Communication Currents

A Clockwork War: Rhetorics of Time in a Time of Terror

February 1, 2008
Critical and Cultural Studies

References to time have become major symbols in the War on Terror. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, for example, were primarily identified by time signatures such as the events of September 11, 9/11, or the day that changed everything. President Bush noted that history had been cleaved into two and that "night fell upon a different world." Further, the events of the day are rarely recounted without reference to exact minutes when planes hit and towers fell. Through films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Fahrenhype 9/11, the nation debated exactly how many minutes the president sat reading a children's book after being notified of the attacks. This curious obsession with the clock broadened in the lead up to invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since 9/11 the new time signatures have taken three recognizable forms: the deadline/countdown, the infinite/infinitesimal war, and the ticking clock. These new ways of talking about time and war function mainly to contain democratic deliberation and control anti-war dissent.

The rhetoric of the deadline/countdown has become a dominant public ritual in the lead up to conflict. Here the executive sets the exact time that conflict will begin and the public counts down to that moment. This "war by appointment," as one scholar put it, first appeared in 1991 when George H. W. Bush set a deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. At the time, CBS initiated a "Countdown to Confrontation" motif for its news, and CNN went with "Showdown Iraq." The lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq featured a series of deadlines. Again, television news modeled this public response by featuring countdown clocks as permanent fixtures on the screen. CNN carried forth its "Showdown Iraq" motif from the first Gulf War. In its "Countdown Iraq" coverage, MSNBC had both "ountdown Rundown" and the "Showdown Lowdown." Other news channels followed suit. Instead of debating the merits and consequences of an invasion, networks preferred to approach it as an inevitability, a foregone conclusion, discussed in terms of when rather than if.

The rhetoric of the infinite/infinitesimal war predominates in the midst of conflict and occupation. The War on Terror has been repeatedly characterized by the Bush administration as an infinite one, a war without end. The administration even renamed the War on Terror the Long War. While this rhetoric has the benefit of permanently extending executive war powers, the infinite war has drawbacks for the presidency. War loses meaning without the prospect of peace, so the president found himself arguing for the existence of a war: "Make no mistake about it, we are at war." More importantly, the infinite war tempts the description of quagmire, a word that has come to be synonymous with Vietnam. The administration countered these perceptions by portraying the 2003 war in Iraq as a short, discrete event. This war featured a number of attempts to construct the infinitesimal war including the initial shock and awe bombing strategy, the staged pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein, Bush's May 1, 2003 announcement of an "end to major combat operations," Iraqi elections, various announcements of the end of the insurgency, and so on. The infinite/infinitesimal war thus appears as an infinite number of finish lines. The consistent message is that the war is always almost over, a message that renders protest irrelevant.

Finally, the rhetoric of the ticking clock serves to explain the War on Terror as a whole. This is the argument that, due to the nature of the threat, there simply is not time enough for constraints on executive power. In his 2002 State of the Union Address, for example, President Bush set the scene: "Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning." This vision of the world suggested that certain aspects of international law were no longer relevant, such as the law that a nation must be under "imminent threat" before it can preemptively attack another. The Bush administration's ticking clock rhetoric suggested that either all threats were imminent or that there simply was not enough time to make this determination. This position became known as the Bush Doctrine, and such arguments regarding time helped justify the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ticking clock was also put to use in dismantling the prohibition against torture by the United States. Shortly after 9/11 prominent defense attorney Alan Dershowitz circulated an argument he called the ticking time bomb terrorist scenario. If the state held a terrorist who knew the whereabouts of a ticking bomb that might kill hundreds of people, Dershowitz argued, it should be moral for the state to torture the terrorist for information that might be able to save lives. This scenario eventually became the central plot of the Fox Network's hit show 24, whose main feature is a large ticking clock in the middle of the screen. The story of the ticking clock in some form or another is often at the heart of arguments in favor of the expansion of presidential powers.

Taken together, these three ways of using time function to close down public deliberation and advocate a more authoritarian politics in its place. Because debate is vital to a democratic nation, it is important that we critically engage such arguments. This means understanding the symbolic role that the clock plays in public life.

About the author (s)

Roger Stahl

University of Georgia

Assistant Professor