The Role of Language in Defining National Security

By Marisa Conners ’26

Marisa Conners ’26

Words have meaning, and that meaning translates into reality. The more influence an individual or organization has, the more their language could become dangerous and incite violent action. As a participant in Professor Annie Morgan’s Emerging Threats in National Security program, I have learned of the vital role that language plays in the study of national security threats and government policy.

The way that an emergency is defined is often framed in a discriminatory manner, and this has drastically shaped national policies, the strength of emergency responses and its human impact. Throughout American history, the country has repeatedly branded minorities as a problem, instead of recognizing and treating them as equals. Examples of racial discrimination based on fear and perceived emergencies range from segregation to internment. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush declared his war on terror and designated Middle Eastern terrorism as the enemy, and Congress acted swiftly to pass the PATRIOT Act. Anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes increased dramatically, promoting the perception that Muslim-Americans are dangerous because they are not loyal to the United States, and helping to justify support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Former President Trump has repeatedly labeled the immigration crisis at our southern border as an invasion of Latine people. One example comes from his 2016 presidential campaign announcement speech, back in 2015.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” 

Donald Trump, announcing his presidential campaign in Iowa on June 16, 2015. 

Over the years, Trump continually promoted anti-immigrant rhetoric targeting Latin Americans, despite evidence that undocumented immigrants are not a leading cause of violent crime. Dangerous rhetoric such as this misguides American national security interests by distracting voters from real threats. 

It is equally important to consider the issues that haven’t been declared emergencies. There has not been a major federal government policy-initiative on poverty reduction since the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite this, poverty remains a leading cause of American suffering as inaction continues. Across the United States, climate change wreaks havoc on impoverished and BIPOC communities with more devastating effects than on wealthier, whiter ones. If the climate emergency’s intersection with income inequality were more widely recognized, efforts to reduce the impact of climate change would be more effective.

Internal division has continually been the source of conflict in the U.S., but it has become increasingly pernicious over the past few decades. The political polarization surrounding the 2016 election in particular allowed for a Russian disinformation campaign to more easily infiltrate American social media and affect public opinion. Counterintelligence measures against Russia can only go so far—the U.S. must work towards healing internal division to shore up its defenses against future attacks.

Recently, President Biden identified white supremacy as “the most dangerous terrorist threat” to the country, a sentiment reflected in the most recent draft of the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. This Act represents the push for more federal anti-terrorism legislation, even though according to an episode of the podcast War on the Rocks entitled “Race and National Security,” there are over fifty federal terrorism offenses and an entire section of the criminal code dedicated to terrorism. When considering the phrases “domestic terrorism” and “white supremacy” in conjunction with one other, I am most inclined to picture school shootings and attacks at places of worship. However, countermeasures to domestic terrorism, including legal consequences, could easily be used against people of color and other historically marginalized populations. One recent example is how activists protesting the development of Cop City near their homes were charged with domestic terrorism. This issue would be exacerbated by individual biases, especially because people of color tend to be seen as threats to the racial or social order and are therefore perceived as more dangerous. When people in power hold these beliefs, the effects will be disastrous.

The materials used during the Emerging Threats in National Security program were not immune from the internal biases that we all have, which were presented through language choice. Towards the end of the semester, my program cohort read an article from The Hill, which referred to people of color as “non-white” while discussing the importance of affirmative action in keeping people of color in military leadership positions. This emphasized white service members over people of color. The fact that a reputable source did this recently speaks to the continuous learning that all global citizens must engage with to create a more united community. I suggest this article from the Anti-Defamation League on intent versus impact as a personal starting point. It is vital that readers think critically about what is and is not being defined as an emergency, and the potential agendas or biases behind this choice when reading the news or preparing to vote.