Rhetoric of Atrocities: The Place of Horrific Human Rights Abuses in Presidential Persuasion Efforts


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank Kathleen Hall Jamieson for her guidance and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable input.

Eran N. Ben-Porath is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His research interests are political communication and political journalism.


An analysis of presidential rhetoric in the post-Cold War era finds that in building the case for imminent war, presidents turn to narrative descriptions of specific atrocities, namely rape, torture, and victimization of children. By the same token, presidents wishing to avoid American involvement in war use abstract terms and statistical information concerning human rights crises, but refrain from detailing personalized stories of abuse. This study expands on the theory of savagery as a necessary component in enemy construction and on the literature concerning the changing rhetorical landscape of the post-Cold War era. The analysis finds the rhetoric of atrocities employed and avoided, in similar fashion, by three presidents and across several different settings. The implications are discussed in the article.