How Security Discourse Shapes the Threat of Terrorism

By Andre Lopes Massa

Since 9/11, terrorism has come to be regarded as the greatest existential threat to Western civilization by policy makers and citizens alike. Despite the relatively barren history regarding terrorism before and since 9/11, a politics of fear has gripped the West in taking extreme measures despite the revelation that it is more likely for the average person to get struck by lightning or drown in their own bathtub then get killed in a terrorist attack. Current discourse on terrorism is focused on characterizing the terrorist body as one who threatens our American way of life and is motivated by nothing than the desire to see the destruction of America and the values she represents. This discourse has permeated itself into every facet of political decision-making and civil society to the point where we have constructed institutions such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Travel Security Administration to combat this “threat”. This paper seeks to examine how current discourse on terrorism since 9/11 is characterized and heavily influenced by the logic of security introduced by Barry Buzan and the Copenhagen School and continues to introduce current U.S policy against the “threat of terrorism”. My argument here is that terrorism, as a spectacle and an existential threat to the U.S and the rest of the western world, is not real; it is just a construction necessitated by the logic of security and the different forms that security discourse (discourse being defined as the way we think and speak about ideas) takes, such as Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and the construction of the terrorist based on lines of sexuality as argued by Jasbir Puar in her book Terrorist Assemblages. It is through the examinations of these specific forms of discourse and the “us versus them” mentality that each of them is structured upon that is reminiscent of the Buzan’s logic of security and contributes to the legitimization of extreme policy making we see today.

The concept of securitization is a relatively new and dynamic concept introduced in the international relations. The Copenhagen School’s concept introduced by Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap De Vilde has been received with mixed attitudes by international relations scholars. Introduced in 1998 by Buzan, Waever and De Vilde in their book Security: A New Framework for Analysis, the Copenhagen School argues that security “is about survival. It is when an issue presented as posing an existential threat to a designated referent object. The special nature of security justifies the use of the use of extraordinary measures to handle them.” (Buzan, Waever, De Vilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, pg. 21). In this context, we can see some similarities between the Copenhagen School’s analysis of security and realism; insofar as both schools of thought focus on a state’s desire for survival. However, the Copenhagen School’s analysis of security is more focused on the kinds of discourse that characterize security logic and the justification of extraordinary means, like the Department of Homeland Security in relation to the threat of terrorism, against a constructed threat. On this matter, the Copenhagen School argues, “Traditionally, by saying ‘security’, a state representative declares an emergency condition, thus claiming a right to use whatever means are necessary to block a threatening development.” (Buzan, Waever, De Vilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, pg. 21). To better understand this concept in relation to current events, one can think of the context the term “national security” is used and the kinds of threats it is often associated with; terrorism being a prime example. The Copenhagen School argues that democracies are not immune to corruption by the logic of security. In fact, according to the Copenhagen School, democracies may be even more prone to the logic of security because the discourse that constitutes security logic often legitimizes the removal of discursive justifications for extreme measures because the construction of an existential threat legitimizes the use of extraordinary means. The Copenhagen School argues, “Some security discourse is not legitimized in public by security discourse because they are not out in the public at all but this is actually a very clear case of the security logic. In a democracy, at some point it must be argued by the public sphere why a situation constitutes security and therefore can legitimately be handled differently. One could not take something out of the budget without giving reason for the use of such extraordinary procedure. When this procedure has been legitimized through security rhetoric, it becomes institutionalized as a package legitimization, and is thus possible to have black security boxes in the political process. The speech act requires public influence on these issues, but in democracies one must legitimize in public why from now on the details will not be presented publicly.” (Buzan, Waever, De Vilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, pg. 28). It is important to note the idea of security being a speech act because it sets the framework for how we can analyze the relationship between the logic of security and the discourse that characterizes the threat of terrorism. In his article, The Role of Discourse in the Social Construction of Terrorism, Sotirios Karampampas argues that one of the facets of the logic of security is the construction of the “other” and the discursive indication of an “us versus them” mentality against the constructed threat in order to maintain the identity of the nation state. Karampampas writes, “the discursive dependency of identity of difference, in order to define itself, and the threat that the latter represent, shape the ‘paradox of difference’, which also applies to the formation of the identity of other imagery entities, such as the state or the nation. Consequently owing to the notion that ‘identity is achieved through the inscription of boundaries that serve to demarcate an inside from an outside, a self from an other, a domestic from a foreign, a state’s security is bound into a dependent relationship with it’s insecurity.” (Karampampas, The Role of Discourse in the Social Construction of Terrorism, pg. 21). It is precisely the reinscribing of the identity of the nation state and the construction of the “other from the outside” that is important in being able to understand how discourse constructs the threat of terrorism through the logic of security and the speech act that characterizes securitization, whether it be on lines of Western perceptions of the Middle East, as Edward Said and Richard Jackson argue through the concept of Orientalism, or gender and sexual differences as argued by Jasbir Puar. These two specific forms of discourse show how the logic of security and the discourse it produces can manifest itself into different forms.

