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The Bush Disjunction

Paul Keeling on speech acts louder than words.

The Speech

On September 20, 2001, nine days after the infamous September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush gave a speech to both houses of Congress, the American people, and the world. In it he said the following words,

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

This utterance, which quickly became an oft-cited sound-bite in virtually any public discourse on international terrorism, was greeted with mixed reactions. Some welcomed it as a clear and compelling statement of fact about morality; that there exist evils in the world so horrendous that neutrality is not morally acceptable. The repeated images of passenger air planes flying into the World Trade Center towers on the television news networks brought further clarity to the matter; no moral person could be with that. Furthermore, no moral person could even tolerate it, and to remain indecisive or indifferent in the face of such atrocity was tantamount to doing just that. Any tolerance of great and undeniable evil, the thinking ran, put one a lot closer morally to that evil than those who are ready and willing to combat it. Others, however, sensed that the Bush statement was deeply fallacious. Even so, many of these same dissenters scratched their heads in an effort to elucidate just exactly how or why it was flawed.

The now famous (or infamous) Bush ‘either-or’ disjunction, “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, has become incorporated into the rhetorical style of the American-led ‘global war on terror.’ It has (rightly or wrongly) affected the way the problem of international terrorism is thought about and talked about. But the ‘Bush disjunction’, while appearing to be an expression of moral certitude, leaves many important questions unanswered. What did the utterance actually mean? How was it to be taken? If it was an argument, was it a good argument? Most importantly, was it true? What would determine its truth or falsehood?

If there are any fallacies in the Bush disjunction, then the philosopher’s job is to spell them out, even if they may seem ‘obvious’. Solutions to the problem of international terrorism are not at all ‘obvious’ and the statement raises extremely important issues which demand attention. Most importantly, if there are any lessons in the Bush disjunction about how we think and talk about terrorism, those lessons should be learned. Our rhetoric about terrorism, the language we use and how we use it, is as much in need of close attention as the subject matter of terrorism itself.

Before discussing the substance of the ‘Bush disjunction’ and its possible implications, the first thing to notice is that its denial of ‘middle ground’ is certainly not true in virtue of its logical form alone (although it could still be true for other reasons). A disjunction true in virtue of its logical form would have to be a case of the Law of the Excluded Middle, which is the logical truth of: (either A, or not A). Thus, to be a case of the Law of the Excluded Middle the Bush disjunction would have to be “either you are with us or you are not with us.” This is certainly a true statement, but more than one possibility could instantiate not A (“not with us”). All it says is that the two options are exhaustive; it says nothing about the possible ways in which one could be “not with us.” Not with us does not entail whom we are with, or indeed, whether we are with anybody. Hence, the Bush disjunction, if it is true, is not true in virtue of being a case of the Law of the Excluded Middle. It is, quite simply, a false dichotomy.

We must begin by getting a clearer view of the meanings of the words involved before we can give a fair assessment of the argument (if it is one), and its implications. What do the words mean?

The first half of the entire proposition, which precedes the disjunction, is “Every nation now has a decision to make.” If we take this statement as an expression of a feature of morality that “neutrality is not acceptable” then, for the sake of argument, ‘having to make a decision’ could be seen as true. If the decision to be made is merely to affirm one’s non-neutrality by condemning and even taking action against terrorism then that seems unproblematic. But that is not the decision that the Bush disjunction offers. The disjunction is not of condemning terrorism or not condemning it, but between ‘with us’ and ‘with the terrorists’. These are two logically distinct categories of choice. Condemning terrorism and even taking action still says nothing about who we are ‘with.’ There seems to be a suppressed premise contained in the disjunction: that everybody who condemns terrorism and wishes to work against it is ipso facto a member of the same class, i.e. the class ‘with us.’ But without a clearer understanding of what ‘with us’ implies, there is no independent reason for thinking that this suppressed premise is true. We need to take a closer look at what the terms ‘us’ and ‘the terrorists’ refer to, and how the term ‘with’ is defined.

