Sometimes words become so charismatic that it is hard to think beyond them or to maintain a critical attention toward who is using them and why. Since 9/11 the United States has been dominated by the rhetoric of terror, perhaps for the first time in the history of a major nation-state. Despite its long and complex history, terror has mostly not been invoked as public enemy number one, although terrorism has been. While closely implicated, the two terms are not the same. Terror is a concept, terrorism a relatively straightforward descriptor. Terror is a personification but also an emotion. The unanalyzed assumption that terrorism alone deploys terror (one effect of 9/11) has impeded any recognition of what terror performs and how terror-talk works.
I will present an overview of my now completed study of terror in history, theory and literature, with some examples and illustrations of what we can learn from its long shelf-life in English and in other languages. I will suggest that the 'war on terror' is a radically distracting locution that has impeded critical discussion for almost two decades and one that requires urgent rethinking (or perhaps thinking for the first time).
David Simpson is a Distinguished Professor of English at UC Davis. His areas of research interest are Romanticism and literary theory. He is a member of the editorial board of Cambridge Studies in Romanticism and of Modern Language Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Situatedness; or Why we Keep Saying Where We're Coming From (Duke UP, 2002), 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (UChicago P, 2006); Wordsworth, Commodification, and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity (Cambridge UP, 2009); and Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger (UChicago P, 2013).