Center for Strategic Communication

by Robert D. McPhee

Despite many clear differences in motivation and process, there seems also to be a continuity between the isolated nut who commits terrorific murder as at Virginia Tech and the terrorism campaigns of organizations like al-Qaeda. The fanatic who sees injustice and disrespect in his/her life is the sole actor as murderer, but among an army of similarly organized true believers is merely cannon-fodder in the global army of radical Islamists. In both cases, there is fairly careful planning in assembling weapons, concealing the agent’s identity, and choosing sites for terror. But the direct objective is vague and often unlinked to any specific change goal–terror agents at all levels want death via self-destruction, the power experienced by spreading panic and dread, major responses and attention by authorities, repetitive media coverage, as well as a sense of helplessness in the populace being attacked. Also similar is the response to terror acts at any level: fear, mourning, distrust of others who share membership in an innocent population segment, recrimination about the failure of defensive efforts, and of course the many communication paradoxes that plague defensive efforts.

Terror is a ritual of sudden horror, a sort of ritual game carried out by four main parties: the terrorists, the populace, the media, and the authorities. One goal of the political terrorist is to break the ‘natural’ bond of perceived legitimacy and cooperation between the populace and the authorities. If the populace comes to see the authorities as incompetent and brutal, they come closer to seeing the terrorists as legitimate or tolerable. They come closer to opposing and disrupting the efforts of the authorities through panic, refusal of cooperation, or outright support of ‘regime change.’ Interestingly, challenging this bond was the tacit goal of Cho Seung-Hui too. He seems to have wanted recognition of injustices done to him (as articulated in his tape) and acceptance of his retribution against the institution that wronged him.


In any novel or complex situation, a key tool for cooperation is a sort of ‘map’ of the situation, shared by all the cooperating parties. Maps define a shared vision of some situation and points of interest inside the visualized space. Even a bare message like “There’s a murderer loose on campus–stay indoors and keep your doors closed/locked” helps construct a fairly simple map. We can think of it as a map because it defines an area (campus), designates places of interest in it (indoors vs. outdoors), and gives their attributes (safe/unsafe). Such a map might plot the locations of dangerous agents and indicate their traits and level of danger. In a crisis of terror, it might indicate where terrorists are, what they’ve done, and possible future targets. Other examples of messages that construct maps are “Extremist foreign students are taking flight training,” or “Cho is a troubled student” (from, say, the English department at VTU to central administration). The outcry about the 9/11 communication failures and the failure of Virginia Tech authorities to promptly notify students of danger, is partly a complaint that good maps were not constructed or effectively shared.

A shared map lets a group discuss their situation and options intelligibly. A ‘map’ can be a vocabulary of common labels and distinctions with known implications, as when air crews learn standard ways of referring to levels of risk hazardous situations or the DHS uses its Threat Condition color codes. More often, it is a diagram, graph, or table that, like an actual map, lets people work out collectively what their situation is and how to coordinate choice among the range of challenges and options facing them.


The problem is that constructing, sharing, and using a map works well in simple situations, but generates paradoxes in situations of ‘pragmatic complexity’. Mapping is message construction, and as the recent CSC white paper Strategic Ambiguity, Communication, and Public Diplomacy in an Uncertain World: Principles and Practices notes, messages in complex environments create multiple, unpredictable, and paradoxical results. One type of paradox develops in the surprisingly difficult process of map construction. In uncertain situations, maps rapidly become too complex to use, especially if lots of sources are sending information with doubtful implications. If the information is uncertain, responders may hesitate to respond decisively to the map, or narrow their responses too much. To really facilitate coordination, authorities may attempt to build a single map, collecting all the information available. But that process rapidly becomes political, as different sources have different ideas about what information belongs in the overall map, who should respond to what, etc. A single map can be a tool of oppression by focusing responses and underplaying uncertainty—“The guilty parties are all Muslims” or even “all Islamists.” The single map will serve some agencies and purposes better than others, and narrow the range of innovative responses attempted. A single map also leads the populace to blame either the map constructors or the responders if things go wrong, even though the goal of a single accurate and useful map may be a pie-in-the-sky illusion.

The other type of paradox comes with the process of map sharing, which is both politicized and risky. Charges about the manipulation of Threat Condition codes illustrate the danger stemming from the politics of sharing. The timing and extent of map sharing can be used to benefit various authorities, and as a result the populace may grow to ignore or distrust shared information. But that is just one risk among many. Sharing the map also provides information to the terrorists, letting them know what terror resources are known, what targets are ‘juicy’ and when, and how the populace will react. This tempts terrorists to ‘play to the map’, as when Cho Seung-Hui sent out his video, or when terrorists plant delayed bombs to kill early responders to an initial attack.

Sharing the map also can generate risky responses from the populace. News personnel and civilian gawkers use maps to locate and swarm attack sites, creating confusion and hampering investigations. The news media exert pressure for more map sharing, and blame the authorities for not sharing in a way that serves media goals. The paradoxical result is that the media, and slowly the populace, comes to have a position similar to that of the terrorists: wanting more information, gaming what they have, and seeing responses by the authorities as “too little, too errant, too late” and therefore illegitimate.

Perhaps, just as multiple messages are optimal in diplomatically responding to terrorism, multiple maps and sharing strategies may be, too. Some maps must be shared widely, disseminated, and dealt with in a public game. Authorities need to make very clear the risky consequences of a public right to know, and minimize the blame attached to map-sharing. Other maps should remain concealed, shared only on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. Most importantly authorities need to emphasize the impossibility of coordinated response based on a single map rather than pledging to achieve it. They need to nurture interchanges with the public, the media (and even terrorists) that depend on varied maps with varied goals and complexify our encounters with terror.

Further Reading

· McKinney, E. H., Jr.; Barker, J. R.; Davis, K. J.; Smith, D. (2005). How swift starting action teams get off the ground: What United Flight 232 and airline flight crews can tell us about team communication. Management Communication Quarterly 19, 198-237.

· Virkunnen, J. (1991). Toward transforming structures of communication in work: The case of Finnish labor inspectors, The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition 13, 97-106.