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Limits to the War on Terror

THERE ARE LIMITS to using the war on terror as a tool of persuasion, according to a recent paper by Kenneth Zagacki, a professor of rhetoric and public address at North Carolina State University.

Zagacki’s paper, which was published in The Southern Communication Journal, assessed the controversy surrounding the U.S. Navy’s attempt to build an outlying landing field (OLF) to simulate aircraft carrier jet landings in rural North Carolina’s Beaufort and Washington counties. Zagacki outlines how the area’s residents, who opposed giving up their land for the project, successfully countered the Navy’s justifications for approving the plans.

The OLF controversy began in 2003, with the Navy arguing that the area was vital to the war on terror and national security. The Navy began to acquire land for the OLF in 2004, but resistance was strong by 2005. By January 2008, the Navy had abandoned its plans to put the OLF in North Carolina’s Washington and Beaufort counties.

Zagacki says that right after 9-11, the war-on-terror argument was accepted as nearly irrefutable justification for anything the government supported. “Most people were pretty much willing to do whatever their government or their military was telling them—possibly even giving up their homes,” he says.

Rightly or wrongly, that effect has dissipated. Controversial tactics, such as torture, have led to “a good bit of disillusionment,” says Zagacki. And that makes it harder for government actions to be sold to the public purely on the basis of being good for the war on terrorism.

Individuals are now in the habit of viewing the Department of Homeland Security as a bureaucracy like any other, agrees University of Iowa Communications Professor Bruce Gronbeck.

As 9-11 recedes, homeland security “becomes something we kind of take for granted, and even see as something that may be causing us more problems than it’s solving,” Gronbeck says.

In addition to making ecological arguments against the OLF, one of the ways that the local area residents countered the Navy’s war-on-terror arguments was by emphasizing their rights of free choice as well as the heritage of the area and their unique contributions as farmers.

According to Robert Ivie, an Indiana University rhetoric professor who was quoted in the paper, “They were saying, in a sense, that to fight the war on terrorism in a way that takes away our own freedoms is a contradiction.”

Gronbeck says the need to protect freedoms versus the need for security has been part of the American argument since the 18th century. “The protection and security argument has much tougher ground to fight for than the freedom argument,” says Gronbeck. However, Ivie stresses that, rather than focusing on a broader argument, the community members fought this on a very localized level, as in, “don’t build here, build somewhere else.”

Zagacki also writes that there was a sense of scapegoating that occurred. The Navy was essentially arguing that the locals who opposed OLF were standing in the way of fighting terrorists. However, the opposition fought back against such attacks by emphasizing their patriotic credentials and personal military connections during hearings on the OLF matter.

“These people have always tended to espouse conservative, pro-military views,” writes Zagacki. He adds, “They, like many other North Carolinians, proudly refer to North Carolina as the ‘military’s most friendly state.’”

But because of the local community’s use of the patriotism argument, Ivie thinks that they actually reinforced the government’s war-on-terror worldview. “In that sense, if the Navy and the administration suffered a tactical defeat, they won a strategic battle, if you will, in that the whole framework is reaffirmed,” Ivie says.