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
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;