Volume 3, No. 3, Art. 3 – September 2002

The Discourse of President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden: A Rhetorical Analysis and Hermeneutic Interpretation

Karen Cronick

Abstract: In the past 50 years rhetorical analysis has seen a sort of revival, after a long period of disuse. It has become a tool for studies in philosophy, law, linguistics, literature, and in relation to mass communication and political practices. In this paper I describe a stance I have used in qualitative text analysis that makes use of rhetoric and interpretation from a hermeneutic point of view. The texts I analyze are transcripts of speeches by Mr. George Bush, President of the United States, and Mr. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian Taliban accused by the United States of backing recent terrorist attacks on that country. I employ the following analytic categories: 1) the creation of a dichotomy between "us" and "them," 2) the negation of aggressor, 3) the description of the conflict between the two sides, 4) the creation of a homeland and 5) attempts on the part of the speaker to gain the approval or collaboration of the audience. I conclude with some remarks about the use of rhetoric and the need to foment an interpretative stance when listening to political discourse.

Key words:

1. Introduction

2. The General Idea Behind Rhetorical Analysis

3. Hermeneutics

4. Method

5. My Rhetorical and Hermeneutic Analysis

5.1 General considerations

5.2 The creation of a dichotomy between "us" and "them"

5.3 The negation of the aggressor

5.4 The description of the conflict between the two sides

5.5 The creation of a homeland

5.6 Attempts on the part of the speaker to gain the approval or collaboration of the audience

5.6.1 Bin Laden: The use of shared religious or poetic texts

5.6.2 Bin Laden: The use of the anastrofe

5.6.3 G.W. Bush: References to God

5.6.4 G.W. Bush: The creation and singling out of heroes, thanking them, and taking on their words or objects

5.6.5 Thanking his audience

6. Concluding Remarks

Appendix: Texts Analyzed






1. Introduction

Rhetorical analysis has seen a sort of revival in recent decades, after a long period of disuse. From the times of ancient Greece until the beginning of the modern era, rhetoric was considered a major tool for creating effective and esthetically appealing discourse. With the advent of modern thinking, however, rationality and a scientific definition of the ideas of "truth" and "empirical proof" displaced the idea of a constructed argumentation. It has only been since scientific truths themselves have been "relative-ized", at first through notions like "paradigms," and later through the introduction of concepts and tools such as "deconstruction" that analysts have again begun to consider the importance of a discipline related to the formal construction of argumentative techniques. But the revival is not exactly a new event. About 50 years have passed since PERELMAN and OLBRECHTS-TYTECA first published their "Traité de l'argumentation" (The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation). If rhetoric was ignored for so long it was because it became associated with manuals for florid but empty discourse, partly because modern belief in scientific discourse could not be placed in doubt. "Rhetoric" was defined as insincere, false and pompous bombast. At the present time, however, rhetoric is seen in another light. It has become a tool for studies in philosophy, law, linguistics, literature, and in relation to mass communication and political practices. I believe that BILLIG (1987, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995) and BILLIG et al. (1988) have been particularly eloquent with regard to the use of rhetoric for psychological, sociological, and political analysis. [1]

In this paper I describe a stance I have used in qualitative text analysis that makes use of rhetoric and interpretation from a hermeneutic point of view. The texts I will analyze are transcripts of speeches by Mr. George Bush, President of the United States, and Mr. Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian Taliban accused by the United States of backing recent terrorist attacks on that country. It is not my intention here to comment on the struggle between the groups that these two men represent. This is not the place to judge their actions, much as one might feel deeply about them. Rather, I would like to reflect on how language is used by two powerful people to win support for their points of view and to justify themselves before the world. [2]

2. The General Idea Behind Rhetorical Analysis

The analytic stance taken here1) is largely based on authors such as the m Group2), PERELMAN and OLBRECHTS-TYTECA (1989), BURKE (1969a, 1969b), and BILLIG (1987, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995). There are many ways to conduct a rhetorical analysis (RA). For some analysts RA is a stylistic enterprise dealing with a text's aesthetic qualities. RA can also refer to a pre-analysis some authors do in order to shape their writing for specific audiences. This is a common practice for those in public life. In other cases it amounts to listing the strategies the text has employed in order to achieve its purpose. On certain Internet websites, icons, links and frames must be added to traditional strategies. In general, RA deals with how authors have structured their texts, employed style, used semantic and extra semantic meanings, and in general, presented their evidence and stories. [3]

I begin with a rhetorical approach in which textual elements are identified. These include figures of speech (metaphors, ellipses and so forth) and text fragments that in context can be associated with some rhetorical intention or attempt at persuasion. I make use of the notion of the distance between "plain" semantic use of language and interpretation. This can be described by comparing what computers can do with language and human linguistic capacity. Computers must rely on dictionary definitions of words. With regard to metaphors and other rhetorical devices, entire phrases can be defined in the same way as words are. In this way for example, a semantic understanding of the phrase "a heavy hand," can be comprehended as equivalent to a similar combination of synonyms taken from a dictionary: a hefty palm and five fingers. But the phrase can also be lumped together, so to speak, and redefined to mean an authoritarian way of managing things. But this meaning is defined beforehand by the computer programmer. It cannot be "interpreted" in the sense of an intuitive leap that permits the listener to find underlying, unsaid meanings in the construction. People's capacities go beyond semantics and defined phrases. Rhetorically speaking, Richard the lionhearted was brave. His heart was not a feline blood pump, and we can understand this even if we have not been previously pre-programmed to do so.3) [4]

