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The Rhetoric of Terrorism: Pray, Combat Evil

Leaders across the globe have struggled to articulate the nature of Tuesday’s attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

In the 24 hours following the terrorist activity, prominent politicians and newspapers have spoken of the events in decidedly religious terms, characterizing the attacks as “evil” and calling for, among other things, prayer.
President Bush has already addressed reporters, and the nation, four times. During his first two conferences at Sarasota, Fla., and then Barksdale Air Force Base, La., he called for, respectively, “a moment of silence” and “a prayer for the victims and their families.”
In his first address from the Oval Office, on Tuesday evening, he summoned the word “evil” four times, once in context of scripture.
— “Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil.”
— “Today our nation saw evil–the very worst of human nature.”
— “The search is underway for those behind these evil acts.”
— “I pray they [the victims] will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.'”
And on Wednesday morning, Bush told the American public from the White House Cabinet Room that “this will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.”
Former President Clinton spoke, too, of malevolent forces.
“A lot of innocent people were killed by an evil force and we’re going to stand together against it until justice is done, accountability is had,” he said from Australia.
British leaders also employed the rhetoric of a primordial battle.
On Tuesday, shortly after the attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the West must fight the “new evil of terrorism.”
“This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world,” he later said, and Britain “will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.”
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the tragedies were “acts of evil and horror beyond the imagination of any of us.”
“I have also told the US government that we stand ready to give whatever help we can to assist in tracking down the perpetrators behind this evil and ensuring that they are brought to justice,” he added.
Newspaper editorials across the land have also opted to frame the attack in no uncertain spiritual and moral terms.
“Evil attacked,” proclaimed a Sept. 12 Los Angeles Times editorial. “The people withstood the assault.”
It continued: “Across the country they [adults] slung arms around children and shared with them a wisdom taught by past tragedies. ‘Yes, you just witnessed evil,’ they told the innocents. ‘But take heart, our world will survive.'”
Later, it urged Americans “to refrain from blaming groups for the evil acts of individuals.”
For the Miami Herald’s Sept. 12 editorial, plain evil would not suffice.
“We then must commit to making this a stronger and safer nation and sparing no expense or effort to bring the perpetrators responsible for such heinous evil to the bar of justice,” it read.
The editorial in the Sept. 12 Tennessean referred to “this atrocity,” “this unspeakable evil,” and even “demonic rashness.”
The Sept. 12 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial spoke not only of “a day of heroism and evil,” but it repeatedly beseeched, “Let us pray for them, and those who love them,” referring to the various groups of victims in planes and office buildings.
“And let us pray for ourselves,” it continued, “for we will have need of spiritual strength to survive this catastrophe with our ideals intact.”
It concluded: “Finally, let us summon one more time the better angels of our nature. … Let us show the world how a free, brave and united nation behaves in the face of calamity and of evil.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.