Originally intended to refer to a specific form of art by Western Europeans depicting the Middle East, the term “orientalism “has since been transformed by Edward Said to encompass almost every perception that the Western world has of the Middle East. In his 1979 book Orientalism; Edward Said describes the figure of the Orient as an “integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies, and colonial styles” (Said, Orientalism, pg. 2). While Edward Said traced the history of Middle Eastern depictions in Western Europe since the 18th century, this paper will go in a different direction. My argument is that Orientalism and the depictions it represents have expanded to include the figure of the terrorist and that this discourse, which Said notes has “become a political fact” and even has supporting institutions (much like the institutions that support security discourse). Writing in 1979, Said notes, “The difference between representations of the Orient before the eighteenth century and those after it is that the range of representations expanded enormously in the later period.” (Said, Orientalism, pg. 22). Orientalism is key understanding how the terrorist has come to represent modern depictions of the Middle East and partially shapes discourse regarding terrorism. Continuing on from this idea, Richard Jackson of the University of Canterbury writes in his article, Constructing enemies: “Islamic terrorism “in political and academic discourse that terrorism discourse is “terrorism is rooted in the assumptions, theories and knowledge of terrorism studies. The discourse derives a great many of its core assumptions, labels and narratives from the long tradition and archive of orientalist scholarship on the Middle East and Arab culture and religion. The discourse draws on a long tradition of cultural stereotypes and deeply hostile media representations and depictions of Islam and Muslims.16 Typically, in portraying Muslims, the mainstream media has tended to employ frameworks centered on violence, threat, extremism, fanaticism and terrorism, although there is also a visual orientalist tradition in which they are portrayed as exotic and mysterious.” (Jackson, Constructing enemies: “Islamic terrorism “in political and academic discourse, pg. 11-12). These depictions can include the stereotype that most Muslims are likely “to have a bomb strapped to their chest” or that most bearded Arab men are somehow “associated with the Taliban”. These depictions are rooted in the logic of security. Recall Karampampas’s description of the logic of security as involving the construction of the “other”. The other, in the case of Orientalist discourse, is the figure of the Arab terrorist who must be exterminated because they are depicted as an existential threat. The “securitization” against the figure of the “Islamic terrorist” because of the state’s desire to preserve their self-identity and achieve a form of “ontological security”. Brent Steele in his book, Ontological Security in International Relations, writes, “Ontological security is important because its fulfillment affirms it’s self identity. Nation-states seek ontological security because they want to maintain consistent self-concepts, and the ‘Self’ of states is constituted and maintained through a narrative which gives life to routinized foreign policy actions.” (Steele, Ontological Security in International Relations, pg. 2-3). Two main points can be drawn from this argument in relation to Orientalism representing a form of security discourse. A) The figure of the Middle East terrorist represents a threat to the self-perception that the U.S has of itself; as a white, Christian nation and B) narratives of American exceptionalism force the U.S to take aggressive foreign policy action in the Middle East against the figure of the Islamic terrorist branded as the “other” in order to maintain he projection of the identity that the U.S is “responsible for the spread of democracy (a western concept) to the rest of the world” and “remains a beacon on the hill”. It is this desire to see preserve one’s desire identity that is rooted in the logic of security as Orientalist depictions of the figure of the “Islamic terrorist” causes us to take preemptive measures based off of these racist depictions in order to purge society of the forces that may threaten normative depictions of society and destroy the sense of ontology that we have of ourselves. The same line of reasoning can be used in examining Jasbir Puar’s analysis of terrorist discourse along lines of gender and sexuality.

