Dr. Martin Luther King had this to say more than forty years ago about his responsibility to challenge his own government regarding its war on Vietnam:
“A time comes when silence is betrayal; that time has come for us. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”
This essay will cover the betrayal of truth that continues today and break the silence about events that present a profound challenge to our most closely guarded beliefs about government and democracy. The public’s attention must be brought to bear upon the state crimes against democracy related to the events of September 11, 2001, and the perpetrators and profiteers must be prosecuted for their crimes against humanity — crimes that have affected people worldwide, a decade past and continuing onward with no foreseeable end.
State Crimes Against Democracy
These events are collectively referred to as “State Crimes Against Democracy” or (SCADs), following Professor Lance deHaven-Smith. SCADs are actions which are undertaken in direct violation of sworn oaths of office by officials in order to circumvent, exploit, undermine or subvert laws, the constitutional order, or the public awareness essential to popular control of government. SCADs are dangerous to democracy because they are not isolated events, but a pattern of actions — or in some cases, inactions — which facilitate a progression towards closing down an open and free society.
American Behavioral Scientist Paper
The work discussed here is based on an international collaboration with five other academics — Drs. Lance De-Haven-Smith, Matthew Witt, and Christopher Hinson in the United States, and Dr. Kym Thorne and the late Dr. Alexander Kouzmin in Australia. A research paper of mine, along with six others, was published in the February 2010 special issue of American Behavioral Scientist on State Crimes Against Democracy. It focuses on scientific studies of attitudes, biases, and faulty beliefs that can prevent people from processing information that challenges pre-existing assumptions about government, reasoned dissent, and public discourse in a democratic society.
All of the information I present is based on widely accepted scientific research. Some of the concepts and explanations are quite complex and replete with technical jargon, so I will attempt to simplify things where appropriate, but there will be times when important distinctions between concepts require more technical terminology.
Although there are many theories as to why some people refuse to look at evidence that the official account of 9/11 is false, they are not all equally valid. It is neither valid nor accurate to claim that just because a person will not examine evidence that the official account is false, that person is simply in denial. The human brain is the most complex organ in the body — and thus, the mechanisms by which the mind processes, interprets and responds to information are equally complex. For example, the human brain is composed of hundreds of billions of neurons, each with thousands of synapses, creating a vastly complex and intricate neural network consisting of a hundred trillion to up to a quadrillion connections. At any one time, this organ is processing an infinite amount of information from its internal and external environment, most of which we are unconscious of. However, it is often that information — of which we are largely unaware — that has the most significant influence over our thoughts, feelings and behaviors — even those thoughts, feelings and behaviors that we adamantly believe to be consciously determined.
Evidence from neuroscience tells us that the way in which we perceive the world around us is not necessarily as it is. For example, we assume that when we are looking at something, we are consciously analyzing it based upon the visual information that is entering the brain from the eyes. But this is not entirely accurate. In fact, visual stimuli transduced by the rods and cones in the eyes, and sent by electrochemical signals to the central nervous system via the optic nerves, does not go directly to the occipital cortex which is the primary region responsible for processing visual information. Instead, it first goes to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, another region of the brain that is part of the limbic system and important in emotional arousal. To put this in simpler terms, this means that you can experience an emotional reaction to something you see before you are consciously aware that you have even seen it — this, in turn, affects how you see it.
Perhaps one of the most elegant examples is the discovery of what are commonly known by neuroscientists as “mirror neurons.” A mirror neuron is a neuron that is activated in the brain both when an organism performs an action itself — such as reaching or grasping for an object — and when that organism observes that same action performed by another organism. Research by psychologists in this area also suggests that this may be one mechanism by which people come to internalize not only the behaviors of others, but their emotions and ideas as well. Since this is a relatively new area of research, I will instead focus on some of the more established social-psychological mechanisms that may later be shown to have a biologically-based origin.