Authors such as the m Group use the term "point zero" to refer to language that needs no interpretation. This is, of course, a theoretical limit, like zero degrees Kelvin4), because people are always interpreting what others say. Suffice it to say that there are degrees of interpretation that are necessary to understand an utterance. For example, "This is a black cat" would normally be understood semantically, although listeners may add wide yellow eyes, a diabolical expression, or a purr to his or her idea of what has been said. On the other hand, "The cat slept loaf-like on the fence" requires the listener to equate the animal's rounded back with the shape of bread. Any interpretative activity requires an active collaboration between the speaker and his or her listeners. Thus the listeners become the willing allies of the speaker because they are prepared to accept that a cat and a loaf of bread have something in common. [5]

Rhetorical devices appear in "ordinary", non-literary discourse because people have learned to use them, and because they emerge as elements of common-sense communication. These elements are often used the way grammar is used, that is, as a means to a practical end without considering the formal structure of the language employed. Hence, when a person says, "I got up with the sun" he or she is employing a kind of syllepsis without necessarily being aware of this device. [6]

Rhetorical analysis is not limited to a consideration of the figures employed. We can also define rhetoric in Aristotelian terms as PERELMAN and OLBRECHTS-TYTECA (1989) have done, and emphasize the persuasive elements of speech. In this case a speaker's influence is used to convince his or her audience; we might say the influence is unidirectional. On the other hand rhetoric can imply an interactive dexterity in gaining influence over an audience. In the texts that I examine here, for example, both speakers, who have defined each other as ruthless antagonists, make use of the discourse employed by the other in order to thwart the enemy's discursive ascendancy. By contrast, BILLIG et al. (1988) refer to the "babble" of common sense. The speaker not only tries to convince his or her listeners, but is also "thinking" out loud, so to speak. The speaker is elaborating his or her own political, philosophical, and existential posture in a continuous and changing negotiation with his or her social environment. [7]

The speaker lives in a context that can be thought of as his or her culture, lifeworld, society or epoch (depending on the theoretical attitude of the analyst). This context did not begin with the birth of the speaker. In the same way that people are "born into" a language, they come to occupy a place in their context; it is a social and linguistic framework that has an important role in molding how people think, act, feel, and understand what happens. [8]

The speaker has inherited not only the immediate context of his or her lifeworld, but also its history. Thus, he or she can refer to words like "liberty," "love," "democracy," "vice," "illness," "wealth" and "justice," and not only choose what meanings to give these words, but also deliberately construct ambiguous references for his or her audience. "Freedom," for example, may refer to some form of liberty from political tyranny, license to do what one pleases, a lack of legal restraint in commercial matters, and so forth. The speaker can employ the ambiguity of the word to create a favorable reaction in his or her listeners. He or she might say, "This is a free country" to defend his or her opposition to sales tax on alcoholic beverages or tobacco. This use of these buzzwords can be considered rhetorical for these three reasons:

When an analyst interprets this kind of persuasive language, he or she may employ something similar to BURKE's (1969) "reverse genealogy." FOUCAULT (1985a and 1985b) uses the term "archeology" to refer to the elaboration of rules that permit one to go backward or forward historically from one term or phrase to another. (FOUCAULT, however, did not employ the speaker's or writer's interpretative capacity in his archeological analysis.) We can make use of these notions to refer to how people choose the historical contexts of the words they employ without necessarily being aware of these contexts. When the speaker refers to "justice" he or she may mean due process of law, economic distributive justice, the right to vengeance, or any number of other connotations. Thus, "justice" can become a euphemism or a global, indiscriminant word good for convincing others and accounting for (or exonerating) actions and beliefs. For example, when the United States first named the armed reaction against the Taliban in Afghanistan "Operation Infinite Justice," the government made use of words that reach back to Biblical uprightness and forward to modern jurisprudence. They contain references to revenge, requital, and equivalence. It was a good rhetorical choice, but it did not take into account an Islamic belief that only the divinity can impart justice. It thus lost its rhetorical value for the social and political context in which it was to be used and had to be changed to "Operation Enduring Freedom" (WASHINGTON POST, Sept. 26, 2001, A-7). [10]

The use of rhetorical figures, interpretive distance, and historical allusions in texts reveals a great deal about the intentions of the speaker. Although an important part of speaking is to have an influence on the audience, part of the listeners' role in interpreting the speaker's words is to judge why he or she is saying what he or she says. The speaker may attempt to hide his or her motives, but underlying the whole process is a basic intentionality. The speaker wishes to accomplish something and his or her listeners will be deciding what position to take in relation to these aims. [11]

Starting from these basic principles, I will attempt to generate three principles for rhetorical analysis:

In general, we can say that a rhetorical analysis makes use of the development of a particular discourse. This kind of inquiry does not deal with the identification of frequently mentioned topics or the development of the representations (or constructions or attitudes) of particular social groups. It has to do with the process of speaking as such and how speech is used to achieve certain goals. [13]

3. Hermeneutics

In this paper I have used rhetoric in order to explore how people employ language to achieve certain things, that is, to convince others, establish power structures, make people do what they want, and so forth. They also use it to make sense and create consensual meaning. As SCHÜTZ (1993), HABERMAS (1985, 1987) and others have pointed out, interpretation refers to an intersubjective process in which alter and ego attempt to understand each other. The lifeworld "pre-interprets" or facilitates some sort of interaction, but the participants themselves are thinking and acting agents that develop their interpersonal relationships and make them mutually intelligible. Each speaker creates an intentional identity, or a communicational posture consonant with his or her purposes in communicating. [14]

