Coordinated violence and the frame of “war”

July 10, 2006 | By | 10 Replies More

Imagine that it is broad daylight and you are attending a large public festival.  Now imagine that you suddenly realize that you are walking around in your underwear.  Perhaps you are one of the many people who would find it disconcerting to suddenly find that so much of your skin, and most every crevice, curve and imperfection of your body was exposed to public view.

This thought occurred to me while I was at a municipal swimming pool with my children.  I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were wearing swimming suits that covered no mobeach-at-nantucketre skin (and often less) than the underwear that many of these people likely wore.  Yet these people strutted about and proudly spread out on their towels and lawn chairs without any apparent concern that they were flagrantly exposing so much of their “private” areas to total strangers.

What is it, then, that convinces people to expose so much of their bodies to strangers in one case but not in the other?  It would seem that the context of being at a public swimming area constitutes a “frame.”

George Lakoff wrote of the great power of frames in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!  Know Your Values and Framed the Debate (2004).  Here is how Lakoff describes frames:

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.  As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.  In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies.  To change our frames is to change all of this.  Refraining is social change . . .

Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world.  It is changing what counts as common sense.  Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames.  Thinking differently requires speaking differently.

At the municipal swimming pool, I realized the incredible power of framing.  Suddenly discovering that 95% one’s flesh is exposed would be a stunning embarrassment in most social situations.  For instance, imagine walking around at a grocery store, in one’s workplace or at a religious or civic ceremony in one’s swimming suit.  Imagine the embarrassment displayed by many a woman whose underwear has been exposed by a sudden gust of wind.  How many men have felt that same paroxysm of embarrassment when they discover that their zipper was not up while they walked about shaking hands at a distinguished gathering?  Somehow, embarrassments of these sorts are totally nullified by the municipal swimming pool frame.

Image by Ruckerdog at Picasa

Image by Ruckerdog at Picasa

Thinking about swimming pools and framing caused me to consider other powerful frames that we use.  One of those frames is “war.”  As a general rule, it is not socially acceptable to walk around shooting at people we don’t like, lobbing bombs at people we don’t know very well or celebrating when our bombs and bullets rip others’ bodies apart.  We are not generally allowed to round up hundreds of people or throw them in prisons based on “guilty until proven innocent.”  We are not generally allowed to ignore the deaths of hundreds or thousands of bystanders, characterizing those deaths as “collateral damage.”  Outside of “war,” responsible people severely restrict their exercise of violence, making certain that they have conducted sufficient investigation to know that each person they injure or kill “deserves” it. 

How powerful, indeed, is this frame of “war”!  When we decide to frame intense and widespread violence to be “war,” we are no longer under any obligation to apologize to the people we kill or injure, even to innocent bystanders and even to the parents of young children whose tiny bodies we destroy when we implode homes.  When we become violent as part of a “war,” we no longer have a duty to show or feel any empathy toward anyone affected by our violence.  Though it is only a word, “war” is a very powerful word.  It is so powerful a word because it is capable of shifting us to a frame through which we tolerate conduct that we would normally deplore.  It is a frame that causes many of us to give applause and medals to those whose actions we would normally despise.

I am distressed that American televisions and newspapers so readily allowed the Bush administration to characterize its actions in Iraq to be “war” in order to justify the massive violence it is inflicting on so many Iraqi people.  Not all uses of violent weapons should be characterized as “war.”  The frame of “war” seems especially inappropriate whenever the “enemy” is never identified, geographically or otherwise.

Just imagine how hard it would have been for the President to pull off what he is doing without the use of the frame of “war.”  Without that frame, he would have had to explain that he wanted to send hundreds of thousands of people with guns and bombs to kill and destroy the lives of many people who he hadn’t established to be a threat to the United Stated.  He would have had to explain that he was planning to shatter the skulls and houses of many people who would be angry that we were in their country, including many people who would not be armed, as well as thousands of totally innocent children.  And why would we doing this?  Because, according to highly discredited witnesses, some people in Iraq were “bad.”