Here is a brief overview of five main areas that will be covered. First, I will present a framework for discussing psychological resistance that emphasizes the difference between a direct and indirect approach to discussing evidence of SCADs, which also recognizes the important role that the information environment and motivated reasoning play in such discussions. Second, I will review one of the most important psychological foundations of democracy, which is political tolerance, and its corollary, political aggression. Third, I will give some examples of psychological constructs that can interfere with people’s examination of evidence of State Crimes Against Democracy, such as cognitive dissonance, threatened self-esteem and perceived threats to oneself or one’s worldviews. Fourth, I will talk about the problems inherent in challenging people’s assumptions about government, dissent, and public discourse, specifically in discussing evidence of SCADs such as 9/11. Here I will explain how the people’s defensiveness interferes with the public debate that is crucial for the survival of democracy. Finally, I will discuss the implications of research in psychology for social truth and justice movements and reform initiatives using the events of 9/11 as the primary example.
Framework: Direct and Indirect Approaches
Explanations of political assassinations, terrorist attacks, and other national tragedies that differ from official state accounts are sometimes dismissed by the general public because they evoke strong cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon which occurs when new ideas or information conflict with previously formed ideologies and accepted beliefs.
One approach to dealing with cognitive dissonance arising from conflicting beliefs is to directly challenge the false belief itself, for example, by presenting evidence that the belief is factually incorrect. This is what most of the presentations at the Toronto Hearings did, and rightly and appropriately so. What I want to focus on — and even demonstrate — is the other method, the indirect approach.
The indirect approach, rather than challenging false beliefs directly, first points out the potential for the creation and persistence of false beliefs in general. This entails first demonstrating mechanisms by which beliefs can be manipulated, and then subsequently exploring what specific beliefs may have been generated falsely. Thus, before I challenge any false beliefs that may be held about the events of 9/11, I will first explain, in detail, how people can come to hold false beliefs. I expect that after I demonstrate this, the reader will better understand why the direct approach often not only fails to change a false belief, but sometimes serves to strengthen it.
In psychology, a false belief generally refers to one that has been manipulated, often purposely and outside of the person’s awareness, and sometimes in a very specific direction or misdirection. An elegant and robust example comes from the work of Solomon Asch in the 1940s and Harold Kelley in the 1950s, and later replicated by others, including Neil Widmeyer and John Loy in the late 1980s; this experimental manipulation of beliefs is referred to as the “warm-cold effect.”
Consequences of the “Warm-Cold” Effect
In a classroom setting, students in Widmeyer and Loy’s experiment were given different introductions to a visiting professor and later asked to describe the professor and his lecturing abilities. Before the professor appeared, half of the students were informed that he was a “rather cold person” and the other half informed that he was a “rather warm person.” In addition, students in both groups were also told that he was either a professor of physical education or a professor of social psychology. All students experienced the same lecture, which was delivered in a very neutral manner. The results showed that students who were led to believe that the lecturer was a warm person not only reported that he was much more likable than students led to believe that he was a cold person, they also reported that he was a more competent teacher. This is an example of a false belief because the liking or disliking, and perceptions of competency and incompetency, arose from the warm or cold introduction, not from the professor’s actual mannerisms or methods of teaching, which were identical for all students. Most importantly, the information regarding the professor’s area of expertise, as either a professor of “physical education” or “social psychology,” had no effect on students’ perceptions.
This experimental example has real world consequences for a functioning democracy. People can be manipulated, for example by the media, into falsely believing that they like or dislike a presidential candidate because of his or her public policy when, in fact, their perception arises solely from the media’s framing of the candidate merely as either likable or dislikable. The issue of competency to hold the highest positions of public office does not even need to come into the equation.
Indeed, the creation and persistence of false beliefs can have very serious consequences. A case was presented by Steve Hoffman and colleagues in their paper entitled “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification,” which attempted to explain the strong — but false — belief held by many Americans that Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11. It also demonstrates why the direct approach often serves only to strengthen the false belief. Here is a quote from their introduction:
Ronald Reagan once remarked that “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so” (Reagan, 1964). His comment goes to the heart of one of the most contentious issues in democratic theory: how should democracies handle false beliefs? False beliefs present a potentially serious challenge to democratic theory and practice, as citizens with incorrect information cannot form appropriate preferences or evaluate the preferences of others. Kuklinski and colleagues (2002) have demonstrated that incorrect beliefs — as distinct from mere lack of information, a more thoroughly studied phenomenon (e.g., Delli Carpini and Keeter 1997) — are widespread and underlie substantial differences in policy preferences.” (p. 142)”
One explanation that Hoffman and colleagues discuss is referred to as the “information environment” explanation, which suggests that the false belief about Saddam Hussein and 9/11 arose primarily from the Bush administration’s campaign, which was riddled with false information and innuendo that explicitly and implicitly linked Saddam with Al Qaeda.