Hermeneutics is an instrument for analyzing rhetorical distance. But when a hermeneutic interpretation is made, consensus is often impossible in that one cannot go back to the original source and ask, "Is this what you were really trying to accomplish when you said that?" It may be that the original source died centuries ago, or that distance, culture and the relative power of the original speaker and his or her interpreter make this sort of confrontation impracticable. Historical and geographical distance may produce barriers to hermeneutic understanding. As TAYLOR (1996, p. 55) said,

"... man is a self-defining animal. With changes in his self-definition go changes in what man is, such that he has to be understood in different terms. But the conceptual mutations ... can and frequently do produce conceptual webs which are incommensurable, that is, where the terms cannot be defined in relation to a common stratum of expressions." [15]

This problem of the limits placed on interpretation, on the incommensurableness of different texts (in this case, the original and the interpretation) cannot be solved in terms of the discovery of reliable analytic techniques. The solution to this problem lies with the reader or listener of each given interpretation. In each case he or she must ask, "Am I in agreement with this version or this second text?" The interpreter's reader or listener is, in fact, creating a third text, in a potentially unending sequence of new meanings. [16]

In hermeneutic interpretation the analyst creates a second text. It is not his or her intention to discover what the original author "really" wanted to say (thus reproducing, paraphrasing or synthesizing the original text), although he or she may claim afterward to have discovered the authoritative interpretation. Thus, when a rabbi clarifies a biblical passage, or a judge elucidates the meaning of a legal clause, he or she is aware that interpretations may have been made of these texts in the past and perhaps others will be made in the future. As GADAMER (1993) has said, a relationship is established between the interpreter and a text and as a result, a second text is produced which represents both the original author and the analyst. [17]

Both hermeneutics and rhetoric are applicable when "... one wishes to ascertain what can be understood in discourse ... that goes beyond the conventional semantic sense" (HERRERA, 1990, p.172). Or as CAPUTO (1987) states, it is "... a delivery service whose function is not to insure an accurate and faithful delivery of messages, like a good metaphysical postmaster ... Rather, it engages in a creative rereading of the postcards ..." (p.5). Hermeneutics, CAPUTO says, "wants to describe the irregularities and differences by which we are inhabited" (p.6). [18]

HERRERA (1990) mentions the need to give context to hermeneutic interpretations, that is, to "place" them within certain geographic and historical limits. Hence, an analysis of a historical text should take into account what one knows about the place in which it was written and the epoch in question. One would deal differently with a text by Cicero than one would with Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," for example. This previous understanding forms part of the dialogue one establishes with the text. Sometimes, in non-academic interpretations previous understanding is colored by prejudice, patriotism, and other forms of intolerance, but in conscientious interpretive work, attempts should be made to bridge the gap between incommensurable meaning systems. [19]

Interpretation is a fundamental part of the rhetorical use of language. It deals with specific linguistic mechanisms used by a speaker or a writer to achieve his or her purposes. When a hermeneutic analysis is attempted, the entire text is taken into account. The different parts of the text form "hermeneutic circles" which then combine to produce a comprehensive meaning. In our present analysis it would be meaningless to extract fragments from President Bush's and bin Laden's speeches without referring them to the whole context of their continuing interchange. An interpretation of bin Laden's emphasis on the term "crusade," for example, only acquires its full sense when related to the full body of the dialogue between these two men. [20]

4. Method

Interpretation is a very subjective process. That is, I, as interpreter, will have become a participant in a rhetorical event and will also form part of the analytic process. There can be no claim to objectivity or validity in this kind of analysis. It becomes the reader's job to judge the results of this interpretation. That is, the reader will create a third text "in his or her head" as the reading takes place. I will identify some of the specific rhetorical mechanisms used and I will interpret why they have been used in this way. Because the rhetorical mechanisms used are the basis for the interpretation, the reader will be able to form his or her own stance in relation to my rendering. In a very concrete sense, what I have done is to identify certain rhetorical mechanisms and figures and interpret the authors' reasons for using them. I will amplify this method in the following paragraphs. [21]

In what follows I will present extracts from two categories of texts, speeches by President Bush and by Osama bin Laden. All have been taken from Internet sources. There are nine speeches by President Bush and seven by bin Laden, that are identified just after the main body of this paper. Not all are strictly contemporary, but all deal with the reciprocal animosity between the United States and the Taliban. It is important to recognize that some of bin Laden's texts have been translated. This necessarily precludes a close examination of his choice of words. Nonetheless these are texts that not only have had an enormous influence on the world, but have also produced direct responses from the world's diverse inhabitants. For this reason they are important, even considering the influence that translation may have had on them. I will not attempt to summarize them, analyze the main themes or topics covered in them, or comment on their content. My only interest is to study some of the rhetorical mechanisms employed by these two speakers and to interpret their reasons for doing so. [22]

The format of this analysis will be:

I will only be able to show isolated examples of each mechanism used. However indications of similar ones in other texts may appear in these contexts. My annotations include: a) the speaker's initials, that is OBL for Osama bin Laden, and GWB for George W. Bush, b) a dash followed by a number which identifies the text (which will be identified as such in the reference section of this paper), and c) a slash, followed by the paragraph number from which the quote was taken. For example the indication "GWB-3/32" indicates that the quote comes from George W. Bush's third text, paragraph number 32. Paragraphs were achieved by selecting the entire text using the appropriate submenu in the Microsoft Word Processor, then, using the "numbering" option in "format" menu. The paragraphs were then the numbered items superimposed on the texts as they were taken from the indicated Internet sources. [24]