Much like Edward Said and Richard Jackson, Jasbir Puar’s argument focuses on the depictions of the terrorist figure by the West in order to A) preserve one’s ontological conception of their self-identity and B) to maintain a narrative of American excpetionalism. In the case of Puar, it is divisions among lines of sexuality that current discourse on terrorism constructs the threat on. In her 2007 book Terrorist Assemblage homonationalism in queer times, Puar argues, “There has been a curious and persistent absence of dialogue regarding sexuality in public debates about counterterrorism, despite its crucial presence in American patriotism, warmongering, and empire building. Without these discourses of sexuality- heterosexuality, homosexuality, queerness, metrosexuality, alternative and insurgent sexuality- the twin mechanisms of normalization and banishment that distinguish the terrorist from the patriot would cease to properly behave. At this historical juncture, the invocation of the terrorist as a queer, non-national, perversely racialized other has become part of the normative script of the U.S war on terror. One need only reflect upon the eager proliferation of homophobic-racist images of terrorists since September 11, 2001.” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblage homonationalism in queer times, pg. 37). This is the logic of security at play, in both the physical sense and the ontological sense. Using the framework of analysis that the Copenhagen school and Karampampas present, Puar’s analysis is indicative of the logic of security because the terrorist is perceived as a queer body who threatens the American ontological conception of a heteronormative state of being that America wishes to maintain, thus justifying the extraordinary measures that we take against the queer body framed as the figure of the terrorist (Department of Homeland Security, racial profiling, TSA etc.). It is critical to note, however, the depiction of the queer terrorist as the “Other” who must be exterminated in which heteronormative discourse on terrorism is rooted in the logic of security. Puar herself notes, “Through this binary reinforcing ‘your either with us or against us’ normativizing apparatus, the war on terror has rehabilitated some- clearly not all or most- lesbians, gays and queers to U.S national citizenship within a spatial-temporal domain I am invoking as ‘homonationalism’ for short for ‘homonormative’ nationalism.” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblage homonationalism in queer times, pg. 38). Recalling Steele’s analysis of why state’s desire ontological security due to the desire to project narratives of one’s own conception of identity onto others, the discursive construction of the queer body into the figure of the terrorist is motivated by the desire to maintain the narrative of American exceptionalism; in the context of Puar’s argument a narrative of American “gender exceptionalism”. Puar notes, “The recent embrace of the case of Afghani and Iraqi and Muslim women in general by western feminists has generated many forms of U.S gender exceptionalism. Gender exceptionalism works as missionary discourse to rescue Muslim women from their oppressive male counterparts. It also works to suggest that, in contrast to women in the United States, Muslim women are, at the end of the day, unsavable. More insidiously, these discourses of exceptionalism allude to the unsalvageable nature of the Muslim women by even their own feminists, positioning the American feminist as the subject par excellence.” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblage homonationalism in queer times, pg. 5). In the context of Puar’s argument, recent foreign policy actions started during the Bush Administration and continued under the Obama administration are motivated by the desire of America to project it’s own identity as the “savior of the oppressed Muslim women from the clutches of the monstrous terrorist”. Hence, discourse of American exceptionalism justifying aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East regarding “spreading democracy” and “enforcing human rights” is motivated by the desire to use these western concepts to save Muslim women and project the image of a benevolent empire. The queer body is constructed as the terrorist to be the “Other” that we securitize against and take pre-emptive action against in order to maintain the ontological perception of the “Self” projected on the rest of the western world. To threaten hetronormative conceptions of American society and life forces one to the periphery of the queer body represented as the figure of the terrorist and an “oppressor of the Muslim women” through the ethnocentric lens of American exceptionalism. It is this form of discourse that, like Said’s conception of orientalism, is rooted in the logic of security that has transformed the definition of the word “terrorist” from one classifying non-state political actors to a term used to delegitimize the “Other” along lines of race, gender, and sexuality.

