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The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

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The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

Professor Mills Lectures on the Sublime Rhetoric of Terror

The Writing and Rhetoric Department hosted an event on “Law and the Sublime Rhetoric of Terror” on Tuesday, Feb. 20. The presenter at this event was Robert Mills, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Colgate University. This was the second of ten events that are to be held under the Arts and Humanities Colloquium Spring 2024 series. 

Mills discussed the rhetoric employed by pro-Palestinian student organizations, explaining how some politicians tie these organizations’ speech to the concept of “material support” for terrorism. Mills did so by comparing the rhetoric used by these student organizations to a Supreme Court case that was decided in 2010, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. This case defined the constitutional vagueness of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) — Section 303 of the AEDPA prohibits individuals from providing “material support or resources” to previously-designated organizations.

Mills believed that the most important part of this rhetorical conversation should be the prioritization of Palestinian rights and liberation. Mills opened his presentation by speaking about recent events in the state of Florida, where bans on the college student activism organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) called into play the ruling of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. Actions taken by the state of Florida demonstrate their belief that some of SJP’s rhetoric constituted  “material support” for terrorism, and was accordingly grounds for banning this student organization from Florida college campuses. 

The ruling of the Supreme Court and the actions of the Florida government are examples of what Mills calls the “sublimity of terror.” Mills shared an anecdote about how the impact of the sublime is seen when the word ‘terrorism’ is used. Little to no explanation or context is needed in order to induce a state of fear to the audience when they hear the word ‘terrorism’.

“I define sublime as the experience of quantity or quality that exceeds our capacities of imagination,” Mills said. 

Mills separated the culture of sublime terror into three defining components: virtuality, catastrophe and universality. All of these components describe the rhetoric that is used around the subject of terrorism and contribute to this feeling of perpetual fear. Mills provided an example of this kind of sublime rhetoric of terror. 

“Apocalyptic rhetoric is reinforced by calling the site of 9/11 ‘Ground Zero.’ The word apocalyptic is used to further this notion of catastrophe,” Mills said.

Mills criticized the Supreme Court and the writing of the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. He believed that the rhetoric of the Supreme Court inserts its evidence as stand-alone ultimatums, resulting in majority opinions being written with little to no analysis of quotations, as Mills pointed out in the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

“The rhetoric of the Supreme Court alienates terrorists from rationality,” Mills said.

Mills has been working on his research for 14 years, since Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project was decided in 2010. His studies have taken on new meaning since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel and he noted the political rhetoric that is used surrounding Hamas. 

“[Chief Justice] Roberts thinks of terrorist organizations as serial killers,” Mills said. “There is no other way to stop the violence than to kill the terrorists.” 

Interim Director of the Writing and Speaking Center Professor Suzanne Spring commented on the rhetorical devices utilized in the written opinions of the Supreme Court.

“I especially appreciated the way Professor Mills’ talk opened into a vibrant conversation in the Q&A,” Spring said. “He offered important insights into the faulty logics of past [Supreme Court] decisions, which are now being wielded at the state level to curb free speech and to limit advocacy.”

First-year Lauren Kelley described her feelings on the presentation and how she left with new insight on the subject. 

“I really enjoyed how the talk explored a topic that hasn’t been relevant for a few years, but has very interesting modern implications today,” Kelley said. “I never knew the rhetoric of law could be so important in cases.” 

Mills hoped his audience would leave the lecture empowered to reject the idea that saying the word ‘terrorism’ constituted inciting counterterrorism. He concluded the presentation by leaving his audience with something to think about. 

“I encourage you to think twice about the sublimity of the word terror, and think twice about the kind of world the Supreme Court imagines,” Mills said. 

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