5. My Rhetorical and Hermeneutic Analysis

5.1 General considerations

In what follows I will develop several general rhetorical mechanisms used by both speakers. These are:

5.2 The creation of a dichotomy between "us" and "them"

To create the notion of two sides in conflict both speakers create a radical dichotomy. Thus bin Laden says,

"These incidents divided the entire world into two regions—one of faith where there is no hypocrisy and another of infidelity, from which we hope God will protect us" (OBL-1/31). [26]

At another moment he says,

"I say these events have split the whole world into two camps: the camp of belief and the disbelief. So every Muslim shall take—shall support his religion" (OBL-3/12). [27]

In a similar sense President Bush says,

"If you harbor a terrorist you're a terrorist. If you harbor anybody who has harmed America, you're just as guilty as those who have harmed our country" (GWB-1/30)


"The United States is presenting a clear choice to every nation: Stand with the civilized world, or stand with the terrorists" (GWB-4/2). [28]

Two key differentiation words appear in these texts, "faith" and "civilization." "Faith" is a rallying word for bin Laden while President Bush exhorts his listeners with terms like "civilization" (and at other moments, "freedom," "democracy," and "our way of life"). It is important for bin Laden to define his reference group in terms of a defense of the Islamic faith. For this reason he has used Mr. Bush's unawareness of the significance of the word "crusade" as a standard to define the martyrdom of the Islamic people (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 2001). When bin Laden takes over the term, the struggle is not his cause; it is the heritage of the Islamic people to defend their religion against the infidel. They are the present and historical victims of crusades, the history of which extends back to the middle ages. Bin Laden says,

"The common people have understood the issue, but there are those who continue to flatter those who colluded with the unbelievers to anesthetized the Islamic nation to prevent it from carrying out the duty of jihad so that the word of God will be above all words. The unequivocal truth is that Bush has carried the cross and raised its banner high and stood at the front of the queue. Anyone who lines up behind Bush in this campaign has committed one of the ten actions that sully one's Islam. Muslim scholars are unanimous that allegiance to the infidels and support for them against the believers is one of the major acts that sully Islam" (OBL-2/38-41). [29]

Here there is not only reference to the present "crusade." He extends the word to the historical times when Muhammad founded Islam. Bush is described metaphorically as "carrying the cross" against, evidently, the Star and the Crescent (an absent referent symbol clearly evident to his listeners). These symbols are used employing the figure of a metonymy (describing something by naming its attribute; in this case the symbol brings to mind a mounted warrior carrying the symbol of his corps into battle). Bin Laden then claims to be backed up by unnamed Muslim scholars who state that to sympathize with the other side (identified here as the infidels) will "sully" the whole ideal of faith (see also OBL-2/25, OBL-2/52-55, OBL-2/22, OBL-2/35, OBL-4/7, OBL-2/48-50). [30]

"Faith" for bin Laden's listeners is a far-reaching term. For many Muslims, it is a referent that they use to define themselves, their culture, their authority systems, and their family structure. It is not a relative term as in the West where one can profess a given faith, as one among many possible identifications or allegiances such as political parties, clubs and citizenship, and even change back and forth according to one's existential needs of the moment. There is no distinction in Islam between private and public conduct. Thus, the force of the word. [31]

Bin Laden has used a number of words to contrast "us" and "them". He describes the enemy as be a liar, a butcher, an oppressor, infidels, and hypocrites while "we" on the other hand are innocent children and a family of the oppressed:

"They champion falsehood, support the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child" (OBL-1/20).

"When these defended their oppressed sons, brothers, and sisters in Palestine and in many Islamic countries, the world at large shouted. The infidels shouted, followed by the hypocrites" (OBL-1/14). [32]

President Bush uses similar tactics with other referents. He uses words like "democracy," "freedom," and "our way of life" to refer to "us," and "terrorists" to refer to "them." One might say that for many people in the United States, these terms have the same force as "faith" does for Muslim listeners. President Bush says:

"These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life" (GWB-6/65).

"The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it and destroy it where it grows" (GWB-6/82).

"Americans are asking 'Why do they hate us?' They hate what they see right here in this chamber [the U.S. Congress]: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa" (GWB-6/62-64). [33]

This last quote is a very interesting one to analyze more closely. He begins with a question and passes immediately to the answer (anthypophora5)). Thus he has involved his audience, and made them anticipate his answer. "We" are defined by such virtues as freedom and a democratically elected government. Never mind that the countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan that "they" wish to overthrow are not democracies; this fact is absent from President Bush's discourse. Here, basically, he uses Aristotle's adage that my enemy's enemy is my friend. And he finishes with a referent to bin Laden's key word, "faith," attempting to employ its force on his own side's behalf. "They" are brutally opposed to (our) Christianity and Judaism. At another moment he says,

"I consider bin Laden an evil man. And I don't think there's any religious justification for what he has in mind. Islam is a religion of love, not hate. This is a man who hates. This is a man who has declared war on innocent people. This is a man who doesn't mind destroying women and children. This is a man who hates freedom. This is an evil man" (GWB-8/17-18). [34]

Here again he attempts to weaken the power of bin Laden's use of "faith" as his key word. He redefines bin Laden's faith as "hate" which destroys innocent people and even freedom itself. Indeed, bin Laden's faith is not Islamic. At another point he describes "us" as the compassionate defenders of the victims of hate. In the following example he deftly suggests that, although we are compassionate, "we" are determined avengers of hate and oppression because we will not extend our compassion toward the "terrorists":

