Communicating Terror: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Terrorism


Joseph S. Tuman

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  • Praise for the First Edition

    I like the [book's] uniquely “rhetorical” approach to terrorism. … I think Tuman's is the only full length book on the subject, with a specific communication focus.

    The first edition—but now especially the revised edition—helps my students understand how “terrorists” employ political propaganda, how the governments they oppose respond with their own propagandistic messages, and how both of these message sets are “rhetorical.” The book also helps students distinguish between ethical and unethical uses of rhetoric (as propaganda), especially as these occur in the larger context of the “war on terror.” The book makes it easier for students to comprehend different definitions of “terrorism,” to trace our national conception of what constitutes a “terrorist,” and to make critical judgments about propagandistic messages concerning terrorism.

    KennethS.ZagackiNorth Carolina State University

    [The text] begins with a solid foundation of theory and definitions and relates these to real world concerns. In addition, students enjoy the text; it is clear, well written, and organized in a manner that helps them understand how foundational theory relates to real world problems.

    TerryLynnCornwellLiberty University

    In Communicating Terror, Joseph Tuman offers a compelling look at one of the more commonly acknowledged, but rarely examined, aspects of terrorism: the perceptual and rhetorical aspects that color the way we interpret and study the phenomenon. Few assessments of terrorism have explored the associated implications the way in which Tuman does. This book examines terrorism as it is constructed and used to frame audience interpretations and responses, either in support of or opposition to the violent group. [T]here is considerable value in his examination of the mechanisms used by terrorists and their opponents to shape and manipulate perceptions of the struggle. In assessing terrorism as a communicative process, Tuman highlights the emotional aspects of fear and uncertainty inherent in terrorism while deconstructing the process of forming and conveying meaning in a way useful for those seeking a fuller understanding of terrorism's dynamics. Tuman does this admirably by incorporating a keen understanding of symbolism, oratory, and mass media's use of verbal and visual cues.

    DanielS.GressangIVJoint Military Intelligence College

    Professor Tuman has done yeoman's work to give us a concise presentation of these issues from a communication perspective.

    JonathanDavidTankelIndiana University Purdue University, Fort Wayne

    Communicating Terror is a tremendously insightful discussion of how terrorists attempt to communicate with multiple target audiences. It begins with a highly useful discussion of the struggle by academic specialists to formulate a consensual definition of terrorism, including how terrorists define themselves. Another valuable contribution to the discipline is Tuman's formulation of a communications model that graphically displays the multiple audiences that terrorists hope will respond to their acts. This book is highly recommended as a textbook for students and resource for professional analysts.

    JoshuaSinaiTerrorism Research Center


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    Humans perceive events through the prism of their own worldview and life experience as these are in turn affected by culture (a loaded, often abused term), education, age, national origin, philosophical or religious underpinnings (or the absence thereof), and the like. All of us have shared the experience of witnessing an event and then reacting with absolute surprise to hear others who had also been present describe that event in totally different ways that were at times even contradictory to our own perception. For example, two partners in a relationship may perceive very differently an issue that divides them, or partisan baseball fans may recall bitterly how they saw a pitch the umpire called as a third strike. In such instances, however, differences in perception will seldom be categorized with academic labels such as worldview or life experience; more often, they will be described as the product of one's agenda. In this way, it is suggested that we construct our perceptions of events according to the personal agenda it serves for us. Although this term is overly generalized and is not as useful as a more specific descriptor of human biases and motivations, it may still serve our purposes when we focus on the controversial topic that serves as the subject of this book: terrorism.

    What is terrorism? Where does the word come from, and how is it used? For how long has it been a part of our vocabulary? How has it changed throughout the centuries? You may be surprised to know the answers. The word has origins and meanings in many cultures. Those who have studied it in the past four decades have often given contradictory definitions of the word that in turn have fueled controversy about how serious a problem it presents, whatever moral legitimacy it claims or lacks, and how nations and the global community should respond to it. We will address these definitions more fully in the first two chapters of this book. For the time being, it serves to note that the existence of so many definitions raises questions about whose interests or agendas are being served by doing the defining. All of us (myself included) are the products of life experience that informs our own worldview and influences the way we may approach this topic. The reader is cautioned, therefore, to exhibit at least a very healthy curiosity about what any writer asserts about terrorism. In that sense, I encourage you to employ your best critical thinking skills when approaching this topic and those who write about it.

