Language at War. A Critical Discourse Analysis by Speeches of Bush and Obama on War and Terrorism

Term Paper, 2014

48 Pages, Grade: A+


Table of Contents:


Thesis Statement

Defining Terrorism

Theoretic Framework

Analysis and Discussion of George Bush's Speech

Analysis and Discussion of Barack Obama’s Speech



Appendix 1

Appendix 2


Terrorism, few words have so insidiously worked their way into our everyday language. Most people have a vague idea or concept of what terrorism is, but would be hard-pressed to give a concrete definition of the word. This imprecision has been abetted partly by the modern media, and US presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, whose efforts to communicate an often complex and complicated message in the briefest amount of airtime have led to the generous labelling of a range of violent acts as "terrorism". Thus, it's not surprising that sometimes even within the same news broadcast one can find such contrasting acts as the bombing of a building, the assassination of a politician, the massacre of civilians by a military unit, or the brutal murder of a taxi driver all described as incidents of terrorism. Indeed, virtually any especially repulsive act of violence that is perceived as being directed against a specific society, whether it involves the activities of anti-government dissidents or governments themselves, organized crime or ordinary criminals, rioting mobs or persons engaged in militant protest or individual lunatics is often labelled "terrorism". President Obama, commenting on the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, declared: "Anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror".[1]

Although speeches on terrorism have been part of American politics for a long time, since 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, they seem to have become more important, both with ex-President Bush and the current President Obama. On the morning of September 11, 2001 the world changed with the terrorist attacks and then the political discourse surrounding the event changed our understanding of the event even further. The world witnessed a great act of terrorism. Those old enough still have the images of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center etched into their minds. To these images were later added images of horror and disbelief as the two towers crashed to the ground. Seeing itself as probably the greatest, freest, most decent and most powerful society in existence,[2] the USA has a policy of "no-negotiation-with-terrorists". Therefore, prior to 9/11, political speeches on terrorism were usually used to criticize, warn and invoke fear in the so-called terrorists. However, that night President Bush declared war against terrorism. In a short five-minute speech, Bush addressed the American people in a time of great despair and assured them that the perpetrators would be held accountable and that the USA would not succumb to the threat of terrorism.[3]

In the weeks, months, and years to come Bush gave a series of speeches in which he focused on terrorism, leading up to the coinage of the "Axis of evil".[4] However, in his first post 9/11 speech, Bush's discourse categorized the terrorist as "evil", and in his first speech to Congress post 9/11 we hear for the first time the phrase "War on Terror". This phrase has come to define the presidency of George Bush. It was inherited and further refined by President Obama and has now also to a degree come to define his presidency. In September 2014 Obama held a speech on ISIL and declared them a terrorist organisation with barbaric values. Though 13 years had passed and a democratic President had replaced a Republican President, these words sounds very similar to some of the words which Bush used in his speech.

This has led us to the following thesis statement, which will be the basis for this project.

Thesis Statement

On the basis of Norman Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analyse we will examine the discourse in two speeches by George. W. Bush and Barack Obama to determine in what way they legitimise The War on Terror.

Defining Terrorism

As mentioned in the introduction, US presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, under pressure to communicate an often complex and complicated message in the briefest amount of time, have labelled a range of violent acts as terrorism. But the concept has a long history that will be outlined below.

The concept of terrorism is a complex phenomenon that has received a lot of attention, specifically in the last decades due to the War on Terror. A highly complex phenomenon, terrorism stands at the forefront of national and international agendas. Taking on many forms, terrorism is associated with a wide variety of groups and motivations; and has been presented in different ways often depending on who is speaking. Additionally, the emotionally charged nature of the term itself makes it especially difficult to define. However, the most compelling reason why terrorism is so hard to define is the fact that the meaning of the term has changed so frequently during the last two hundred years.

The term "terrorism" was first popularized during the French Revolution. In contrast to its contemporary usage, at that time terrorism had a decidedly positive denotation. During that period terrorism was defined as: "a revolutionary or anti-governmental activity undertaken by a non-state or sub-national entities, the regime of terror was an instrument of governance wielded by the recently established revolutionary state."[5] It was neither random nor indiscriminate instead it was organized, deliberate and systematic.