"We have no compassion for terrorists in this country. We have no compassion. Nor will we have any compassion for any state that sponsors them. Oh, yes, we're a compassionate nation, but our compassion is limited. We have great compassion, however, for the millions around the world who are victims of hate, victims of oppressive government, including the people who live in Afghanistan" (GWB-5/32-33). [35]

It is interesting to examine the use of the word "terrorism" in both bin Laden's and President Bush's discourse. Both accuse the other of this practice. Bin Laden shakes off the accusation of terrorism that Bush has made, converting the word to "revenge" taken on behalf of numerous innocent victims. The terrorists for each speaker are "them," not "us":

"What terrorism are they speaking about at a time when the Islamic nation has been slaughtered for tens of years without hearing their voices and without seeing any action by them? But when the victim starts to take revenge for those innocent children in Palestine, Iraq, southern Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir and the Philippines, the rulers ulema (Islamic leaders) the hypocrites come to defend the clear blasphemy." (OBL-2/36-37) [36]

And President Bush similarly develops the notion of justice as a response to terrorism:

"But one thing is for certain, these terrorists must be pursued, they must be defeated, and they must be brought to justice" (GWB-2/15). [37]

In a deft association of terms, President Bush manages to link a varied series of words that have very positive connotations for his audience ("homeland," "entrepreneurial spirit," "spirit," and "our country") and oppose them to "them" or the "terrorists":

"When the terrorists struck our homeland they thought we would fold. They thought our economy would crater. That's what they wanted. But they don't understand America. They don't understand the entrepreneurial spirit of our country. They don't understand the spirit of the working men and women of America" (GWB-3/6). [38]

5.3 The negation of the aggressor

Several of the quotes already discussed have made reference to the need to destroy "them" or the aggressor since "they" have victimized "us." This is a delicate rhetorical operation because "we" can easily present ourselves to our listeners as assailants, bullies and ruffians, or as weak victims and underdogs. Thus the speaker's side must be portrayed as the aggressor's victim and at the same time as a powerful antagonist. Bin Laden, combining his outrage at the presence of infidel armies in the land of Mohammed with his determination for revenge, swears:

"As for the United States, I tell it and its people these few words: I swear by Almighty God who raised the heavens without pillars that neither the United States nor he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed, may God's peace and blessing be upon him" (OBL-1/33). [39]

And President Bush, combining the grief of his people with the need for resolution and justice (a word emphatically repeated three times in the same sentence in a device called antimetabole6), that is, the repetition of the same word in various grammatical positions; notice also the same use of the word "anger"), says:

"Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done" (GWB-6/9). [40]

5.4 The description of the conflict between the two sides

Again, the conflict is defined by "our" need for revenge because of the injustices done to us. In this section I have extracted text fragments that contain reference to battle and war. For bin Laden the injustices have to do with the need to defend faith, dignity and solidarity. All his discourse is explicitly nested in historical references that are intended to extend the context of the conflict beyond September 11th, 2001, that is, the day of the attacks on New York and Washington. For bin Laden "our" war is decades or even centuries old. It is, in fact, another battle in the great war of Islam against a variety of oppressors. He makes ample use of a recitation of historical facts (anamnesis7)), reminding his listeners of the antecedents of "our" need to fight now.

"And with regard to you, Muslims, this is the day of question. This is a new (inaudible) against you, all against the Muslims and Medina. So be like the followers of the prophet, peace be upon him, and all countrymen ..., lovers of God and the prophet within, and a new battle, great battle, similar to the great battles of Islam, like the conqueror of Jerusalem. So, hurry up to the dignity of life and the eternity of death" (OBL-5/2).

"For us, the idea was not to get involved more than necessary in the fight against the Russians, which was the business of the Americans, but rather to show our solidarity with our Islamist brothers. I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts against communist or Western oppression. The urgent thing was communism, but the next target was America ... This is an open war up to the end, until victory" (OBL-4/2).

"There is no power but in God. Let us investigate whether this war against Afghanistan that broke out a few days ago is a single and unique one or if it is a link to a long series of crusader wars against the Islamic world. Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the crusader banner – under the British, French, and Italian governments. They divided the whole world, and Palestine was occupied by the British. Since then, and for more than 83 years, our brothers, sons, and sisters in Palestine have been badly tortured. Hundreds of thousands of them have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of them have been imprisoned or maimed" (OBL-2/43-46). [41]

Bin Laden describes the enemy, the "crusader-Zionist alliance," as the architect of "horrific massacres" and the war as "ferocious":

"Despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million ... despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation" (OBL-4/19). [42]

He calls on his followers to wage war on "Satan's" troops and "the devil's supporters". This is a complicated reference. Interpreted as an antonomasia8) it refers to President Bush himself and thus creates an aura of malignancy around the whole U.S. struggle.

"We—with God's help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson" (OBL-4/19-20). [43]

All through his discourse, bin Laden has claimed that he refers more to the struggle between different faiths (and of the East against the West) than to a political struggle. This is an important point for him because he and President Bush are contending for the same allies, that is, Arab nations and those that have not been directly offended by the Taliban. In some cases he explicitly personifies the enemy in terms of its leader's names. Here we have examples of this claim.

"It is a question of faith, not a war against terrorism, as Bush and Blair try to depict it" (OBL-2/29).

