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.

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


Additional reading:



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

View all posts by

One thought on “Using Moral Content to Justify Undemocratic Counterterrorism Policies

Leave a Reply