By the 1930s, the meaning of "terrorism" had changed again. Instead of referring to revolutionary movements and violence directed against governments and their leaders, the term was now used to describe the practices of mass repression employed by totalitarian states and their dictatorial leaders against their own citizens. Thus, the term regained its former connotations of abuse of power by government, and it was applied specifically with the regimes that had come to power in Fascist Italy, Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.[6] Thus, political enemies both real and imaginary were tortured, exiled or killed in great numbers. The word "terror" became synonymous with governments instead of nationalist movements action on their own.[7]

However, following the Second World War, in another swing of the pendulum, terrorism regained its revolutionary connotations. The colonies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East rebelled against European colonial rule. During the period the term "Freedom Fighter" became politically correct and countries like Algeria, Cyprus, Israel and Kenya owe their independence at least in part to nationalist political movements that employed terrorism in their fight for independence. Many newly independent Third Word countries and in particular communist-block states argued that anyone or any movements that fought against "colonial" oppression and/or Western domination should not be described as "terrorist" but as "freedom fighters". A point eloquently explained by PLO leader Yasir Arafat when he addressed the UN in November 1974.[8]

During the 1960s and 1970s terrorism continued to be viewed within a revolutionary context. However, it expanded to include nationalist and ethnic separatist groups outside a colonial or neo-colonial framework as well as radical and entirely ideologically motivated organizations. Groups like PLO, FLQ and ETA, adopted terrorism as a means to draw attention to themselves and their respective causes.

In the mid 1980s, the term started moving towards the contemporary perception of terrorism. A series of suicide bombings mostly directed against American diplomatic and military targets in the Middle East drew attention to the phenomenon or rising threat of state-sponsored terrorism. Here various renegade foreign governments such as the regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria became actively involved in the funding of terrorist movements whose aim was to destabilize the western world. These actions transformed terrorism into a type of covert or surrogate warfare whereby weaker states could confront larger and more powerful rivals without the risk of retribution.[9] After 9/11, George W. Bush would label all these states "failed states", which viewed any failed, fragile or rouge state as a possible seedbed for Al-Qaeda terrorism. This label has, similar to "terrorism", which has since been applied so widely that it has effectively been rendered useless.

Considering how often the meaning of terrorism has changed, it seems natural that it has been impossible to define legally. Various legal systems and government agencies use different definitions of terrorism in their national legislation. Additionally, the international community has been slow to formulate a universally agreed, legally binding definition of this crime. These challenges arise from the fact that the term "terrorism" is both politically and emotionally charged. Thus, the international community has never succeeded in developing an accepted all-encompassing definition of terrorism. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United Nations attempts to define the term floundered mainly due to differences of opinion between different members about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over self-determination and national liberation. These divergences made it impossible for the UN to come to a single, all-encompassing, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism. In 1994, the UN finally came to a consensus on a watered-down, non-legally binding convention regarding terrorism.[10]


[1] Fermino, J. (2013, April 16). President Obama will attend Boston service for victims, Politics. Daily News.

[2] Souza, D. What's So Great About America (Penguin Books, 2003), p.193.

[3] Selected Speeches of President George W. Bush 2001-2008 - White House Archives, "Address to the Nation on the September 11 Attacks", pp.57.

[4] Selected Speeches of President George W. Bush 2001-2008 - White House Archives, "State of the Union Address to the 107th Congress," pp.105. The "Axis of Evil" included Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

[5] Hoffmann, B. Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[6] Hoffmann, Inside Terrorism, p. 14.

[7] Hoffmann, Inside Terrorism, p. 15.

[8] Laqueur, W. ed. The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict (New York; Bantam, 1976), p. 510.

[9] Martin, D.C. and Walcott, J. Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 46.

[10] Díaz-Paniagua, C.F. Negotiating Terrorism: The Negotiation Dynamics of Four UN Counter-Terrorism Treatires, 1997-2005 (Ann Arbor; ProQuest, 2008), pp.209.

Excerpt out of 48 pages


Language at War. A Critical Discourse Analysis by Speeches of Bush and Obama on War and Terrorism
Discourse and Society
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
673 KB
George W. Bush, Barack Obama, War on Terror, ISIS, Discourse, Norman Fairclough, Critical Discourse Analysis, Discourse and Social Change, War on Terror Speech, Terrorism
Quote paper
Martin Lausten (Author), 2014, Language at War. A Critical Discourse Analysis by Speeches of Bush and Obama on War and Terrorism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Language at War. A Critical Discourse Analysis by Speeches of Bush and Obama on War and Terrorism

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free