"After the US politicians spoke and after the US newspapers and television channels became full of clear crusading hatred in this campaign that aims at mobilizing the West against Islam and Muslims, Bush left no room for doubts or the opinions of journalists, but he openly and clearly said that this war is a crusader war. He said this before the whole world to emphasize this fact. What can those who allege that this is a war against terrorism say? What terrorism are they speaking about at a time when the Islamic nation has been slaughtered for tens of years without hearing their voices and without seeing any action by them?" (OBL-2/35-36). [44]

President Bush, on the other hand, makes use of a specific historical reference as the "cause" of the war. This reference (September 11th, the date of attacks on New York and Washington) is sometimes coupled with allusions to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This was a well-known event that almost every United States citizen knows about and considers an unjustified, unanticipated and unfair aggression (and the prelude to an utter victory on the part of the United States after several years of bitter struggle). This association makes an unstated promise: We will win this war as well. The reference to Pearl Harbor in the first fragment below is only a date (Sunday, 1941) and relies on his listener's knowledge about that historical event.

"On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning" (GWB-6/26).

"But there is another front in this war, and the front is here at home. It's something that obviously we're not used to in America. We've had oceans which have protected us over our history. Except for Pearl Harbor, we've never really been hit before. And yet, on September 11, this great land came under attack, and it's still under attack as we speak" (GWB-3/16). [45]

He also develops the idea of a global and formless (and perhaps, deformed) enemy that can attack "us" anywhere, even here at home.

"Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated" (GWB-6/56-57).

"We will direct every resource at our command—every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war—to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network" (GWB-6/67). [46]

For President Bush it is a war for freedom and against fear, violence, murder and terrorism. This struggle is one that he and his nation will face with courage and determination.

"Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail" (GWB-6/125-126).

"It is not only repressing its own people, it is threatening people everywhere by sponsoring and sheltering and supplying terrorists. By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder ..." (GWB-6/44-45). [47]

President Bush contends that the war will be fought both economically and physically with soldiers and planes. The enemy is not a faith or a nationality; it is a loose, but dangerous and "evil" group.

"We are at the beginning of what I view as a very long struggle against evil. We're not fighting a nation and we're not fighting a religion. We're fighting evil. And we have no choice but to prevail" (GWB-1/23-24). [48]

5.5 The creation of a homeland

"We" are not only a people. We have a homeland (country, nation, and holy places) to defend. Both speakers make ample reference to this referent. Both speakers combine a defense of the homeland with a promise to fight the enemy in his own territory. Thus both speakers assure their listeners of their desire to protect the homeland and at the same time to destroy the adversary. Bin Laden says:

"For this and other acts of aggression and injustice, we have declared jihad against the US, because in our religion it is our duty to make jihad so that God's word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries. As for what you asked whether jihad is directed against US soldiers, the civilians in the land of the Two Holy Places (Saudi Arabia, Mecca and Medina) or against the civilians in America, we have focused our declaration on striking at the soldiers in the country of The Two Holy Places" (OBL-4/12; see also: OBL 6/67-68, 3/14, 1/33, 2/56, 4/18, 4/21, 4/13, 5/2, 5/9). [49]

And President Bush affirms:

"Today, right here in this room, I had the honor of signing a piece of anti-terrorist legislation widely supported by members of both parties in both houses. It's needed legislation to help us do the job the American people expect which is to protect the homeland. This is a two-front war. It's a two-front war. And it's a war we're going to win on both fronts. But make no mistake: The best way to make sure we protect our homeland is to succeed by bringing the terrorists abroad who try to strike us to justice" (GWB-1/42-43; see also: GWB 3/36, 3/16, 3/18, 3/38, 3/47, 3/61, 5/21, 5/29, 5/33, 6/9, 6/13, 6/26, 6/29, 6/37, 6/45, 6/78, 6/101, 6/108, 6/132, 7/24, 8/1, 8/3, 8/11, 8/15, 8/32, 9/15). [50]

5.6 Attempts on the part of the speaker to gain the approval or collaboration of the audience

Both speakers have an ample repertory of rhetorical devices for gaining the collaboration, sympathy, and a sense of unity from their listeners. There are evident cultural norms for doing this. Bin Laden, for example, cites poetry, alludes to shared, historical traditions and uses forms of discourse that his listeners can recognize as their own (such as the anastrofes, that is, the repetition of phrases in what Occidental listeners would consider a semi poetic style). His sentences tend to be elaborate and employ culturally appropriate forms for greeting and acknowledging. Below some of these devices are illustrated. An analysis of the exact meanings of these texts is beyond the scope of this paper. What interests us here is that culturally normed texts are inserted into the discourse of each speaker in order to gain the approval of his listeners. In this way it is structurally similar from a rhetorical point of view when bin Laden to says "There is no power but in God" and when President Bush says "God Bless." [51]

5.6.1 Bin Laden: The use of shared religious or poetic texts

"There is no power but in God" (OBL-2/70).

"There is no strength but in God" (OBL-2/83).

Initial invocation: "Thanks to God, he who God guides will never lose. And I believe that there's only one God. And I declare I believe there's no prophet but Mohammed" (OBL-3/1).

"Ending invocation: God is great and glory to Islam. May God's peace, mercy, and blessings be upon you" (OBL-1/34-35).

"And shouting: 'We will not stop our raids / Until you free our lands'" (line poetry, OBL-6/67-68). [52]

5.6.2 Bin Laden: The use of the anastrofe

"Praise be to God and we beseech Him for help and forgiveness. We seek refuge with the Lord of our bad and evildoing. He whom God guides is rightly guided but he whom God leaves to stray, for him wilt thou find no protector to lead him to the right way. I witness that there is no God but God and Mohammed is His slave and Prophet. God Almighty hit the United States at its most vulnerable spot. He destroyed its greatest buildings. Praise be to God. Praise be to God. Here is the United States. It was filled with terror from its north to its south and from its east to its west. Praise be to God!" (OBL-1/1-7).

