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Tag Archives: rhetorical violence

One way of preventing discussion of the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and of the actions of the IRA is to spread confusion about the meaning of “terrorist”. The authors of the confusion are mass murderers and their supporters, and they are successful because journalists and media managers facilitate them.

While in popular discussion “terrorist” has been almost drained of meaning, becoming a synonym for “bad”, in academic discussion its meaning has been stabilised and is now largely accepted. This was not always the case.

During the 20th century academics were looking at a distinct phenomenon that they wanted to study and talk about. It was clear that non-state groups were kidnapping, shooting and bombing civilians. These groups were commonly referred to as terrorists. Academics set out to study them but there was a problem which could only be addressed by working on definition.

Definition was necessary because the term was already loaded with negative connotations and study of any action or group attracted, “Who are you calling a terrorist? Why don’t you study atrocities committed by states?” The tactic was to prevent examination of what was clearly a separate and relatively new form of political violence. The choice facing academia was to find a new word for something which ordinary citizens referred to as terrorism or to define the term so that the violent phenomenon could be studied without the constant disruption of the “whatabouters”. A new label would have been daft, so definition it was.

Definition was of course fraught and contentious; university libraries tend to have a groaning shelf or two to attest to that. There was a battle because the last thing that non-state killers wanted was to be isolated from horrors committed by states. They could offer no moral justification for their actions so they relied on pointing to those who had done similar or worse. Some states – particularly the USA – aided them in this by referring to states they didn’t like as “terrorist states”.

Like the academics, citizens seeking clear public discourse have an interest in defining terrorism and insisting that self-serving games not be played with terminology. Let it be clear that terrorism for those neither involved in nor supporting barbarity signifies violence perpetrated by non-state actors on civilians for the purpose of sending a message to a wider audience (rhetorical violence). In other words, state armies are not involved either as perpetrators or victims and the dead or injured are reduced to mere messages, fodder for media.

In Ireland there is a tussle for ownership of the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. It is not a matter of whether the state’s founding myth is bloody; that’s a different issue. The tussle is about whether the actions of the Provisional IRA – supported by Sinn Féin – are like the actions of the 1916 insurrectionists. It is vitally important for SF that the actions of the IRA receive the respectability that has been granted to the insurrectionists because in Ireland that would elevate the IRA to heroes.

If a sensible public debate is to take place, it needs to be emphasised that the actions in 1916 fall a long way outside the definition of terrorism, while the actions of the IRA accurately match the terms of the definition. What the 1916 insurrectionists have in common with the IRA is that both are non-state actors. Apart from that they differ. The insurrectionists for the most part attacked armed soldiers. The IRA for the most part attacked civilians. The insurrectionists in a time before electronic mass media did not and could not reduce victims to media messages. The IRA, however, developed this form of conflict and killed for media effect.

Every journalist who is unaware of the struggle over the definition of terrorism and who permits the term to be bandied about as a mere synonym for bad, sides with those who would try to bury public discourse in a swamp of name-calling.


When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).


*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324.