Using Moral Content to Justify Undemocratic Counterterrorism Policies

The label “terrorist” carries with it a moral condemnation. Terrorists carry out senseless acts of violence against innocent people; they are, therefore, evil. Reports of ISIS beheading a captive or Boko Haram kidnapping school girls only seem to reinforce this perspective. When it comes to combatting terrorists, the public comes to support—or, at least, tolerate—policies that most people would otherwise reject as unjust or immoral (e.g., drone strikes, “enhanced interrogation,” indefinite detention) because they promise to eradicate this evil. One of my research interests concerns how political leaders construct the figure of the “terrorist” as a morally condemnable political actor to justify potentially undemocratic counterterrorism policies.

In a recent study, I analyzed speeches made by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama that reference terrorism in the decade following the September 11, 2001 attacks (2001-2013). I compared the content of statements regarding terrorist actors to the moral dimensions specified in Moral Foundations Theory. This theory contends that six dimensions comprise our morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, and sanctity/degradation. We, therefore, base our moral judgments not only considerations of harm and fairness but also on the extent to which others uphold standards regarding legitimate authority, obligations to one’s fellow group members, spiritual and physical purity, and respect for the rights of others.

Describing the Problem of Terrorism to Justify Particular Solutions

My analysis sought to determine how much President Bush and President Obama made use of these dimensions of morality to delegitimize terrorist actors and to justify controversial aspects of US counterterrorism strategies. I found that speeches made by both Bush and Obama—presidents from two different political parties—featured content corresponding to the six moral dimensions outlined in Moral Foundations Theory. This content reflected six themes that sought to characterize the “terrorist” figure and frame it as a problem requiring specific solutions.

The moral content present within Bush and Obama’s speeches thus constituted a rhetorical framework from which they could frame US counterterrorism policies as both necessary and rational responses to the threat posed by terrorism. The table below lists these themes, representative statements from Bush and Obama, and how they legitimize policies like enhanced interrogation, pre-emptive war, and drone strikes.

Moral Dimension Theme Example Rationalization of Policy
Care/ Harm terrorist-as-murderer “To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties—not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places—like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu—where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.” (Obama 23 May 2013) Drone strikes are legitimate because they kill less people than would otherwise be killed by the terrorist-as-murderer.
Fairness/ Cheating terrorist-as-unjust "Thousands of very skilled and determined military personnel are on a manhunt, going after the remaining killers who hide in cities and caves and one by one, we will bring those terrorists to justice….After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got.” (Bush 20 Jan 2004) Terrorists must be brought to justice via a military-based response because A) it is the only strategy that will be effective and B) it is what the terrorist-as-unjust deserves.
Liberty/ Oppression terrorist-as-tyrant “The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two diametrically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience and marks unbelievers for murder. The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.” (Bush 15 Jan 2009) Because the terrorist-as-tyrant aims to oppress people, policies advocating democracy—like regime change—are legitimate ways to fight terrorism, and will be successful at eradicating it.
Authority/ Subversion terrorist-as-chaos “In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.” (Obama 1 Dec 2009) The terrorist-as-chaos wants to foment chaos because it thrives in such contexts. Policies increasing stability—like a prolonged military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan—are therefore legitimate counterterrorism strategies.
Loyalty/ Betrayal terrorist-as-divisive “A little over a year ago, the fight in Iraq was faltering. Extremist elements were succeeding in their efforts to plunge Iraq into chaos. They had established safe havens in many parts of the country. They were creating divisions among the Iraqis along sectarian lines. And their strategy of using violence in Iraq to cause divisions in America was working as pressures built here in Washington for withdrawal before the job was done.” (Bush 19 Mar 2008) The terrorist-as-divisive seeks to divide the societies they target, like Iraq and the US. We need to maintain unity, especially when it comes to supporting the government’s counterterrorism policies, to prevent the terrorist-as-divisive from succeeding in its goal.
Sanctity/ Degradation terrorist-as-contagion “We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That’s why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.” (Obama 1 Dec 2009) The terrorist-as-contagion will spread unless it is contained. Broadening the US scope of US military intervention(to include places like Pakistan) is thus necessary to insure that the terrorist-as-contagion won’t infect the entire region.

The Hegemony of the “War on Terrorism Discourse”

These findings illustrate how political leaders use moral content to not only distinguish certain groups from other political groups, but also to provide a rationale for controversial policies. Bush and Obama both described terrorism as a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted set of solutions. These and other arguments present in the speeches I analyzed comprise a central tenant of the War on Terrorism discourse, which, Richard Jackson argues, was deliberately created:

to make people who would otherwise be circumscribed by normal social codes of nonviolence, tolerance, and human rights, complicit or even willing participants in a massive project of counterterrorist violence. (p. 181; see also Jackson, 2007)

We must be acutely aware of this discourse, particularly in its use by political leaders to describe and delegitimize certain groups of people on a moral basis to further undemocratic foreign policy strategies


 Source Material:

Pilecki, A. (2015). The moral dimensions of the terrorist category construction in presidential rhetoric and their use in legitimizing counterterrorism policy. Qualitative Psychology. doi: 10.1037/qup0000037

To cite this post:

Pilecki, A. (2016, February, 8). Using moral content to justify undemocratic counterterrorism policies [Web log post]. Retreived from


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Founder and administrator of the Moral Communities Project. Currently a post-doctoral researcher at IDC Herzliya.

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