However, Hoffman and colleagues were able to show, experimentally, that there is another “social psychological” explanation — that of inferred justification — which contributed to the creation and persistence of this false belief. They gave participants “challenge interviews” wherein reliable information was given to counter their false belief: primarily two newspaper articles reporting that the 9/11 Commission had not discovered any evidence linking Saddam to 9/11 and a quote from President Bush himself denying any claims of a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. The responses were varied, and very interesting. Here are some examples of the strategies that people used to resist information that contradicted their beliefs.
First, several respondents, who had earlier claimed to believe that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda, simply denied making this claim, even though it was recorded on the initial survey. In one case, a participant begins by saying that he did believe that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks but then corrects his statement claiming that he knew it was Afghanistan all along. In fact, when the interviewer actually shows him his prior written response he continues to deny believing what he answered even though it is clearly laid out before his eyes.
Some of the other strategies that participants used to resist persuasion included the following, which are well known to psychologists:
Counter-Arguing: Directly rebutting the information. For example, some respondents could not provide any evidence to support their belief so they fabricated a reason. These people claimed that Saddam had to have been involved because of his hostility towards the US and support for terrorism: To quote one respondent: “I believe he was definitely involved with it because he was definitely pumping money into the terrorist organizations every way he could. And he would even send $25,000 to somebody who committed suicide to kill another person, to their family.”
Attitude Bolstering: Bringing forth facts that support one’s position without directly refuting the contradictory information. This was the most commonly used strategy. People would often change the topic or start talking about other good reasons why the U.S. was justified in going to war with Iraq. For example, some people responded that President Bush should not be judged so harshly for having acted on faulty information. One responded stated: “Well, I think he used the information that he had at the time; if that information was faulty I can’t see that it could be his fault.”
Selective Exposure: Ignoring the information without rebutting it or supporting it with other positions. In fact, many people simply refused to continue to engage in the discussion with contradictory information; one participant even said “I’m gonna pass on this one, for now.”
Disputing Rationality: Arguing that opinions do not need to be grounded in facts or reasoning. The researchers’ example of how this strategy was used by one person is telling:
“INTERVIEWER: …the September 11 Commission found no link between Saddam and 9/11, and this is what President Bush said. (pause) This is what the Commission said. Do you have any comments on either of these?
RESPONDENT: Well, I bet they say that the Commission didn’t have proof of it but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.”
Inferred Justification: A strategy that infers evidence supporting the respondent’s beliefs. Basically, respondents retrospectively invented the causal links necessary to justify a favored politician’s action. Inferred justification operates as a backward chain of reasoning that justifies the favored opinion by assuming the causal evidence that would support it.
God Have Mercy on Them — We Will Not
Lest you think that these kinds of reactions are merely responses in a laboratory setting, I have a personal story that I hope will trouble you as much as it did me. It occurred during a very friendly and casual conversation with a gentleman I had just met who was a life-long resident of Florida. We talked about the weather first, then our careers, then about our families and our concern for their futures, and then finally, politics and the future of America. “Well, I’ll tell you what I think really needs to happen to set this country straight,” he said. Since this gentleman had, so far, given wonderful advice on how to stay married for over forty years while raising a family, how to build a successful career, and how to be an upstanding member of one’s community, and even how he had fought in the Vietnam war — I listened carefully. This is what he said: “What this country needs is for some of those al-Qaeda terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 to walk into an American household, put a gun to the head of the father of the house, line up that man’s wife and children against a wall, and make him watch, while they shoot everyone in his family. THEN,” he said, raising his voice just a little, “the people in this country will understand what we are fighting to protect over there in Iraq.”