Without this frame of “war,” the whole rationale for killing 100,000 Iraqis to “save” Iraq would have fallen apart. Without this frame of “war,” the United States would be “occupying” Iraq, not saving Iraq.  Without the frame of “war,” the United States would be exercising barely restrained, often randomized violence to cause the deaths of numerous people not proven to be hostile to American interests, for nebulous reasons.

Had our media questioned whether the frame of “war” was appropriate, how many Americans would have been willing to rally around this wretched cause?


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Category: Iraq, Media, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Oscar Wilde on war : Dangerous Intersection | November 28, 2012
  1. hogiemo says:

    Erich, you're right. The "war" ended when "W" declared a cessation of hostilities onboard the aircraft carrier with a "Mission Accomplished" banner overhead.

    International law recognizes ( as much as international law can be said to apply to a war that was fought where the occupier had not been first attacked) our current status in Iraq as one of "belligerent occupation". We don't have any war except in our minds and the frames which we have allowed to be foisted upon us by a radical neoconservative cabal which runs the Bush administration's foreign policy and was hell-bent upon regime change in Iraq before 9/11, and slavering at their jowels thereafter.

    What obligations do we have under international law? Chief among them is the restoration of civil society. Civil society is most prominently recognized by the international community as an efficient operation of society under secure conditions. We have not met our obligations under international law in Iraq to restore civil society. The myth which we have created in Iraq is that millions holding up purple thumbs is enough for democracy to have been established. Please recall the frequent elections which were held in the former Soviet Union which constitution had more freedoms than the US'. But, no one may safely walk the streets at night. No one has access to a secure supply of safe drinking water. No one has safe access to a safe supply of food, electricity, an education or healthcare. There is no safety in the religious shrines. Gee, and the Iraqis want us out of there?

    Recent reports of US atrocities coupled with reports that domestic police are terrorizing the Iraqi people have created an environmet where guns are selling for two or thee times what they did months ago, and there's no slacking of demand. US policy is tied to some future date where it is "safe" to withdraw and that date is tied to the creation of a domestic security apparatus which may civilly and militarily maintain civil society. Today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch reorts such is not possible in any conceivable future, according to Iraqi authorities. Our situation in Iraq parallels that of the Israelis in Palestine, with the same endless struggle facing us in the future. Osama couldn't have it better.

    The "war" frame which the Bushies have foisted upon us is unraveling. The public does not support the war in Iraq. The challenge we face is what's next?

  2. Rocky Johnson says:


    I don’t claim to have any understanding of Iraq and its surrounding countries. The frames in which you speak of do strike a chord with my own thoughts; concerning wars, and beaches, even religions, day to day life, each part that we do: Going to work, family life at home, going to social events. Each has its own frame as I sit here thinking about it I see where there could be at least fifty or so frames that we do live by in our lifetime, so I thank you for opening up my eyes to the concept. At 42 years old there usually aren’t too many new horizons to explore LOL.

    My two cents though, for whatever it is worth, makes me believe that the situation in Iraq is all about one three letter word. "OIL". Lets face it we need it, we will fight for it, and it appears like we as Americans, have allowed our children to die for it. 🙁

    I never saw America go after the Northern Sudanese with all of the "War Crimes" and "Inhumanities" that they have done to their Southern Sudanese "Infidel" Christian brothers; But Sudan is not sitting on the worlds second largest oil reserve either. I have no doubts that Saddam Hussein’s reign was one of a fist, and tyrannical and I cannot defend all that he had done to his own people. But I do truly feel this though.

    That the war for that three letter word "OIL" is far from over, not over for the United States and definitely not over for the other powerful countries that are in this world

    God Bless

    Rocky Johnson

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Rocky: I agree that our interest in Middle East "democracy" is really about oil. It's summed up by the common thought of many conservatives that, somehow, "our oil ended up under their sand." The frame of war justifies reckless and despicable violence in pursuit of "our" oil.'