    And lest I be accused of preaching one thing and practicing another, let me also encourage the reader to start that critical thinking with me. Who am I? What, if any, is my agenda? Academically, my background is in political science and law—a seemingly good combination for this subject. My research and teaching interests, however, are in communication studies (political and legal communications). When I wrote the first edition of this book about six years ago, there were faculty members in my own university who chafed at the notion that I might examine terrorism as communication, and one professor in my own department (my mentor, no less) who objected to my placing the word terrorism in the same sentence with rhetoric. As I publish this second edition of Communicating Terror, however, I find myself in a world where these associations are not as controversial as they once seemed. Indeed, the central premise of the first edition, associating terrorism and communication, is now more commonly accepted. That acceptance has allowed my own knowledge and awareness of the subject to be assisted by personal experience, which gives one a different sensitivity and insight than what you might ordinarily find in an academic text. In 2004, the success of the first edition resulted in my being invited to participate in an international conference on terrorism and Islam, held in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The conference was attended by theologians and social science scholars from around the world, encompassing a variety of disciplines. Initially, a sizable contingent of scholars from the United States agreed to attend, but that number dwindled to a handful once the State Department issued a warning that a terrorist threat was imminent in Saudi Arabia. Stubbornly, I chose to attend. Less than 24 hours after my arrival, and only 1 hour after my first presentation at the conference, a man drove a truck laden with explosives to the base of a large government building not far from the university where the conference was being hosted. Although blocked by barricades and police officers who shot at his truck and physically tried to restrain him through the driver's window, the man persevered and detonated his bomb. The resulting powerful blast ripped through the apex of the large building, pulling off sections of wall and shattering glass, killing 10 people and severely injuring nearly 150 more. One of the deceased was an 11-year-old girl. The act of terrorism was felt throughout Riyadh, and acutely at our conference; in a matter of hours, what had been an open and candid academic exchange of ideas became something else. Something personal. This was no longer a subject we could write or research about from the luxury of safe academic distance. Every one of us there was aware that the bombing was a direct response to the presence of our conference. Although I had felt a similar kind of involvement and connection during 9/11, it was still something I experienced from a distance and mostly (like the rest of the country) through the medium of television. That day in Riyadh added something to my awareness of terrorism. Partly, it was fear. Maybe, a greater respect for what I write about. At the same time, it reinforced my perspective that this very public act of violence was intended to be communicative. The terrorists involved did not want our public conference to address how Islam condemned terrorism.

    My experience drove and in part fueled the writing of this second edition. Although I am well versed in this subject matter, I do not intend to offer you a book that merely restates much of the very good work that has been authored by historians, sociologists, political scientists, criminologists, and international relations experts. Thus, I am not interested in restating historical debates about terrorism as a moral response to imperialism or colonialism or semantic discussion about whether terrorism and guerrilla actions are distinct. I will not attempt psychological profiling of terrorists, nor will I attempt to resolve age-old international disputes, such as those in Northern Ireland or in the Middle East. That ground has already been covered by scholars, thinkers, and politicians who are far better equipped to address these issues. Instead, in this book, I wish to address terrorism by playing to my own particular interests, strengths, and background in political and legal communications. I will approach this subject by delving into its communicative properties and rhetorical dimensions.

    To be clear, in the coming chapters I will argue that the meaning of terrorism is socially constructed. By that I mean that what we call terrorism is different and distinct from murder, assault, arson, destruction of property, or the threat of the same, primarily because the impact of terrorist violence and destruction reaches more than the immediate targeted victims. Although this in no way diminishes the pain and suffering of those immediate victims of terror, it does suggest that this violence and destruction becomes terrorism primarily because of its additional capacity to communicate message and meaning to a larger set of audiences.

    In Chapter 1, I explore the different origins of terrorism, and in Chapter 2, I offer a new definition of terrorism chiefly as a process of communication between terrorists and multiple target audiences. I will further argue that the way all audiences engagein discourse about terrorismis the manner in which we negotiate the meaning of terrorism. At this level, terrorism may also be seen as rhetorical, for there are several ways that rhetoric envelops the communication process by which we negotiate the meaning of this subject. These rhetorical strands form the rest of the book.

