Heather HayesIn her book Violent Subjects and Rhetorical Cartography in the Age of the Terror Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Studies Heather Ashley Hayes examines the rise of the U.S. armed drone program, the power of political rhetoric and the ways in which governments and citizens turn to violence as a response to, or product of, the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. She provides perspective about the book below.


What are three ways in which political rhetoric has changed since 9/11, and how have those changes contributed to the rise of counterterrorism initiatives like the U.S. armed drone program?

First, the war on terror is framed as far-reaching, with no clearly defined enemy other than the amorphous "terrorist." Terrorists can live in any country and can commit acts of terrorism anywhere in the world at any time. Anyone at war with terrorists is thus at war with anyone and everyone who might commit an act falling within the broad category of "terrorism." With this level of ambiguity in the rhetoric of the terrorist, it is critical when other terms are used to help define the category. Battles in the U.S. political sphere about attaching the term "Islamic" before the word "terrorist" reflect the power of rhetoric to shape public understanding of the war on terror. An audience can't know who the terrorists are until they are identified as being "Islamic." That frame now has the authority to mobilize political action and military violence against an enemy. In this case, since "terrorist" remains increasingly ambiguous (what in rhetorical studies we might call an empty signifier), "Islamic" becomes the identifying feature of the enemy, a mistaken conflation between a major world religion and a set of categorical actions with no specific relation to Islam or Muslims.

Second, in this post-9/11 discourse, terrorists are constantly changing tactics and strategy. As President Obama stated in December 2015, "Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. ... Over the last few years however, the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase." As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump upped the ante in thinking about new techniques in the terror wars when he suggested in December 2015 that, "We're fighting a politically correct war. ... When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families." This rhetoric authorizes changes in U.S. counterterrorism strategy that can lead to increased dependence on lethal technological innovations like the U.S. armed drone program.

Thirdly, the discourse since 9/11 and the development of U.S. armed drone attacks across the "Islamic" Middle East have authorized increased killing of innocent civilians, most often Arab or Muslim people. President Trump's suggestion that it is acceptable to kill family members of suspected terrorists is a war crime, according to the Geneva Conventions, by which the United States is bound. In addition, Trump's rhetoric of vastly expanding the number of targets within the terror wars, coupled with a more general post-9/11 rhetoric that doesn't clearly define any specific enemy outside of Islam, has facilitated an increase of violent U.S. intervention directed at the Middle East. During Trump's first 100 days in office, U.S. armed drone attacks increased by 432 percent and the administration's actions have killed an estimated 1,000 civilians in Iraq and Syria alone. In addition, the U.S. armed drone program can hardly be understood as tactically successful. Reports by The Intercept, never contested by either the Obama or Trump administrations, indicate that in one region of Afghanistan alone, 90 percent of the people killed by U.S. armed drone attacks (in a country where 99 percent of the citizens are Muslim) were not the intended targets. In short, these shifts in political rhetoric in the United States after 9/11 should alarm us. Authorizing a never-ending, borderless, tactically evolving war effort across the globe has serious consequences—financially, socially, and ethically—for the future of all people, with increasingly devastating consequences for Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim) around the world.


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