"This clearly indicates the nature of this war. This war is fundamentally religious. The people of the East are Muslims. They sympathized with Muslims against the people of the West, who are the crusaders. Those who try to cover this crystal clear fact, which the entire world has admitted, are deceiving the Islamic nation. This war is fundamentally religious. They are trying to deflect the attention of the Islamic nation from the truth of this conflict. This war is fundamentally religious. This fact is proven in the book of God Almighty and in the teachings of our messenger, may God's peace and blessings be upon him. This war is fundamentally religious" (OBL-2/22-23).

President Bush also invokes the deity. In addition he uses short, clipped sentences in keeping with cultural expectations, and humor so that the shared laughter unites his audience. He evokes applause. He thanks just about every class of person in his public, from individual people to the citizens, the firefighters, the United States' allies, and the world. This use of thanking is quite interesting because it accomplishes several jobs. He presents himself as someone who personifies a nation on behalf of which acts of support, allegiance, bravery, and sacrifice have been performed. He thus incarnates all the people who have done these things and all of their acts. He also emphasizes the shared effort of all the people he acknowledges, displaying the unity of his side. And by thanking members of his "team" he displays both his collaborators' unity and their subordination to him. Here are some examples of these techniques: [53]

5.6.3 G.W. Bush: References to God

"I appreciate the contributions of time, the contributions of blood to help our fellow Americans who have been injured, and I'm proud of the Muslim leaders across America who have risen up and who have not only insisted that America be strong, but that America keep the values intact that have made us so unique and different, the values of respect, values of freedom to worship the way we see fit. And I also appreciate the prayers to the universal god" (GWB-8/4).

"Our enemies fear a society which is pluralistic and open to worship an almighty God. Our enemies are right to fear open societies because those societies leave no room for bigotry and tyranny. The promise of our time has no room for the vision of the Taliban or Al Qaeda" (GWB-1/75).

"Thank you all for coming, and God bless"(GWB1/80). [54]

5.6.4 G.W. Bush: The creation and singling out of heroes, thanking them, and taking on their words or objects

In the following quote, he refers to "lets roll," a phrase often quoted in the newspapers, that was expressed by one of the victims that forced the crash of one of the hijacked planes on September 11th, thus killing himself and the other passengers, but perhaps preventing a larger catastrophe:

"I see a great opportunity when I see moms and dads spend more time with their children here at home. I see, out of this sadness and grief, an opportunity for America to re-examine our culture, to re-examine how we view the need to help people in need whether it be in our own neighborhood and around the world. I see, out of this evil, will come good, not only here at home, as youngsters all of a sudden understand the definition of sacrifice, the sacrifice of those brave souls on Flight 93, who after the 23rd Psalm said, 'let's roll' to save America" (GWB-5/37).

"And I will carry this. It is the police shield of a man named George Howard who died at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. It is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end" (GWB-6/132-133). [55]

5.6.5 Thanking his audience

"And on behalf of the American people, I thank the world for its outpouring of support" (GWB-6/15).

"Tonight I thank my fellow Americans for what you have already done and for what you will do. And ladies and gentlemen of the Congress, I thank you, their representatives, for what you have already done and for what we will do together" (GWB-6/105-106).

"Thank you very much. Joe, thank you for those kind words, and thank you for your outstanding service in a difficult time for our great land. I want to thank Hal Bruno and the directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for the outstanding leadership they have shown in recognizing America's heroes. I want to say thanks to the members of the Maryland delegation who are here. Senator Sarbanes, Senator Mikulski, Congressman Hoyer and Congressman Bartlett, I want to thank you all for being here. I want to thank the local officials who are here. I want to thank the firefighters from all around America who have come to comfort the families of the fallen" (GWB-7/1-5). [56]

6. Concluding Remarks

This has been a very brief interpretation of some of the rhetorical mechanisms used by two men who presently incarnate a global struggle for power. As I write this bin Laden has "disappeared" or "escaped" in the sense that the United States military has been unable to capture him and bring him to "justice." He remains, however, a dark presence, and an interlocutor, and he still appears in Western discourse as a reason to go on fighting. In addition, the referents have gradually enlarged in President Bush's discourse. He has begun to move on from the "evil" bin Laden and begun to mention an "axis of evil" including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea (BUSH, State of the Union message, 2002). [57]

This struggle is both discursive and tangible in a military sense and constitutes a very dangerous maneuvering for the whole world. There have been undeniable and appalling events in which people on both sides have died. The interpretations that the speakers have given to these events are directed toward mobilizing humankind in certain specific ways. People become allured into identifying with one side or the other by the discourse. They become convinced, in fact, that there are only two sides possible, and they permit their leaders and heroes to define the situations they live through. [58]

The purpose of these mobilizations, moreover, is not always clear. Not all the actors on each side will be loyal to "their" cause for the same reasons. Outside or behind the discourse of both groups are interest groups; the invested money of oil and military-oriented industry; elected, appointed, and hereditary positions of authority; belief and ideological systems; racial and ethnic fear and prejudice; and many other unvoiced reasons for acting. It is very important to be suspicious of this rhetorical allure. Although listeners can become a willing party to their own seduction, they can also participate by creative doubting in a rhetorical event. Compliance is not the only reaction to discourse. [59]

This paper does not take on either cause described by the two speakers. It is my wish that the discourse analyzed here be considered for what it is: attempts to persuade and muster other people. Understanding the techniques employed constitutes a first step toward critical independence. [60]

Appendix: Texts Analyzed

A1 Texts from George W. Bush

1. Text: Bush, G. (Friday, Oct. 26, 2001). President Bush on Retaliation and State of the Economy. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushtext2_102601.html.