    In Chapter 3, we will reexamine the process of defining terrorism as the product of rhetorical choice, distinguishing between defining and labeling, and examining how the act of definition involves empowerment and marginalization. New to this chapter will be material concerning both the conscious and unconscious use of definitions and labels, and within the context of empowerment and marginalization, a treatment of colonialism and Orientalism.

    In Chapter 4, we consider a different rhetorical strand by examining how terrorist violence and destruction may be seen as symbolic and once more how the meaning of these symbols is negotiated by and between different target audiences. Here, I review symbolism in terror by considering specific acts of violence, means, and tools of terror.

    In Chapter 5, I extend this discussion about symbolism and terror by looking at specific targets, both temporal and spatial, for their rhetorical properties. In this chapter, I will make use of specific rhetorical theories of criticism (both dramatism and postmodernism/ideological criticism) to examine the symbolism of attacks on intersecting religious holidays, as well as physical locations such as a theater in Moscow or the World Trade Center in New York.

    In Chapters 6 and 7, I examine how public rhetoric about terrorism is constructed and in what ways it may affect discourse between targeted audiences. Chapter 6 will introduce the reader to several tools for critically examining public oratory. Readers here will learn to evaluate and understand how this rhetoric works and why it affects social construction of terrorism. Chapter 7 offers three artifacts of speeches for case studies. Although there are many examples of public pronouncements by world leaders to consider here, in this chapter I focus on the American presidency and, for reasons of space and economy, on two influential speeches of President George W. Bush concerning September 11, as well as a significant speech (in response to Bush) by Osama bin Laden on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.

    In Chapters 8 and 9, I consider a final rhetorical strand, terrorism and mass media, to explore how mediated imagery also affects and sometimes preconditions our negotiation of the meaning of terrorism. Specifically, in Chapter 8, I examine mass media as both entertainment and news, broadcast and print media, new and old media, and free and paid media. I also offer an overview of rhetoric and media criticism, before settling on critical media and agenda-setting and framing.

    In Chapter 9, I apply these different perspectives of mass media (entertainment and news, broadcast and print, new and old, free and paid) to assess the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and each of these forms of media, and to uncover how these forms of media both precondition and eventually contour public discourse about terrorism.

    The end product of this second edition should be a more fully developed set of tools with which to understand and see terrorism differently than before. As suggested above, I do not presume that any particular solution to this problem can be immediately found in this approach, although I do believe that giving a different set of tools to understand terrorism is an important first step to developing a response and comprehending why and how it has the capacity to affect us so deeply.

    This explains my agenda and intentions in this work. It is also important for the reader, you, to consider your own life experience and worldview when approaching terrorism. What is your agenda here? This will be one of many books on terrorism to emerge post–September 11 and since the 2008 presidential election. The tragedy of 9/11, and the resulting war on terror, may be the primary reason you are studying this topic in the first place. Consequently, there are three notions I want you to consider in approaching this writing.

    First, be aware that this book will include analysis of 9/11 as part of a larger perspective of terrorism and rhetoric but that it is not just a book about 9/11. Indeed, I intend to cover a great many more examples of rhetoric and terror in the United States and around the world. That being said, I do not want to suggest that the events of September 11 and all that has followed play only a small role in this book. It would be foolish, if not impossible, to approach this topic without including this most obvious and contemporary of examples. I do, however, want to stress that 9/11 will be viewed in the context of the larger issues presented by rhetoric and terrorism.

    Second, you would be well served to search your own feelings about 9/11 and how “objective” you feel about the topic of terrorism and rhetoric. How has President Bush's “war on terror” in Afghanistan or Iraq changed (if at all) your perceptions about 9/11? How have any of these events made you feel? Have they changed your view of the world or the United States's role in the world? Have they changed or altered the way you define terrorism? Have they affected your perception of who might be a terrorist? Where do these perceptions come from? Some of what you will read may challenge these perceptions or at least add to your knowledge of the subject generally.