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Bush's entire presidency has been propped up by the War Myth. By aggressively presenting himself as a war leader, by wrapping himself in the sacred robes of patriotism, the military and national honor, Bush has taken refuge in the holy of holies, the ultimate sanctuary in American life. He has made criticism of his policies tantamount to criticism of the one institution in American life that is untouchable: the military. He uses the almost 4,000 new crosses in military cemeteries as a talisman against his opponents — notwithstanding the fact that he is wholly responsible for those crosses.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Interested readers might like to read this related post:

  6. Erick is gay says:

    Erich YOU sound like your typical democratic jew puss with the whole "this war is BS", yeah, all my friends who we're killed in the towers, all that was a myth, the big hole in the city i go past all week is a myth, you are a typical malcontentious idot swallowed up by that whole democrat filled lie take on the overseas conflict amd why it's happening, here's another myth for ya, sadam was a great leader and a great guy! you idiot!,Face it kid, when you learn to open your eyes and your ears and think for yourself and withOUT the aid of keenly edited democrat-presented spin on the issues you might see some of the truth, sure oil does have something to do with this war, face it we need the oil, it's a FACT, cars, heat, cooking, hot water, electric power plants (which withOUT electric you wouldn't be ONLINE here bitchin about bush and shit that most likely doesn't affect nor concern YOU up there in your ivory tower) things WE normal people who work at a real job use everyday, even the crap YOU use every day and the things you buy, you commie hippy, all need oil! Lets face some more friggin FACTS ! , Hey, they dont really need the oil for their "homes" and caves which are typically simple one room only so EVERYONE gets a whiff of the lamb and curry you ate all month farts comin out yer arse little mud huts which ARE without lights and or toilets, hence why they ALL smell like shit over there and they only want our money to buy weapons to kill us americans and israeli jews anyway, that way they can buy their one way tickets to get on over here as quick as they can just to open up some stinky, low-quality-item filled unkempt smelly bodegas, dollar stores and taxi stands, and then they all claim " In my country, I was a Doctor"! to which I usually reply,"Hey pal, ANYONE from your shithole country with bus fare and a half decent razor blade and a real cheap ass bottle of low quality perfume thinks he's a "dr.", it doesn't mean you could/would qualify to be one over here, so get back on you camel, get home now so you can fondle your goat and go blo visnu or what ever stupid elephant headed money turd you dirtbags sweat over like fat jewish women at a $3.99 buffett, shut up and take me to the Garden so i can watch the overhyped, overpaid untalented-uncoachable Knicks and their zillion dollar crybabies on the payroll LOSE by 35 to the last place bulls, have some beers, smoke my brains out, than maybe on the way home I'll veer off and pick up a cheap toothless hooker for a quickie who, by the way, says shes your mom !!!

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    Seldom do we receive such a literate, coherent, and well-reasoned response from the learned opposition.

    Anyone have a clue what his point might be? Peel away the racism, antisemitism, ignorance, rage, and yo-mama's, and what is left?

    I get "9/11", "we use oil", and "my team loses to losers".

    Is "commie" even considered an epithet any more? The USSR is gone, and China is marketing our capitalist pants off.

  8. Edgar Montrose says:

    The uninterrupted stream of consciousness is interesting in and of itself, but my real fascination is with the raw, primal rage. Imagine life inside a mind that works like a supercell thunderstorm.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    The real question might whether it is worth one's while to try to reason with such a person. This is a complex issue on many levels. First of all, I suspect that such a person is not always so enraged. Parts of this post likely were part of that trigger, but lives are complex and I can't begin to take ALL the credit.

    On a logical level, he/she asserts many factual claims for which there is no basis, for example:

    That Sadam was responsible for 9/11

    That I think Sadam was a great fellow.

    That I wasn't horrified about 9/11

    That attacking Iraq somehow made the world a safer place.

    That massive damage isn't being done by the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

    That I am Jewish.

    That I am gay.

    That I am gullible.

    This enraged dude (or maybe he's a woman . . . ) doesn't know who he attacking or why, and he can't sit still long enough to get himself under control to figure any of this out.

    It's ironic that he exemplifies the power of the "war" frame. Once we "go to war," we have no responsibility to be intellectually careful. Once we invoke the frame of "war," there's no time for doubt or self-criticism. All of this has been beautifully illustrated in the documentary "War Made Easy."

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