Campus: San Francisco State University -- June 16, 2003

Terrorism: Bombs, Violence, Communication Vehicle, According To New Book

SFSU's Joseph Tuman analyzes persuasive, rhetorical impact of terrorism, mass media influence

Shortly after Sept. 11, San Francisco State University Professor Joseph S. Tuman, a political communications expert, was asked by a reporter to analyze video messages from Osama bin Laden and speeches where President Bush introduced such phrases as “axis of evil.”

The reporter’s questions got Tuman thinking about terrorism as rhetoric ? which he defines as the manner in which words and other “symbols … are used to affect, influence and persuade people” ? and inspired his new book, “Communicating Terror: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Terrorism” (156 pages, Sage Publications).

The book investigates the persuasive impact of terrorism by exploring the communicative goals of terrorist acts, how the mass media convey and manipulate terrorist messages and acts, and how the media portrayal shapes public perception and, subsequently, international discourse and policy.

Examining a swath of historical events and popular culture ? from the rise of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis, to suicide bombings in Israel and Palestine, to movies like “Die Hard” and “Clear and Present Danger,” which feature terrorists as the villains ? Tuman points out that some situations get classified as terrorism while others do not, despite similar circumstances.

Tuman, a professor of speech and communication studies, hopes people ultimately can learn to view terrorism not just as acts of violence against civilians to achieve political ends, but also as a process of communication with rhetorical dimensions. He believes this will help people better understand how terrorism works and formulate responses that prevent it and minimize its destruction.

“Knowing how and why we feel threatened by what is, in the end, a communicative, rhetorical process is a starting place for considering how we should process the meaning of terrorism and, in the future, how we might respond,” he writes.

Among scores of books that have appeared in the wake of Sept. 11, Tuman’s is the first to deal at length with the symbolism and rhetoric of terrorism.

Part of the rhetoric of terrorism, he explains, “assumes the label only refers to certain kinds of people.” Deciding how to define a terrorist, he says, “is the first way this is rhetorical.”

A 45-year-old Oakland resident who also teaches a popular class on the subject, Tuman sees the recent media coverage of Eric Rudolph, allegedly involved in a series of bombings including the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, as a telling case. Tuman says although the destruction in those episodes is comparable to incidents in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere, so far he has not found any media reports that refer to Rudolph as a “terrorist.”

Tuman suggests that a number of rhetorical strategies can be found both in acts of terror and in the political responses they trigger. His point isn’t just that terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11 hijackers have a message to send. He argues that such acts ? and the reactions to them ? use recognized methods of argument and draw on a wealth of culturally mediated symbols.

Tuman emphasizes that he’s not making any excuses for acts of terror or advancing his own political views.

“Nothing in this writing should ever be construed as an endorsement of violence and destruction,” he writes.

One of the Bay Area’s top analysts of political speeches, interviews, debates and other forms of political communication, Tuman is also an expert in legal rhetoric and constitutional law and has published widely on free-speech and hate-speech issues. He earned his J.D. from the Boalt Hall School of Law and has taught at SFSU since 1992.

Contact: Matt Itelson (415) 338-1743; (415) 338-1665; matti@sfsu.edu


Public Affairs Offices/Campus News
[Bakersfield] [Chancellor's Office] [Channel Islands] [Chico]
[Dominguez Hills] [East Bay] [Fresno] [Fullerton] [Humboldt] [Long Beach] [Los Angeles] [Maritime Academy] [Monterey_Bay] [Northridge] [Pomona] [Sacramento] [San Bernardino] [San Diego] [San Francisco] [San Jose] [San Luis Obispo] [San Marcos] [Sonoma] [Stanislaus]