    Third, and feeding off this last point, remember that this work is intended only to provide analytical tools and ideas for understanding what terrorism is and how its meaning is constructed. Nothing in this writing should ever be construed as an endorsement of violence and destruction or a trivialization of the very real pain and suffering of its victims in any place or at any time. Of necessity, the study of this subject and its examples requires a sense of emotional distance—being able to look at the subject matter as an observer and not as someone affected by it. This is the conceit of much that is social science, and, on occasion, this emotional distance may be seen as implying a lack of compassion and empathy. If my experience in Riyadh taught me anything, it was that you cannot approach a subject such as this without being honest about the fact that we are all to some degree affected and emotionally influenced by it. While I will not ignore my experience, I do not intend to allow it to dominate how I write or what I say about terrorism. My intention is simple: By conceptualizing terrorism as communicative and rhetorical, I seek to broaden our perspective on this complex social issue by applying ideas from the field of communication studies.

    No work like this can result without the very significant contributions of other people. Consequently, I would like to offer my thanks for review of the manuscript proposal of this second edition to J. Rocky Colavito of Butler University; Terri Lynn Cornwell of Liberty University; Kevin Douglas Kuswa from The University of Richmond; J. Gregory Payne of Emerson College; Mark A. Pollock of Loyola University Chicago, School of Communication; Bob Schuessler from North Seattle Community College; Jonathan David Tankel of Indiana University, Purdue University, Fort Wayne (IPFW); and Kenneth S. Zagacki of North Carolina State University. I owe additional appreciation for the review of the first edition of this book to Douglas Fraleigh at California State University, Fresno; Nicholas Burnett at California State University, Sacramento; and Gregory Payne at Emerson College, for valuable insights and suggestions in reviewing the complete manuscript, and to Patricia Palmerton at Hamline University, Randall Rogan at Wake Forest University, Ramona Rush at the University of Kentucky, Mehdi Semati at Eastern Illinois University, and Richard Vatz at Towson University for kindly reviewing early drafts of the first edition of the book and providing valuable feedback about the project, as well. I also thank my friend and colleague Hank Plante of KPIX-CBS for asking questions that initially provoked my thinking about this topic, my student assistant Earl Neconie, and UC Berkeley librarian John D. Berry for invaluable assistance in searching for and acquiring photographs used in this second edition. I offer additional thanks to my acquisitions editor Todd Armstrong, his assistant Aja Baker, marketing manager Jennifer Reed Banando, editorial director Michele Sordi, and executive vice president Alison Mudditt at SAGE Publications for their assistance in shepherding this project from a conversation in my office to the finished product you now hold.

    Final thanks must go to my children, Helen and Nathaniel, who both gave up parts of their summer to help their father with research concerning the Mollie Maguires and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as to my loving wife, Kirsten, who graciously looked the other way again as I worked on yet another manuscript, joined at the hip with my laptop, when we were supposed to be enjoying the newfound freedom that comes from being empty nesters. A wise person once told me that a writer's family and loved ones can be his or her best resource.

    I will argue later in this book that terror succeeds because it creates a sense of fear—a fear and dread of the unknown. Psychologists tell us that we fear and hate that which we do not understand. If such is the case, this book is offered primarily to engender understanding. If we understand how terrorism operates to affect us, we may approach a response to it that is not the product of our own fears but instead the result of reasoned and comprehensive thinking.

  • About the Authors

    Joseph S. Tuman is Professor of Political and Legal Communications at San Francisco State University, where he regularly teaches upper-division courses in rhetoric and terrorism, political and legal communication, argumentation and advocacy, and technology and human communication. A past recipient of the Jacobus tenBroek Society Award for Teaching Excellence, he has also taught at the University of California, St. Mary's College, the New School for Social Research, and Paris II, the top law school in France. He is the author of Political Communication in American Campaigns and the coauthor of numerous books, including Freedom of Speech in the Marketplace of Ideas, and The Bedford St. Martin's Guide to Public Speaking. He has also been the journal editor of Contemporary Argumentation & Debate: The Journal of the Cross Examination Debate Association. His work has been featured in news publications, such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has served as a network analyst for news programs on ABC, NBC, CNN and CNN International, FOX, and the BBC. In 2009, he received an Emmy nomination for his political analysis and currently appears as a regular political commentator for CBS in the western United States.

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