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Since 9/11, U.S. Presidents Developed Varied Language To Describe Terrorists


Each president since 9/11 has developed different language to describe the fight against terrorism. George W. Bush spoke of a global war on terror.


GEORGE W BUSH: Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there.

SHAPIRO: Barack Obama tried to avoid the phrase global war on terror.


BARACK OBAMA: We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.

SHAPIRO: And then this week, Donald Trump used a new phrase to describe the people behind the attack in Manchester.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: By evil losers in life.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now to discuss how presidents have described the terrorist threat and what kind of impact that language has is Farah Pandith of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has worked for presidents of both parties countering extremism. Welcome to the program.

FARAH PANDITH: Thank you so much. It's good to be here.

SHAPIRO: When you hear him use the phrase losers, does that sound to you like a departure from the kind of language we've heard from other presidents?

PANDITH: It's not as precise as other presidents have used. It's very authentic to this president. It's the kind of terminology he uses. And so that's important for us to remember because when this president is speaking, he's not just speaking, obviously, to an American public. He's speaking to the world. And he's speaking to those people who are listening very carefully to the way in which he sounds and what he says, what's the substance in what he's saying.

SHAPIRO: Loser seems to be a phrase that has a diminishing quality on the people it's applied to as opposed to warriors or murderers. President Trump has criticized his predecessor, President Obama, for not being strong and tough enough on the issue of terrorism. Do you think that calling these people losers fits in with the positions that Trump has taken in the past?

PANDITH: President Trump as a candidate used that word before in other contexts. President Trump as commander in chief has talked about the issue of ISIS as a terrorist group. But he has also connected it to the religion of Islam. And what you saw in his trip to the Middle East is a departure from the connectivity between the religion of Islam and the terrorist organization. And I think that's an important thing to understand. The issue here is for extremists who are listening, too. They're not - they're also part of the audience that the president is speaking to.

They use our words against us to prove their theory that the West is at war with Islam. So when a president uses terminology - in this case, evil loser - we cannot disagree with the idea that the group is evil and that loser is the opposite of a hero. It's somebody who is failing. And that is what the - the impression that he's trying to get across.

SHAPIRO: You have worked with Muslim communities around the world, people who are moderate and not extremists. Do they listen very closely to the language that an American president uses to describe terrorism?

PANDITH: I don't think the American public really understands how carefully audiences around the world listen to words. And the way things are translated matters, too, which is why when you're using fuzzier language, things that have nuances, it is much harder in different languages to get precise about what it is we're saying. So it is easier for the bad guys to be able to manipulate our words and the context, which is why you have seen an evolution in the way in which we understand what's happening in terms of people absorbing things.

SHAPIRO: What do you make of the fact that 16 years after 9/11 there is still no consensus on the language to use when describing this problem?

PANDITH: The problem of an ideology that has inspired groups like al-Qaida or Shabaab or the Taliban or ISIS and everything in between, it's very complicated. And I think in this 21st century we want a soundbite that's going to make it all easy. So you're spending all of this time talking about the perfect phrase that's going to work to describe all of these types of groups. And the fact is, 16 years after 9/11, we are not going to get consensus on what the perfect phrase is because there are many different audiences.

I think what a president must do is to keep the drumbeat strong that in fact this ideology that is being used by these terrorist organizations are not connected to the religion of Islam. And the more you say that the better off we are.

SHAPIRO: Farah Pandith of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks very much for joining us.

PANDITH: Ari, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLACKK'S "ZIP ME UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.