The original definition of terrorism, in its most basic form as introduced by the National Institute of Justice[1], defines terrorism as, “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”On the face of it, such a tactic has been a political tactic since the times of the French Revolution and would continue throughout the 19th and 20th century. Under this definition, the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, the act that ultimately sparked World War I, is regarded as an act of terrorism yet many seem to gloss over this event in favor of coming to regard the word terrorism as a representation of the spectacle and awe-inspiring event that current discourse on terrorism has constructed it to be. Because of the state’s innate desire to maintain an ontological perception of the self, the word “terrorism” has come to be radically transformed into a term used to represent our orientalist and homophobic depictions of the enemy. Political acts such as the aforementioned assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Reichstag Fire of Berlin on February 27, 1933, the act that was ultimately used by the Nazis as evidence that the communists were plotting against Germany in order to pass an “emergency decree” that gave Adolf Hitler virtually absolute power, are glossed over by the public in favor of an orientalist, homophobic depiction of the terrorist. Jasbir Puar notes that the common depiction of Osama Bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks was “portrayed as monstrous by association of the sexual and bodily perversity (versions of both homosexuality and hypertrophied heterosexuality, or failed monogamy, that is, an Orientalist version of polygamy, as well as disability) through images in popular culture. (Puar, Terrorist Assemblage homonationalism in queer times, pg. 38). The perversion of Osama Bin Laden’s body by the media acts as the referent object that the Copenhagen school says is necessary to construct a threat by association and turn it into a “security issue” that demands extraordinary means to eradicate and political organization built around the prioritization of the eradication of that threat. A second element comes into play regarding the evolution of the definition of terrorism as means of delegitimizing a non-state actor and, in turn, legitimizing the state. Sotirios Karampampas argues that the “label of terrorism has an initial result to greatly discredit either a group or even a whole struggle for self-determination or national liberation, since the deployment of terrorist tactics, by no more than elements of the former or the later, can be exploited to condemn them. Thus, the deployment of naming strategies states endeavor to prevail over their non-state adversaries, in a dispute over legitimacy and power. In addition, owing to the fact that terrorists, through their deeds challenge the monopoly of violence of the state, they are partaking with the later in a ‘war of words’, in which those accused of terrorism will respond by labeling their accusers as the ‘real’ terrorists.” (Karampampas, The Role of Discourse in the Social Construction of Terrorism, pg. 36-37). Under the interpretation of the word “clandestine” (defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as being an action, “done in a private place or way: done secretly), U.S foreign policy during the Cold War, particularly during the Greek Civil War in 1946 in which the CIA created a security agency to assist neo-fascist Hellenic Army and the 1973Chilean coup d’état where the CIA assisted pro-American military dictator Augusto Pinochet in overthrowing Socialist incumbent Salvador Allende (Blum, A Brief History of U.S. Interventions: 
1945 to the Present, 1999) can be considered acts of terrorism. However, the U.S continually whitewashes over its own past actions in favor of A) diverting attention away from the state onto the referent object that constitutes the constructed existential threat, thereby legitimizing the state and B) maintaining discursive narratives of American exceptionalism in order to maintain the security of our own ontological perceptions of the “Self”. Keeping in line with the desire to maintain ontological security and focus attention on the figure of the terrorist, the FBI[2] has conveniently defined terrorism to “Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”. Note the focus of acts of terrorism being taken against government actors for the purpose of coercion. This arbitrary definition of terrorism is keeping in line with the logic of security because it portrays government actors as the victims of terrorism, thereby legitimizing the extraordinary means the state can take to eradicate the threat and legitimizing discourses of fear that justify securitization. The transformation of the definition of terrorism is yet another way that the logic of security operates to discursively construct the threat of terrorism as an existential threat that has necessitated a politics of fear in the status quo.