After struggling to maintain my composure, I turned to ask him if he would volunteer his family for this, in order to save his county. But I did not. Instead, I gently asked him if a family in the Middle East might view some American soldiers as he views al-Qaeda terrorists. (I had in my mind a famous photograph taken mere moments after Samar Hassan, a five-year-old Iraqi girl, covered in the blood of her family, had just witnessed her mother and father being shot and killed by American soldiers who opened fire on her family’s car as they were on their way to take her sick brother to the hospital.) He appeared to be honestly surprised by such a scenario, one in which the tables had been turned and the Americans were viewed as the terrorists.
Now, I really did understand the point he was trying to make: unless it happens to them, in their own backyards and perhaps even within their own homes, many people won’t take action against what they believe is wrong with their country. Yet the point he did not realize he was making is more revealing: unless whatever is happening is happening to an American, it just isn’t important.
This widespread, deeply entrenched and false belief in “American exceptionalism” is a great threat to true democracy, by which I mean democracy for all. The type of democracy that is packaged and sold to us by the government and news and entertainment media is what I will refer to throughout this paper as “democracy for the few.” It is meant for some, but not for all.
The point of this story is to emphasize how honest, decent, hard-working, and upstanding people can come to believe that democracy and freedom from wars of aggression belong only to them and not to all citizens of the world, whether they live in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or Libya. This is the type of biased belief system that permits SCADs to continue.
“Democracy for the Few”
Indeed, the use of repression and terror, including threats of censorship, suppression of information, imprisonment, and torture, by leaders to silence political opponents and dissidents is not exclusive to authoritarian states. Such tactics can also be employed by leaders of democratic states — a fact that can be difficult for people to acknowledge, especially if it is not consistent with their belief system.
A recent Human Rights Watch World Report repudiated many leaders and governments worldwide as “despots masquerading as democrats.” The report described how leaders use rhetoric, fear mongering, and suppression of a free press to undermine the rule of law. These charges are relevant to the current state of democracy in North America (Roth, 2008). I’ll quote the report here:
“Few governments want to be seen as undemocratic. . . . Determined not to let mere facts stand in the way, these rulers have mastered the art of democratic rhetoric that bears little relationship to their practice of governing. . . . The challenge they face is to appear to embrace democratic principles while avoiding any risk of succumbing to popular preferences. Electoral fraud, political violence, press censorship, repression of civil society, even military rule have all been used to curtail the prospect that the proclaimed process of democratization might actually lead to a popular say in government. . . . Because of other interests — energy, commerce, counterterrorism — the world’s more established democracies too often find it convenient to appear credulous of these sham democrats. Foremost has been the United States under President George W. Bush. In a troubling parallel to abusive governments around the world, the US government has embraced democracy promotion as a softer and fuzzier alternative to defending human rights. . . . Talk of human rights leads to Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, waterboarding, rendition, military commissions, and the suspension of habeas corpus. . . . To make matters worse, the Bush administration’s efforts to rationalize the invasion of Iraq in terms of democracy promotion has made it easier for autocrats to equate pressure on them to democratize with an imperial, militarist agenda. (pp. 1-4)”
We must be ever vigilant of the motives of leaders who would persuade us to surrender our property, liberty, and humanity, one priceless piece at a time. How can we do this? First and foremost by educating ourselves and our fellow citizens on the how “We the People” can be manipulated by our government and its compliant news media into forfeiting our civil liberties and duties. We need to challenge the long-standing and often erroneous assumptions about the role of government, public discourse and dissent in democratic societies. We can start by identifying some of the social psychological factors that can prevent people from examining evidence of crimes committed by the state.
Psychological Foundations of Democracy
One of the most important social psychological foundations of democracy is political tolerance. Democracy requires tolerance of different political views. Democracy specifically requires tolerance of alternative political views, especially those that may be unpopular, such as public discourse on threats posed by the state toward its citizens. A person’s level of political tolerance largely determines his or her support for civil liberties and his or her degree of participation in civic duties, such as voting, showing support for free speech, or protesting government restrictions on freedom.
Research on political tolerance shows it is strongly influenced by an individual’s level of commitment to democratic values, individual and collective personalities, and the degree of threat perception of others towards oneself. Although people with more political knowledge and experience tend to be more tolerant of dissimilar views, perceptions of threat can greatly decrease political tolerance in general. Failure to internalize important principles of democracy, such as political tolerance, majority rule, protection of minority rights, free speech, and equal voting, leads to apathy and double standards, or “democracy for the few.”
