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Professor's new book explores rhetoric of terrorism

June 18, 2003

Photo of cover of TUman's bookShortly after Sept. 11, 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 prompted Tuman to think 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, 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.

Photo of Professor Tuman"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."

Tuman also teaches a class on the subject.

-- Matt Itelson and Public Affairs Student Writer Scott Heil


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Last modified June 18, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs