 25 November 2002.
Bush, G. W. Remarks to the People of Poland, Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow, Poland, 31 May 2003.
Bush, G. W. Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, Washingon, DC,
20 January 2004.
Bush, G. W. President Bush Visits Nashville, Tennessee, 11 March 2008.
Cheney, R., Vice President, Arrival Statements By Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon And Vice
President Richard Cheney, Prime Minister’s Office Jerusalem, 18 March 2002.
Cheney, R., Vice President, Remarks to the Heritage Foundation, The Ronald Reagan Building,
Washington, DC, 1 May 2003.
Lantos, T., Remarks By U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (democrat-California) Press Conference
Berlin, Germany, 22 February 2002.
Melshen, P., Marine Colonel, Address to Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
Conference, 27 June 2003.
Powell, C. L., Secretary of State, Remarks by the President, Secretary of State Colin Powell and
Attorney General John Ashcroft, Camp David; 15 September 2001.
Powell, C. L., Secretary of State, Remarks with His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani,
Amir of the State of Qatar, October 3 2001.
Powell, C. L., Secretary of State, Remarks at Business Event in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China,
18 October 2001.
Reagan, R., Address before a joint session of Congress on the State of the Union, 27 January 1987.
Rumsfeld, D., Secretary of Defense, Interview with Editiorial Board of USA Today, News Transcript
from United States Department of Defense, 24 October 2001.
Rumsfeld, D., Secretary of Defense, News Briefing, Defense Department, 29 October 2001.
Rumsfeld, D., Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense News Briefing, 6 March 2002.
Washington, G., President of the United States, Farewell Address, 19 September 1796.
Wolfowitz, P., Deputy Secretary of Defense, Testimony Prepared For The House Budget Committee
2003 Defense Budget Request, Washington, DC, 12 February 2002.
Wolfowitz, P., Deputy Secretary of Defense, Fletcher Conference, Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center, 14 November 2001.
Wolfowitz, P., Deputy Secretary of Defense, Prepared Testimony: “Building a Military for the 21st
Century,” to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 4 October 2001.