Following two bomb explosions in New York City and New Jersey in September, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Muslim immigrants and refugees coming to the United States are “bringing in, in many cases, a vicious cancer from within.” He was nominally referring to accused terrorists within Muslim communities, but as is often the case with Trump, his statements were heavy on Islamophobia and light on everything else. One of Trump’s signature campaign promises is to ban Muslims from entering the United States — temporarily, he says — and although he has sometimes hedged on how widespread the ban would be, the underlying policy hasn’t changed.
Trump’s comments drew criticism for their viciousness and obvious bigotry, but his word choice was not unique, nor should it be surprising. He was taking a readily available metaphor — terrorism as cancer — and expanding it to fit his white nationalist platform. That metaphor, though, is nearly ubiquitous in discussions of jihadi-linked terrorism both in government and the media. And it isn’t just the word cancer: officials talk about “surgical strikes,” to “remove” enemies from the battlefield, and, as CIA director John Brennan says, “eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissues around it.”
In comments before Congress on September 22 of this year, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter explained the anti-ISIS (also known as Daesh) campaign through the lens of an extended terrorism-as-cancer metaphor. “The first objective is to destroy the ISIL cancer’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria,” Carter said. He added: “Indeed, we know this cancer can metastasize, and in some cases it already has.” FBI Director James Comey has used almost identical language to describe terrorism, and Retired General Stanley McCrystal has likened insurgencies to an infectious disease. The metaphor is similarly popular among editorial boards and pundits.
It’s not hard to see why so many public figures turn to cancer as a metaphor to explain terrorism — though it’s worth noting they usually reserve the metaphor for Islamic fundamentalist violence, not right-wing Christian or white nationalist violence. The comparison offers attractive explanatory power: like cancer, the thinking goes, terrorism can lie dormant for years, only to spread quickly and “infect” a country as a whole and its citizens as individuals. Even a few cancer cells, if ignored, can ultimately be fatal. The tumor must be removed, lest it grow. But the analysis obscures more than it explains.
John Horgan is a professor and terrorism researcher at Georgia State University, and has extensively studied strategies for countering political violence. “Metaphor tends to substitute for any serious thinking about counterterrorism,” he told me in an email. “There’s no doubt that responses to terrorism sometimes exacerbate and obfuscate the problem. When disease metaphors are used, it can give the impression that there’s a simple cure, but it can also lead to the impression that we need to take drastic action. History has taught us that taking drastic action in responding to terrorism almost always makes things a lot worse.”
One major shortcoming of the metaphor is that it takes a societal phenomenon — political violence — and attempts to understand it through an explanation that removes human intention, political context, history and the power systems at play, locally and globally. “Terrorist organizations and movements spring from a diverse array of sources, from legitimate political grievances to authoritarian ideologies, and people join for reasons even more diverse,” Adam Jacobson, counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights First, told me in an email. “A one-size-fits-all, reductionist approach to understanding and countering violent extremism is bound to fail.”
Recent US history provides an example that both shows the temptations and failures of this approach, namely ISIS’s rise following the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011. At the height of Iraq’s brutal civil war in 2006-2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a precursor to ISIS, waged a deliberately sectarian fight against Iraq’s majority Shia population. The group was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and was responsible for some of the worst carnage of the entire US occupation. As the conventional wisdom goes, they were defeated in President Bush’s “surge,” only to find new life once Obama removed most US troops. They grew “like a cancer,” according to this narrative, because the tumor hadn’t been completely removed. This explanation, though repeated constantly, is misleading and ultimately serves the ends of US imperialism.
By the time President George W. Bush ordered the now-famous surge, previously integrated neighborhoods in Baghdad were becoming ethnically homogenous, primarily due to Sunnis fleeing violence carried out by the government and Shia militias. General David Petraeus, the architect of the Surge, was successful in lowering the levels of violence consuming Iraq but did little to confront the sectarian fracturing of the country. In some cases, by empowering Shia militias, Petraeus’s strategies exacerbated Sunni/Shia animosity.
Often excluded from popular narratives of ISIS’s rise is that the initial anti-government protests in Anbar province that began in late 2012 were nonviolent. When the US military left the country a year early, the Shia-dominated government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, began persecuting Sunnis almost immediately. The Sunnis in Anbar took to the streets in December 2012 to protest the arrest of Rafia al-Issawi, one of the senior-most Sunnis in the government, as well as their exclusion from government more broadly. Violent crackdowns by the al-Maliki government on the protesters helped create the conditions that later allowed ISIS to establish strongholds in Sunni-majority cities in Iraq.
This short and incomplete history of AQI and ISIS is intended to make one point: Simply understanding ISIS’s ability to spread as explained primarily by one factor, the US military’s withdrawal, is factually incorrect. Worse, this line of thinking leaves only one available conclusion: that the US military should have maintained a large, continued presence in Iraq. Saying that “ISIS is a cancer” makes that conclusion seem natural and obvious, and helps pave the way for indefinite military occupations and neocolonial approaches to foreign policy. Could several thousand US troops have mitigated ISIS’s rise? It’s possible, but it’s also worth remembering that those troops, at that point, would have been in Iraq against the Iraqi government’s will and without in-country legal immunity.
How would it have played in Iraq for the US to extend its occupation under Obama despite George W. Bush’s pledge that the troops were on the way out? It’s easy to see that going poorly, to put it mildly — and potentially fomenting the kind of anti-US sentiment that fuels groups like ISIS.
The comparisons between terrorism and cancer are not new. Remi Brulin, a research fellow at New York University, studies the history of how terrorism is discussed, and provided me with more examples of this metaphor appearing in the last several decades than I could possibly include in this piece. “From the beginning, the metaphor serves to de-humanize the ‘terrorist’ and to de-politicize him,” Brulin told me via email. “Very often it has been developed hand in hand with the ‘civilization’ paradigm, or more specifically has accompanied the narrative that says that ‘the terrorist’ represents the uncivilized world while we of course stand for modernity, progress, [and] human rights.”
Brulin pointed to the emergence of the metaphor in the early 1970s: At the United Nations General Assembly in 1972, the representative from South Africa described the African National Congress as a form of terrorism and a “disease which respects no frontier.” Four years later, also at the General Assembly, the Israeli representative pushed back against a Soviet-led attempt to include the underlying causes of terrorism in the UN’s official definition: “But what would be thought of a physician who suspended the treatment of a cancer patient pending the identification of the causes of cancer? Why then should one await an examination of the underlying causes of terrorism, that cancer of international society, before starting to combat it?” In 1979, shortly after leaving his post as CIA Director, George H.W. Bush attended an international conference organized by Benjamin Netanyahu and said: “I am pleased to have renewed old acquaintances, made new ones, and learned more of the most advanced thinking about this cancer of civilization that we call international terrorism.”
Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights program, said these frameworks risk telling a simplified version of a story that ignores decades of history. “To me, the dangerous thing is how rhetoric like that marginalizes the responsibility of the US and other governments for conflicts and crises that have engulfed the world,” Shah told me in a phone interview. “When we start talking about the entire world as this body, and cancer is spreading — and even if you eradicate it in one place it shows up somewhere else — it ignores the fact that it’s the US government and other governments that for decades have engaged in reckless trading of arms that flooded all these regions. And that is a major reason why we have crisis and conflict.”