Addressing Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush echoed the fear many Americans felt during the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on New York City. Whether he was aware of it or not, President Bush’s speech also ushered in the discourse of security logic when he stated, “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks, but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.” (Bush, 09/20/01)[3]. This is the first step in the securitization process, the speech act that constitutes the logic of security. By identifying as the victim, President Bush has created the discursive platform on which he can construct the existential threat and enforce the “us versus them” mentality that is crucial in the identification of the enemy. “Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money; its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” (Bush, 09/20/01). Here we have the identification of Al-Qaeda as the “Other”. By using the analogy that “Al-Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime”, President Bush has created the referent object the Copenhagen school argues is necessary in the construction of an existential threat that demands extraordinary means to handle. “And tonight, I also announce a distinguished American to lead this effort, to strengthen American security: a military veteran, an effective governor, a true patriot, a trusted friend, Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge. He will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism and respond to any attacks that may come. These measures are essential. The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it and destroy it where it grows.” (Bush, 09/20/01). Here we have the legitimization of the extraordinary means that are necessary too combat the constructed existential threat. By echoing a discursive sentiment of fear, President Bush is creating the conditions by which the public will accept policies previously thought of as unthinkable by appealing to an emotion of fear. The rise of fear driven discourse to the status of the dominant form of discourse in the realm of domestic policy has allowed for this form of discourse to be institutionalized, another crucial facet of process of securitization as argued by the Copenhagen School. The first of these institutions created to reflect the dominant discourse of fear and security that have dominated the American public since the September 11th attacks is the Department of Homeland Security, established on November 25, 2002 with its own website stating that its, “vital mission is to secure the nation from the many threats we face”. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government has spent more than half a trillion dollars on homeland security while President Obama requested $68.3 billion for 2013, a 1.3% increase from 2012.[4] This is indicative of the logic of security because the appropriation of such a large amount of the federal budget to an institution that has been accused of constantly violating the 4th amendment is a prime example of the prioritization of the eradication of the constructed existential threat as a political issue above all others. Similarly, the recent revelations of the scope of the NSA’s recent actions by Edward Snowden on May 20, 2013 shows that security discourse has continued to be institutionalized in various forms years after the September 11th attacks. It is through the use of securitization studies introduced by the Copenhagen School that we are able to better understand how terrorism has truly manifested itself as an existential threat through the discursive medium of security and fear-driven discourse.

Throughout this paper we have explored how various forms of discourse along the lines of Orientalism, sexuality, and even the very definition of terrorism are representative of the logic of security introduced by the Copenhagen School and the desire for ontological security introduced by Brent Steele have constructed the threat of modern terrorism as an existential threat. My argument does not deny that acts of “terrorism” under the definition presented by the National Institute of Justice as a political tactic do not exist and have never happened but rather that current discourse on terrorism based on the logic of security has transformed it into a spectacle that represents an existential threat. It is this spectacle that is not real because such depictions are simply based on the construction of the “Other” who posses a threat to the west’s perceptions of itself and the continuation of narratives of American exceptionalism. It is through an examination of this discourse and the revealing of the logic that continues to produce it that we can then begin to view “terrorism” through an impartial lens and understand the true epistemological foundations of what constitutes our understanding of “terrorism” today. Only by examining the influence the logic of security can we ever begin to move away from the politics of fear that has plagued us since the tragedy of September 11, 2001.


Works Cited

Blum, William . “A Brief History of U.S Interventions: 1945 to the Present .” U.S. Interventions. Z magazine , 1 June 1999. Web. 8 May 2014. <;.

Buzan, Barry, Ole Waever, and Jaap H. de Wilde. Security: a new framework for analysis. Boulder [u.a.: Rienner, 1998. Print.

“Congressional Budget Office.” The Proposed Homeland Security Budget for 2013. Congressional Budget Office, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 8 May 2014. <;.

“Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S Code.” FBI. FBI, 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 5 May 2014. <;.

“Homeland Security.” About DHS. Department of Homeland Security, n.d. Web. 9 May 2014. <;.

Jackson, Richard. “Constructing Enemies: ‘Islamic Terrorism’ in Political and Academic Discourse.” Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics 43.3 (2007): 394-426. Wiley Online Library. Web. 9 May 2014.

Karampampas, Sotirios . “The Role of Discourse in the Social Construction of Security and Terrorism: Deconstructing the ‘War on terror’.” Academia, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 7 May 2014. <;.

Puar, Jasbir K.. Terrorist assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Said, Edward W.. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 19791978. Print.

Steele, Brent J.. Ontological security in international relations self-identity and the IR state. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

“Terrorism.” National Institute of Justice. Office of Justice Programs, 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 7 May 2014. <;.

“Transcript of President Bush’s Address.” CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Sept. 2001. Web. 8 May 2014. <;.

Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s elementary dictionary. New and expanded ed. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2009. Print.

[1] Taken from Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f

[2] Taken from 18 U.S.C. § 2331. This definition is applied by the FBI to define both actions defined under “domestic terrorism” and “international terrorism”.

[3] Text taken from CNN

[4] Figures taken from The Proposed Homeland Security Budget for 2013 as of September 2012. All years are fiscal years (running from October 1 to September 30).

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