2. Text: Bush, G. (2001). President Bush's remarks at the signing ceremony for the anti-terrorism Patriot Act. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushtext_102601.html.

3. Text: Bush, G. (Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2001). President Bush on Retaliation Efforts. The text is President Bush's speech at the Dixie Printing Company, in Glen Burnie, Md. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushtext_102401.html [Broken Link, FQS, February 2003].

4. Text: Bush, G. (Saturday, Oct. 6, 2001). A transcript of President Bush's weekly radio address. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_100601.html.

5. Text: Bush, G. (Thursday, Oct. 4, 2001). Bush to State Department Employees Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushtext_100401.html.

6. Text: Bush, G. (Thursday, Sept. 20, 2001). President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress and the nation. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html.

7. Text: Bush, G. (Sunday, Oct., 7, 2001). President Bush's remarks at a memorial service for firefighters at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/transcripts/bushtext100801.htm [Broken Link, FQS, February 2003].

8. Text: Bush, G. (Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001). Bush Welcomes Muslim Americans to White House Wednesday. Available at. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushtext2_092601.html.

9. Text: Bush, G. (Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001). President Bush's news conference from the White House on efforts to curb terrorism and find the people involved in the attacks on the U.S. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/transcripts/bushtext2_091301.html.

A2 Texts from Osama bin Laden

1. Text: bin Laden, O. (Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001). A recorded statement broadcast on al-Jazeera television, 22:31 GMT 23:31 UK. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/south_asia/newsid_1585000/1585636.stm.

2. Text: bin Laden, O. (Date unknown).'This war is fundamentally religious'. Broadcast on Al Jazeera satellite television channel on Saturday Nov. 3. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A54980-2001Nov7.html (broken link, September 2002, FQS).

3. Text: bin Laden, O. (Date unknown). America 'filled with fear'. The Arab television news network al Jazeera broadcast a speech from Osama bin Laden Sunday after the United States and Britain launched their attack on Afghanistan. It is unclear when the videotaped statement was recorded, but it does refer to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. October 7, 2001 Posted: 5:57 PM EDT (2157 GMT). Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/central/10/07/ret.binladen.transcript/.

4. Text: bin Laden, O. (April, 1995). An interview with a French journalist. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wGWBh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/edicts.html (broken link, September 2002, FQS).

5. Text: bin Laden, O. (Date unknown). The transcript of a taped statement that aired on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite station, and appears to have been recorded before the U.S. strikes. (Joined in progress). Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/binladen_100801.htm.

6. Text: bin Laden, O. (Date unknown). The text of the tape released by the White House of Osama bin Laden and some of his associates discussing the September 11th terrorist attacks. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/binladentext_121301.html.

7. Text: bin Laden, O. (1999). Transcript of an interview, presented by Salah Najm, conducted by Jamal Isma'il in an unspecified location in Afghanistan Aired 10 June 1999. Available at: http://www.terrorism.com/terrorism/BinLadinTranscript.shtml (Broken Link, FQS, Sept. 28, 2002).


1) It is the method I used in the study "Los borrachitos de costumbre: Un análisis retórico y hermenéutico de la intención [The usual drunkards: A rhetorical and hermeneutic analysis of intention] (CRONICK, 2001). The present paper develops the method used in that work, and presents some examples of this kind of interpretation. <back>

2) The µ Group is a group of university professors from Liège, France, that publish their works under the symbol µ. <back>

3) I would like to thank Professor James MASON from York University in Canada for the commentaries he sent me about how computer programmers handle rhetorical figures like metaphors. <back>

4) The idea of measuring temperature can be traced back to the first century. The first modern thermometers used substances enclosed in glass tubes like wine (Galileo) or mercury (Fahrenheit) and calibrated the expansion and retraction of the substances with changes of warmth. Kelvin developed a fundamental temperature scale that defines an absolute zero point where molecules do not move anymore, so they do not give warmth. This point is very difficult to achieve in reality. Zero Kelvin is some 273.16 degrees below the ice point in terms of centigrade units. In the same way a "point zero" rhetorical frontier is a theoretical limit that is difficult to achieve in real life. <back>

5) See http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/Figures/A/anthypophora.htm. <back>

6) See http://www.uky.edu/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/~scaife/terms?file=1ahrd.html∈dex=Antimetabole <back>

7) Normally this figure refers to citing authors from memory. In this case it refers to citing historical facts. It is a figure used to increase the ethos, or the author's credibility. See http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/silva.htm. <back>

8) See http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/Figures/A/antonomasia.htm. <back>


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Karen CRONICK graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in the United States in 1963. She obtained her master degree from the Simón Bolívar University in 1980, and her doctorate from the Central University of Venezuela in 2001 in Caracas. She has been teaching at the Central University of Venezuela since 1985. Her research interests include community psychology, environmental psychology and rhetorical discourse analysis.


Karen Cronick

Apdo. 47563
Caracas 1041-A

E-mail: kcronick@reacciun.ve


Cronick, Karen (2002). The Discourse of President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden: A Rhetorical Analysis and Hermeneutic Interpretation [60 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(3), Art. 3, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs020333.

Revised 2/2007

Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS)

ISSN 1438-5627

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