Public communication to stop terrorism: An examination of zero-sum counterterrorism assumptions

D. Fisher

University of Maryland,

Terrorism by its nature is political, encompassing more than salient attacks that threaten life and infrastructure. Terrorists seek to control the public discourse by rallying support for their movement through speech tactics that range from public talks to online publications. The clear importance of public discourse suggests that governments might be able to more strategically use public communication to reduce future terrorism. Thus far, the criminological literature has focused primarily on the use of physical tactics to make terrorism harder to commit. These deterrence-based strategies are founded on the zero-sum assumption that any losses for a terrorist group will result in gains for a government. Seeking to evaluate this assumption, this research examines whether public communications by governments can serve as a relatively inexpensive, readily available, and less oppressive means to reduce terrorism. Mixed methods are used to firstly examine the varying themes and content of the 6,001 public communications regarding terrorism from US Presidents and their Press Secretaries between 1970 and 2014. These public statements are then systematically coded to capture variation in the tone of these government speech actions, and are used to quantitatively examine whether these communications had any impact on subsequent terrorism aimed at US targets.


Daren Fisher, MA, is a PhD Candidate and Graduate Assistant to Laura Dugan at the University of Maryland Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and a Research Assistant with the Sydney Institute of Criminology. Daren’s research interests include the relationship between government actions and subsequent terrorism, judicial decision making, and the application of CPTED.