It’s not just violent rhetoric, it’s the power of rhetorical violence we should be worried about

It’s a scary time in America.

In October of 2018 alone, a Florida man driving a van papered with pro-Trump images was arrested on suspicion of sending fourteen active pipe bombs by mail to seven prominent Democrats, two former national security officials, and three well-known Democratic donors. Those targets included President Obama, US Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Bombs were also sent to Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic donor George Soros.

Days after the arrest of mail bomber suspect Cesar Sayoc, a man burst into a synagogue in Pittsburgh with a semiautomatic assault rifle shouting anti-Semitic slurs. Robert Bowers shot and killed eleven people and after being captured by a SWAT team he reportedly told the police, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.

These events come just weeks after Washington Post journalist and US permanent resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. Well-known for his outspoken criticism of the Saudi government, Turkish officials allege Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis in a most gruesome manner (requiring the need of a bone saw).

This all made for a dark October in America, especially as we face a looming midterm election where vitriol between the nation’s two dominent political parties abounds. Before the pipe bombs were mailed or the synagogue shooting suspect was making plans, that election cycle had already played host to deeply divisive rhetoric.

Questions of whether President Trump’s comments facilitated recent violence have dominated the news cycle. The Washington Post asked “whether the events of this week would have happened without President Trump’s rhetoric.” GQ magazine directly claimed, “Trump’s violent rhetoric is what got us here,” referring to the series of explosive packages sent to Democrats. Our own editor-in-chief Professor Jennifer Mercieca pointed to a “pervasive culture of weaponized communication” in USA Today in response to thinking about whether Trump’s threatening political language may have contributed to an atmosphere where some of this violence was inevitable.

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Rhetoricians have much to contribute to this conversation. We have been asking for years, in many ways, whether violence may be an effect of particular types of rhetoric (such as appeals to force, threats and insults). In 2016, I published a book in which I analyze the question of rhetoric and its relationship to violence. I argued then, and believe it is critically important now, to understand not just the ways that violence can be an effect of rhetoric, but the ways that violence itself is at its most powerful, and deadly, when it is rhetorical.

For example, I have written about the weaponization of rhetoric in regard to the ways Muslims have been framed in the US after 9/11. Resignification and weaponization have occurred simultaneously in rhetoric around ways of worship in Islam. One example is the speaking of the Arabic phrase “Allāhu akbar.” This is known as the Takbīr and is translated simply as “God is the greatest.” It is a commonly used phrase in Islamic prayer, often expressing happiness, approval, or sometimes, distress.

While the utterance has also been used as a phrase of protest within Islam, it was rarely — if ever — solely associated with killing until it was identified by the FBI as associated with 9/11 hijackers. Since, the words have been resignified in the American imaginary as a sign that someone of the Muslim faith is about to commit an act of violence; the phrase has been stripped of its religious meaning in that resignification. As such, it is weaponized and Muslims today, as well as the spaces they inhabit (most often, mosques) are policed and targeted, in part for their association with the utterance.

Violence faced by Muslim people around the world now includes everything from domestic policing and “Muslim bans” to military invasions in majority Muslim nations that have killed countless civilians. It also includes violent attacks against Muslim people and mosques in the US. Those types of attacks are up 78 percent since 2015 in hundreds of incidents across the US like a case where an arsonist burned down the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Florida. Perhaps violent or weaponized rhetoric about Muslims contributed to this climate; that is likely. However, what I suggest is that embedded in this violence, in each case of it, is rhetoric.

The rhetorical violence enacted upon majority Muslim nations since 9/11 exemplifies the ways that studying rhetorical climates alone don’t tell us all we need to know about violence. For example, war actions like drone attacks have been amplified specifically during the holy month of Ramadan in majority Muslim nations, amid iftar dinners when many Muslims are likely to be gathered together in prayer and community. This choice of when to enact a particular type of deadly military violence, as it relates to religious practice, communicates something to Muslims. It has persuaded them out of particular everyday behaviors like dining together, taking tea together, and walking to mosque together. It has persuaded them out of sending their children to school. This is the rhetoric of violence; the way the violence speaks.

