BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the New York Times reported that the Bush Administration was retiring the phrase, "war on terror," in favor of a new moniker, "the global war against violent extremism." We heard a prototype as early as five months ago. Donald Rumsfeld tried it out at a Pentagon briefing in February.
DEFENSE SECRETARY RUMSFELD: An overriding priority must be to ensure that commanders have the troops and the equipment that they need to prevail in the "global struggle against extremism."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By June one more word had been added to the slogan, "violent." Here's Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a congressional hearing on June 23rd.
DONALD RUMSFELD: Iraq isn't just a battle in the struggle against violent extremism and al Qaeda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But before we turn to the new phrase, we thought we'd recall how he fixed on the old one. Soon after 9/11 we spoke to Stephen Sloan, author of the Historical Dictionary of Terrorism, who told us the word had quite a different meaning when it was first invoked.
STEPHEN SLOAN: It really appeared during the French Revolution, what was called the "Great Terror" under Robespierre. What Robespierre did was focus on the emergence of state terrorism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean terrorism committed by the regime.
STEPHEN SLOAN: That's right. The systematic of terror to enforce compliance to the regime's dictates. Certainly, the word, I think, has really become very significant. I would use in the modern age the Munich massacre as the beginning of modern terrorism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By the Munich massacre you mean an extremist group that-- [OVERTALK]
STEPHEN SLOAN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --targeted the Israeli wrestling team at the Munich Olympics.
STEPHEN SLOAN: That's exactly right. And the reason it became a defining moment, I think, we twofold. One, the terrorists were using as their mode of operations aircraft. In essence, they were delivery systems to launch attacks at an area far away from their disputed homeland. But, secondly, and I think this is much more significant, the Munich massacre spread fear and intimidation to a global audience because through the medium of television the perpetrators got their message across to a global audience. And I think that's what was particularly significant about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Monday General Myers told the National Press Club that he objected to the phrase "war on terrorism" to describe the current conflict because it implies that soldiers are the solution. But terror, he said, isn't the enemy. Violent extremists are. Terror is just the method they use. Michael Scheuer worked in the CIA for 22 years. For three of them, he served as the Chief of the agency's Osama bin Laden Unit. Last year, under the pseudonym Anonymous, he published Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. And he told us that in his view Myers is exactly right.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Somebody said once a war against terrorism is like fighting a war against the dive bomber or a battleship. Terrorism is a tactic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How can you fight an enemy you can't or won't identify? He says the new phrase brings us a little closer, but only a little.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think it injects a little bit of reality to the situation, although they remain politically correct because they're calling it violent extremism and not mentioning the word "Islam." But generally it is a recognition that the war, I think, is not going very well and it's going to take a very long time to rectify the problem that the government has gotten itself into.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you say they're being politically correct in avoiding the word "Islam," does that suggest you think the word should be in there somewhere?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well clearly, the violence that we're confronting as a country is being conducted by Islamic militants. Our political leaders seem to think that it's politically incorrect or racist to tell the American people the truth. I think that's why it was called the "global war on terrorism" to start with, so they could avoid using the word "Islam."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But wouldn't they be able to charge us with waging a Christian or maybe a Judeo-Christian war against them?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: They already do. They clearly see this as a religious war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we don't see it that way.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Well, that's why we're losing. The war has to do with the perception in the Islamic world that U.S. foreign policy toward Muslims is a threat to their survival. And the more we try to make that foreign policy successful, the more we grow the enemy, if you will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the subtitle of your book, "Why the West is Losing the War on Terror," incorporates this very phrase that we've been talking about. And, not to get too tautological about this, but do you think that part of the answer of why we're losing the war has to do with the phrase, the way the problem has been framed?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yes, because I don't think we're really fighting terrorists. I'm not quite sure what word you would settle on. I was going to use "Islamic insurgency" in the title. But the publisher didn't think that that would sell very well, so we settled on "war on terrorism."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your publisher thought that the word "terror" was much more marketable than the phrase "Islamic insurgency." Do you think that marketing consciousness is also what motivated the White House to use it so much?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Oh, I think so because you associate the word "terrorism" with sort of a fellow who just likes to light a bomb and throw it into a gathering of people to kill them. It's much easier to rally the American people, for example, to defend their liberties, their lifestyle and their freedom than so say we're going to fight because we need oil from the Persian Gulf, and so your sons and daughters in the military may die in order to allow the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia to continue stealing most of the oil revenues from their citizens. Words are very important here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I see you have no particular opinion [LAUGHS] about this. [LAUGHTER] You know, I have to wonder, how do you grade the American press in its reporting on terrorism and its causes? Are the journalists asking the right kinds of questions?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Oh no. They buy the baloney about bin Laden not representing any significant portion of the Muslim world, that his philosophy is basically he likes to kill other people. And if you look at the evidence that is available, there's absolutely nothing to support that. He's a rational actor. I'm not sure if 10 percent of the journalists I've talked to have ever read anything that bin Laden has said. And the stuff is easily available. There's nothing you need that's classified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you're saying that "journalists are buying that baloney," what you're basically saying is that they relied far too much on the White House to set the terms of the debate.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Yeah, I think it's easy. The President, of course, has a great moral authority in the country, no matter what party he is. And, in addition, if you're going to understand what bin Laden is saying, it's long and torturous work. You know, there's probably 12 or 14 hundred pages of his statements and speeches over the last decade. So the President says, you know, he doesn't have any goals, he's an inhuman killer, well you take that and run with it. I think, generally speaking, Muslim journalists have done a far better job of covering this war than American or western journalists. We say these people hate freedom and they hate liberty, and they think our society is vile. The question I would ask was if you make that argument, why does Europe and the United States have such a problem with immigration from the Islamic world. If our society was hated, would parents be bringing their children here? But I've never heard any politician confronted with that question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, while we wait for somebody to pose that question, you think that exchanging the global war on terror for a global struggle against violent extremism is some baby step forward?
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I think it's an improvement in the direction of truth. But how far we get along the road to truth is going to depend on people asking General Myers or his successor General Pace what the heck do they mean. If it's not terror and it's extremism, what's motivating the extremism? I think in terms of America's survival, rhetoric--public speaking has to become much more precise and much more frank and honest. Right now there is basically no discussion of the enemy in the United States and what motivates him. In order to really understand the seriousness of the threat posed by bin Laden, we would have to talk about our relationship with Israel, we'd have to talk about the foolishness of being dependent on fossil fuels 30 years after the oil embargo, we would have to confront the mockery of our own heritage that we practice by supporting police states across the Islamic world, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Algeria. And so, our rhetoric has become kind of analysis by assertion, rather than any kind of frank discussion that would encourage a substantive debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Michael Scheuer, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: You're welcome, ma'am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. (MUSIC)