The term ‘us’ is the least difficult to identify, given the speaker. We can surely take ‘us’ to refer to the current U.S. administration and its policies (perhaps, given the circumstances of the Bush speech, constraining the application of the word ‘policies’ to “the U.S. government’s policy response to terrorism”) ‘The terrorists’ is a bit more problematic. Certainly terrorists do not all represent a unitary organisation with a single agenda, and in that sense ‘international terrorism’ is a myth. However, even if we safely re-translate ‘the terrorists’ as any and all people who violate humanitarian law by deliberately attacking non-combatants and soft targets, we must distinguish between literal and rhetorical uses. In rhetorical practice, the term ‘terrorist’ is never used to describe oneself – only other people can really be terrorists. (For example, Al Qaeda’s founding statement mentions the word ‘terrorize’ only once, and it is attributed to the United States). This is not to relativize terrorism, or to say that it is ‘just in the eye of the beholder’. It may be quite possible to define what is a terrorist act. There are, in fact, perfectly standard and objective means for determining what counts as a terrorist act according to international norms such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions and 1977 Protocols. The claim here is merely about how the term is used in practice by political leaders; that is, to use jargon from the philosophy of language, its extension. It is never used self-referentially, and necessarily entails condemnation. There is never a guarantee that any particular government or political leader, at any particular time, will be extending the term literally.

Finally, the meaning of the term ‘with’ in the Bush disjunction needs careful exploration. On the face of it, the word’s meaning may be unclear, and so we must help things along with some plausible substitutions. Given that the imperative ‘decision’ to be made was directed at ‘nations’ (and not, incidentally, at individuals) we can safely take ‘with’ to mean, at the most, actual tactical or military support for military operations. If this seems like quite a high standard, then at the very least, we should take ‘with’ to mean something like ‘approval’ or ‘moral support’. We shall adopt this lower standard of ‘with’ for the sake of discussion.

On the basis of these plausible substitutions we may derive the following reformulation of the Bush disjunction:

“Either you approve of (morally support) the U.S. government”s policy response to terrorism or you approve of (morally support) the terrorists as defined (extended) by the U.S. government.’

This reading of the Bush disjunction is still unclear in at least one critical respect. If we transpose ‘with’ into the more explicit term ‘approval’ or ‘moral support’ there could be at least one important hidden ambiguity. The ambiguity is that ‘approval’ or ‘moral support’ could be of two very different objects, that of ‘ends’ and ‘means.’ We must entertain the possibility that, just as it is true that the ‘ends’ don’t necessarily justify the means, the ‘means’ do not necessarily make the ends null and void. The two can be given independent consideration. In respect to political violence, we may distinguish what may be a legitimate grievance from the legitimacy of action taken on behalf of that grievance. Of course, very often condemnation of an act and the cause in whose name the act is committed do in fact go together. But we should not confuse this frequent connection as being a necessary one; the two are logically separable, and the moral content of each deserves separate assessment. Approval of the Allied efforts to fight fascism with military force in World War II need not entail approval of the atomic bombing of civilian Japan or the bombing of Dresden. Conversely, however, if the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unjustified, it did not thereby void the legitimacy of the entire Allied effort. The political violence perpetrated by the ANC in South Africa did not render the content of their grievances void. By the same reasoning, the content of the agenda of the BNP is made no less morally objectionable simply because they are a legal political party behaving within a democratic system. It must be remembered that some members of the resistance that fought Nazi occupation resorted to terrorism. People we ‘approve of’ may act badly, and people of whom we do not approve may act appropriately. The object of our approval is not the same in both cases.

We have now completed a survey of the form of the Bush disjunction and the possible meanings of the words at ‘face-value’ and have found that there is no reason for supposing that what the Bush disjunction says is true.

The Speech-Act

As we have seen, the Bush disjunction is not true on its face. But the Bush disjunction is not like “either you must be in America or in Europe” because the objection “hey, that isn’t true!” to the Bush disjunction seems just not to the point. So it isn’t true, but then, who are you with? This quandary suggests that the ‘real meaning’ of the statement is not exhaustively determined by what it says.

We need to consider that speech may be a good deal more than mere words. To shed more light on the full implications of the Bush disjunction we need to ask not just what he was saying, but what he was doing with what he said. For help with this we turn to the work of ‘ordinary language’ philosopher J.L.Austin (1911-1960).

