President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed recently and I've witnessed an array of emotions. Some view it in partisan terms, wondering if it will benefit Obama. Many are celebrating, which is understandable, but some people also understandably feel uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating death, even the death of someone responsible for the murder of thousands. Personally, I've felt both emotions. Bin Laden was actively plotting more attacks and caused the death of someone I cared about. If nothing else, the closure that it brings her family is something to feel good about. Still, reflection and sadness about the circumstance in it's entirety seems fitting as well. I can identify with this Wall Street Journal article which details the reaction of someone who lost a brother, saying "my satisfaction with justice tonight is of course mixed with very sad feelings about my younger brother and that justice for him is something he will never of course be able to appreciate."
I do not begrudge anyone their joy (life is short, enjoy it), but satisfaction and reflection dominate my thoughts as well, when I think about September 11th and the semi-closure that Bin Laden's death brings. Some Muslims celebrated September 11th, perhaps influenced by Bin Laden, and some Americans since have wanted revenge on all of Islam. In a sense, this is all the legacy of Bin Laden's terrible act on September 11th. Why did he do what he did and how did he get so many people to join him? Unlike a serial killer, who may have some weird grasp of reality, Bin Laden actually had to convince a number of sane people to join him in his crimes (perhaps by hypermoralizing them). He did it by creating an us vs. them, zero-sum mentality with "images of Iraqi children starving under American-led sanctions, of Israeli soldiers manhandling Palestinian women, and of Osama bin Laden, looking messianic in his flowing robes, exhorting his brothers to rise up and end Islam's humiliation once and for all." He wanted a long war divided along religious lines. Given the risks he took, it is safe to say he was willing to die for such division, or in psychological terms, for the chance to create a zero-sum battle between west and east, where the losses of one side (even the losses of civilians) were a gain to the other.
We should deny him that goal, as that, not just death, would be his ultimate defeat. One of the oldest findings in social psychology is that superordinate goals create unity. Killing Bin Laden was one such superordinate goal, shared by Democrats and Republicans, Muslims and Christians. Rather than worry about who gets credit for this, finding unity in his death would be the ultimate defeat for Bin Laden, whose life was all about sowing division. As Robert Wright said, on the website for his book about Non-Zero sum thinking, "Killing Osama bin Laden and his kind is one thing. Killing his memes is getting trickier all the time." Let's kill Bin Laden's zero-sum meme.
- Ravi Iyer
Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes very little sense for a species to kill members of it's own species. Soldiers in war have to be trained out of their natural impulse not to fire weapons. For the vast majority of people, aggression is a last resort and I'm guessing that most readers have anecdotal evidence of this as rarely do everyday disagreements escalate into physical or even direct verbal attacks. It's usually not worth the risk and stress to our systems.
There is lots of psychological research on how to reduce these inhibitions (e.g. dehumanization, Milgram's obedience studies), but there is little research (feel free to let me know if I'm wrong about this and I'll edit this) on the positive pressures towards aggression. Among the ideas I am familiar with are Sherif's classic studies on competition for limited resources, which are echoed in Robert Wrights's ideas about zero-sum competitions leading to conflict. However, competition itself is just a circumstance and it doesn't necessarily get at the psychological mechanism for group level aggression. For example, people may compete because they covet a particular resource or they may compete because they need that resource to survive.
A couple years ago, I hypothesized that individuals are moved to aggression because of an excess of moral principle, rather than the absence of moral principle. In the context of the health care reform debate, this may mean harming others "for the greater good", which could be defined as saving unborn fetuses, providing health care to the sick, defending the constitution, fighting for liberty, or an assortment of other moral principles which have been asserted by both sides as justifying actions that might normally be considered out of bounds. In the past few days, we have seen gun threats, windows broken, the elderly disrespected, and slurs and spit hurled at politicians. These incidences of crossing boundaries in the name of a cause are not limited to one party as those in favor of health care have harassed Bart Stupak and tried to have Joe Lieberman's wife fired. No side has a monopoly on the ugliness.
I don't have data that speaks directly to this question, but I do have this graph to consider. At the time that I started thinking about what I call 'hypermoralism', I created a small educational website that I thought I'd use to gather some exploratory data as I thought about these issues. The website is still in beta but the results of the initial survey are interesting. I asked people to think of a group that committed violence against civilians (e.g. 30% picked the Nazis) and think of the motivations behind that violence. I then asked people to think of reasons why, in an extreme case, they themselves might endorse violence against civilians.
As you can see in the above graph, people believe that notorious groups that kill civilians are amoral ("They were amoral, having no moral standards." or "They were seeking personal gain at the expense of others.") most of all and were willing to entertain the idea that they were hypermoral ("They were killing people who belong to a specific group to avenge a past injustice committed by other members of that group.") as that value was still close to the midpoint of the scale. Survival ("They were killing people because they themselves would be killed if they did not.") was a distant third motivation.
In contrast, when people considered when they would potentially resort to violence against civilians, survival (of both the individual and the family, which loaded on the same factor in a factor analysis) was the prime potential motivator. Unfortunately, for my hypothesis, moral reasons were deemed no more likely than non-moral reasons for individuals, but I still think there is something to be learned.
Clearly, these scenarios are not directly comparable as the average respondent is likely actually different than the average Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge. It's not just a matter of perception. But if we believe in the vast amount of research on the fundamental attribution error, which shows that we underestimate situational pressure when others do bad things, there likely is some amount of attribution error occurring in this instance. It seems likely that many individuals within these notorious groups actually did feel some survival motivation that spurred their actions. For example, Hitler was quite poor, though clearly his actions went way beyond mere survival.
In the health care reform debate, it seems that a precursor to the ugliness is indeed couching the debate in terms of a life or death struggle for survival, justifying questionable behavior. Is America hanging by a thread? Then I suppose it's worth taking extreme measures to save it. Are people dying every day that reform isn't enacted? Then I suppose a few harassing calls to a congressman's home are a small price to pay.
Politics in America can often be a zero-sum game and it is inevitable that passions will be inflamed on both sides. Liberals may have 'won' this vote, but we all lose when the debate gets too ugly and liberals are just as guilty of exaggeration when things don't go their way. Indeed, I just received an email asking for help to "stop big corporations from taking over our democracy", a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision which conservatives "won". Such rhetorical devices may be useful, but we should all guard against where such exaggeration inevitably leads....ugliness.