As you may know from recent news reports, the terrorist group known as ISIS recently brutally beheaded several American and European journalists in the Middle East. The United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East have begun a strategic bombing campaign to destroy them.
There have been a wide variety of metaphors used described these terrorists. President Obama gave a short speech on September 10 as the Americans began their aerial attacks. Today I would like to share a brief analysis of the metaphors used in that speech.
First, however, a couple clarifications are in order. For one, there are many confusing names for the terrorist group. Most media experts refer to them as ISIS (pronounced EYE-sis) which is an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the countries on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean) with the final “S” indicating the specific country of Syria. Other experts refer to the group as ISIL (EYE-sil) with the “L” referring to the Levant. Yet others use this same acronym but pronounce it as IH-sil, rhyming with whistle. In the speech by President Obama, he refers to the group as ISIL with the long “i” pronunciation. Yet others refer to the group as simply the Islamic State, a name that is somewhat confusing since the group does not belong to any particular country or nation state. Nonetheless, I noticed in browsing through French and Spanish online newspapers, journalists in those countries also refer to the group simply as the Islamic State while those in England refer to it as ISIS as well.
Also, I would like to explain something very interesting about the speech. If you are a student of classical rhetoric, you may have studied that the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle and Cicero, were among the first to analyze what made a speech effective.* Aristotle wrote that a good speech moves the listeners by appealing to their senses of pathos (emotions), logos (logic) and ethos (ethics). Although I have not had a class in classical rhetoric since about the time of the ancient Greeks, I could not help but notice that President Obama’s speech seemed to have been written to appeal to all three of these senses.
At the beginning of the speech, Obama reminded the audience of the brutal behavior of ISIS, including the beheadings of the American journalists.
“In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.”
Although this is an important reason why he was persuaded to launch attacks against ISIS, I believe he also mentioned the beheadings to appeal to the pathos of the listeners. He knows that Americans will be more supportive of military actions if they have an emotional response to the behavior of the terrorist group.
In the middle of the speech, Obama outlines the four steps in his strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. He gave very clear summaries of these four steps and explained why each step had to be taken.
“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”
This part of the speech appeals to our sense of logos. We can understand why a military response is needed given the brutality of the killings mentioned earlier in the speech.
At the end of the speech, Obama explains that America has a moral duty to do something about these terrorists. He suggested that we could not simply sit back and do nothing.
“America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”
With these remarks he appealed to our sense of ethos, including the audience in his sense of a moral obligation to do something to stop the terrorists before they could do any more brutal killings.
By appealing to the listeners’ sense of pathos, logos, and ethos, President Obama most likely was trying to persuade his audience to support him in his military operations at a time in history when most Americans are tired of war.
As for the speech itself, here are a few examples of the metaphors used to further appeal to the audience. Let me begin with several idiosyncratic metaphors to describe the terrorists themselves.
Obama describes the terrorist group as a cancer, using a medical metaphor we all understand as a serious and often fatal medical condition. Even with modern medicine, beating cancer is a daunting task requiring great skill and practice. Obama’s use of the cancer metaphor here indicates that getting ridding of ISIS will also require great skill and patience.
Example: “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.”
In a pair of metaphors used to describe the terrorists, their funding and their source of fighters are compared to a stream of water. In one part of the speech, President Obama describes how to need to stem of the flow of European soldiers into the area who fight with ISIS, as if they are flowing down a river. The phrase cut off can be used to mean a literal cutting of a physical material, such as cutting off a branch of a tree, but can also mean turning off a flow of water from a hose. Metaphorically, to cut off something means to stop the flow of some source of money, goods or services.
Example: “Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into — and out of — the Middle East.”
We are all familiar with the ability to erase marks we make on paper with a lead pencil. Metaphorically, we can also erase problems, mistakes, or bad aspects of our lives. In the president’s speech, he talks about the desire to erase the evil of the terrorist groups.
Example: “Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”
The final example of a metaphor used to describe the terrorist group is counterweight. Some types of heavy machinery require a heavy weight on one side of the machine to balance out the tremendous weight on the other side of the machine, such as on a building crane. The opposite, balancing weight is called the counterweight. Metaphorically, a counterweight is an action or process that balances out the effects of another process, usually one that is out of the control of the people involved. In the speech in question here, President Obama describes his military strategy as a counterweight to the actions of the terrorist group in light of the civil war already ongoing in Syria, fueled by the actions of President Bashar al-Assad.
Example: “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
The final set of metaphor examples are based on the principle of personification in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is described in terms of a human being. In this case, President Obama describes the United States as being a person in several different ways.
strength/strongest as a nation
Human beings have physical strength from the use of their muscles. People can increase their strength through physical labor, exercise or weight lifting. Metaphorically, countries can have strength through the force of their citizens or their military power.
Example: “I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve.”
Example: “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together.”
Humans can also have strength from a certain body position, as a boxer takes a stance to throw a punch. From certain positions, a person can also grab or seize something if it is within his or her reach. Metaphorically, countries can be in a position to take an action or seize something important.
Example: “Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression. Yet despite these shocks; through the pain we have felt and the grueling work required to bounce back — America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.”
A person lacking in strength or in the wrong position can be pushed or pulled into a weaker position. In some cases, weaker people can be forcibly dragged into a new position by someone or something stronger. Metaphorically, countries can be dragged into a war or some other dangerous situation if they are not in control of their own governments.
Example: “…we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”
People can work on a project together. In such cases, these people may be considered partners in this endeavor. In some cases, the people who began the project can be joined by others who may help them achieve their goals. Metaphorically, countries can also work as partners, and later be joined by other countries to achieve a common goal.
Example: “But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”
Example: “This is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.”
A strong person may be in a position to help a weaker person achieve a goal. Countries can also metaphorically help another country with military or financial aid.
Example: “And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.”
Most people live in houses, and metaphorically countries also have a home in their own government and land. When politicians do international diplomacy or take military actions in other countries, they often refer to the United States as home.
Example: “So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”
These are just a few of the many examples of metaphors used by President Obama in the short speech on his planned attacks on ISIS. It is clear that he and his speechwriters used the classical rhetoric strategy of pathos, logos and ethos to gain support from Americans for his military actions. He also used many examples of personification to make it appear that the government is acting as a sensible person instead of an abstract body of politicians.
Strangely, I noticed that there was a distinct absence of journey metaphors. As faithful readers of this blog know, journey metaphors are commonly used in important political speeches such as state of the union addresses or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These journey metaphors are used by skilled orators to involve the listeners in the process as if the audience and the speaker are on an important journey through life together. Given that the speech was focused solely on an immediate military strategy, perhaps metaphors about long journeys would have been inappropriate. However, I can’t help but think that President Obama is not quite sure the American people are joining him on this journey into more military action in the Middle East.
Next time: More metaphors of the ISIS crisis.
*If anyone is interested in further research on classical or modern rhetoric, here are a few suggestions.
Aristotle (1991). On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse (G. Kennedy, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Charteris-Black, J. (2011). Politicians and rhetoric: The persuasive power of metaphor (2nd Ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cicero (1986). On oratory and orators (J. S. Watson, Trans.). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Copi, I. & Cohen, C. (2001). Introduction to logic (11th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.