Austin pointed out that when we speak we also perform an act of speech. That is, speech is much more than mere ‘locutions’ or utterances of words, but always has what he called an illocutionary force. The late Geoffrey Warnock helpfully described the illocutionary force as “…what I was doing in issuing that utterance – how I meant it to be ‘taken”, what I meant my remark ‘as’…’ If the locution is taken the way the speaker intended, then ‘uptake’ is secured and an illocutionary act is performed. Some illocutionary acts are explicitly performative utterances, such as “I do” in a wedding ceremony, a court judge saying “you are hereby sentenced to 3 years” or a baseball umpire saying “you”re out’ (when in each case the correct circumstances obtain). All of these utterances do, as well as say something. Austin suggests that more subtly in everyday speech we are always performing ‘speech-acts’ such as making requests, making demands, giving warnings, giving advice, providing information, as well as making statements. To determine the illocutionary force we need to consider both the locution (what the words literally mean), and the total ‘speech situation’. The ‘speech situation’ consists of who the speaker is, who the audience is, and the context.

Austin provides a guideline for distinguishing the illocutionary act from the locution. The locution is “I said x” and the illocutionary act is “in saying x I was y-ing…” So for example: I said “leave the room” (locution) and in saying “leave the room” I was ordering (illocutionary act). The following chart gives further examples:

Locution ⇒ Illocutionary Act

(I said x) ⇒ (In saying x, I was y-ing)

“It’s not that bad” ⇒ consoling

“I would take the job offer.” ⇒ advising

“It’s really dangerous.” ⇒ warning

“It will rain tomorrow” ⇒ predicting


With Austin’s apparatus in mind we may turn to the Bush disjunction in order to determine what he did with what he said.

The Bush disjunction is logically invalid, but since it is not literally meaningless there seems to be no other way to understand the statement except at the level of illocution, that is, as an act. In this instance the statement, as an act, appears to make the statement true. The fact ‘represented’ by the locution has been made a fact in an illocutionary act. The disjunction is only true by fiat; in Austin’s terms it has a performative dimension. Thus, if the Bush disjunction is to be called an ‘argument’ at all, it is an instance of argumentum ad baculum, or ‘appeal to force.’ We may be persuaded to believe it is true, but only in virtue of its constituting a threat, not in virtue of its constituting a good argument. Bush might conceivably reply, “I wasn”t issuing a threat, I was just stating the truth.’ In a sense he would be right – because the disjunction is an illocutionary threat dressed up as a locution stating a moral truth. In Austin’s terms, he said a moral-sounding statement, and in saying it he was issuing a threat. It is the threat contained in the statement, and not its logic, which renders the statement impervious to contradiction.

The accusation of being a terrorist is obviously a very strong one. We can safely infer that to be in any way considered ‘with’ terrorism is a very serious charge. In a context of fear and intimidation, the ‘with-ambiguity’ contained in the Bush disjunction makes it possible to appropriate a much stronger reading:

“Either you approve, in toto, of the U.S. government or you will be considered an enemy of the U.S.”

Does this statement have truth conditions? If someone with a gun says, “(either) put your hands up, or else!” the response of “that’s not true” would seem to be odd. It’s very difficult to ‘contradict’ a threat. Of course the original Bush statement is far subtler. It is expressed in a ‘logical’ form that appears to be invulnerable to contradiction. But this invulnerability is only in virtue of its constituting a threat. The threat is all the more covert because it is expressed as a moralistic statement. In this way people under threat may believe they have arrived at a ‘moral’ conclusion.

Can we be sure that the designation of the Bush disjunction as a threat is correct? Nothing about the ‘speech situation’ seems inconsistent with it. Given the overall context of the Bush speech, and his authority as the leader of the world’s most militarily powerful nation, we can be reasonably confident that there was ‘uptake’ of the disjunction as a threat. A threat needs credible force behind it. Bush’s statements qua President of the U.S. certainly meet that condition.

The Bush disjunction has deep implications for how we think and talk about terrorism. In the name of putative moral clarity it sacrifices conceptual clarity. The terms of the disjunction place a virtual ‘gag-order’ on trying to think coherently about terrorism. We are only invited to react to events and choose sides. We are dissuaded from looking any deeper. It is unlikely that the polarisation that the disjunction demands is a good thing for combating terrorism. This is especially true in light of the ‘with-ambiguity’ alluded to earlier, in which individuals, groups, and nations were denied the ability to discern what ‘with’ committed them to; thus the threat may actually have recruited more terrorists unnecessarily. Threatening terrorists is one thing, but threatening the citizens of the world and thereby disabling their ability to think clearly, is another. If we are to ‘take on’ terrorism (and certainly we must) we must ‘take it on’ with our brains as well as our brawn.

© Paul Keeling 2005

Paul Keeling has degrees in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and from UC Berkeley. He is presently emigrating from San Diego, California, to Vancouver, Canada.

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