So, we must pay attention to the ways that certain violence, especially in the post 9/11 climate, is increasingly rhetorical. By that, I mean that acts of violence are increasingly and inextricably bound to the persuasive meanings embedded within those acts.

Pipe bombs sent to anyone are frightening. Pipe bombs sent to nine prominent political figures in the opposing party from the President of the United States are frightening in a different, and more directed, way. Pipe bombs sent to three prominent political figures who have openly expressed interested in running against the current President of the United States in an upcoming democratic presidential election are frightening in yet another, even more horrific and incisive way.

This is the rhetoric of violence at work. The bombs directed at Harris, Booker and Biden carry persuasive meanings that deserve extended focus. As does the bomb that targeted at Clapper, a former intelligence official still carrying a high-level clearance. The persuasion embedded in the violence of those bombs is what I refer to in my work as rhetoricoviolence: the amalgam of rhetoric and violence traveling together.

The persuasive effort against presidential candidates and the actual violence of the bomb can’t be extricated from one another in those cases, nor should they. The persuasive effort against Muslims in the midst of their most sacred religious practice and the violence of militarized drone attacks can’t be extricated from one another either. The persuasive effort against Jewish individuals and organizations that support HIV positive communities and immigrant rights can’t be extricated from the single most deadly attack on Jews in US history. This is the rhetoric of violence.

I don’t see much analysis happening around the fact that three of the top ten polling Democratic contenders for president in 2020 just faced serious, credible attempts on their lives. (Nor have I seen much acknowledgment that two of the three are Black.) This communicates something to both other presidential contenders and to the American public. Not only fear, but a longer-term implication about the state of our democratic institutions. Although the bombs were interceded, a suspect was arrested, and the targets were physically unharmed in this moment, the rhetoricoviolence of the moment reveals something dangerous about what it means to stand as a viable opposition candidate to this president. This is the rhetoric of violence; how the violence speaks.

We should ask whether Trump’s specific insults about all twelve bomb targets encouraged a climate in which it was more likely that someone like bombing suspect Sayoc would do what he did. Trump has attacked all 12 of them, vociferously. He called them everything from “extremely low IQ” (Waters), “political hacks” (Brennan) and “bad guys” (Obama); he’s threatened they would “go down fast and hard, crying all the way” if they confronted him (Biden) and claimed they “support animals” (Harris). He’s also warned them to “be careful what they wish for” (Holder and Waters).

Yet, from the pipe bombs to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to the Khashoggi murder, if we continue to limit our analysis to the rhetorical climate that may facilitate this violence, we miss a piece of the puzzle.

Without considering the complete puzzle of how rhetoric and violence interact, we risk being caught in an ocean of passing ships with rhetors like Trump. He’s already generated slogans (just in time for those looming midterms) like “jobs, not mobs,” turning the tables to try and pin the climate for violence back on those who oppose him. As a result, trying to hold him accountable for any rhetorical climate risks becoming one long game of discursive tug of war: “You caused the violence!” “No, they did!” “No, you did!” “That’s fake news. They are causing it!” This seems, in many ways, to be the Trump brand: misdirection and blame shifting, with the media and other significant institutions within our democracy as his target.

As such, citizens need to be asking what the violence of our moment conveys, how it persuades, and what it communicates. As in my example of how a common phrase in Islam has been resignified and weaponized to target Muslims after 9/11, Trump seems to be resignifying and weaponizing political discourse, with many targets. This deserves attention from us, as the public he’s trying to persuade. However, since the idea of terrorism (and the term itself) has become so ubiquitous as to no longer be helpful in defining actual violent acts in our communities, we also need to understand and analyze the rhetoric of violence if we hope to confront the most perilous ways our democracy can be undermined.

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