In addition, the information environment, such as media and culture, can greatly influence political tolerance. For example, if the mainstream media portrays a group as violating social norms, public tolerance for that group will decrease. However, if a group is portrayed as behaving properly and in an orderly fashion, then far more people — often a majority — will tolerate the group and its activities, even if the group is generally unpopular or has an extremist image
In two experiments, Falomir-Pichastor and colleagues tested the theory that when an aggressive act is committed, it is the perception of the perpetrator’s political association as either democratic or authoritarian that determines whether the act is perceived as legitimate or not.
The results were telling: When people who commit aggressive acts were viewed as democratic, and their victims were viewed as authoritarian, the aggression was perceived as legitimate. However, any aggression committed against a democratic group was always perceived as highly illegitimate, regardless of whether the aggressor was seen as authoritarian or democratic. Hence, the less socially valued the group, the more legitimate any transgression against it was viewed, even when aggressive acts consisted of deadly force. Falomir-Pichastor’s summary stresses the importance of such research in the post-9/11 world:
“In recent years, democratic nations have initiated a number of armed conflicts and wars, albeit not against other democratic nations, but against nondemocratic states…How can these aggressive state behaviors be justified without giving up the democratic principles of peace and rationality?
“We suspect that political leaders take advantage of democracy’s good reputation…The results of the present studies provide potentially important insights for understanding how real intergroup and international conflicts are framed by elites to maximize their legitimacy and attract the necessary popular support (Nelson and Kinder, 1996). Many past and recent military interventions have been justified by portraying them as an opposition between ‘good,’ democratic forces and ‘evil,’ nondemocratic forces. Unfortunately, such a claim has a high price because it implies that democratic lives count more than nondemocratic lives. We hope that the present research can contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics underlying not only public support for, but also widespread opposition to, Western-democratic aggressions against nondemocratic targets.” (p. 1683–1684, 1693)
Psychological Barriers to SCADs Inquiry
Although people may harbor some cynicism about bureaucrats and politicians, most do not want to believe that public officials in general, and especially those at the highest levels, would participate in election tampering, assassinations, mass murder, or other high crimes — especially in democratic societies. For example, although public cynicism toward government was high in the months prior to 9/11 (e.g., fewer than 30% of U.S. citizens indicated that they trusted their government to “do what is right”), trust in U.S. officials in Washington rose significantly (more than doubled to 64%) in the weeks following the attacks, suggesting that heightened focus on national security breeds support for incumbent foreign policy makers.
Claims that state intelligence and other officials within democratic states could conspire with criminal elements to kill innocent civilians are difficult for citizens of those states to comprehend, even when backed by substantial evidence. Evidence that U.S. officials have used the attacks of 9/11 as a means to manipulate the mass public into accepting two major wars of aggression has been dangerously ignored by mainstream media and academia until recently, as discussed by social psychologists McDermott and Zimbardo (2007, p. 365):
“An alternate hypothesis for the current system that bears examination suggests that leaders strive to manipulate public opinion through the strategic use of fear and anger in order to gain political power and advantage. . . . If leaders want or need backing for a particular campaign that is likely to be unpopular or expensive in lives and material, such as war, or restrictions on civil liberties, then the effective use of anger, threat, and fear can work to enhance public support. In this way, a terrorism alarm can simultaneously serve as both a political and a strategic tool.”
To expose and prosecute officials responsible for orchestrating SCADs, people first must be presented with information of such crimes within the public sphere and, second, must be able to objectively consider evidence supporting those allegations, even facts that challenge their preexisting beliefs about democratic governance and citizen trust in leaders. As one of America’s most prominent criminal prosecutors explains in his recent book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder:
“You have to disabuse yourself of any preconceived notion you may have that just because George Bush is the president of the United States he is simply incapable of engaging in conduct that smacks of great criminality. Because if you take that position, a position that has no foundation in logic, you’re not going to be receptive to the evidence.”
Thus, protecting democracy demands that citizens be made aware of how they can be manipulated by government and media into forfeiting their civic liberties and duties. Citizens need information vital to protecting them from crimes against democracy that, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, are particularly common in times of disaster, collective shock, and national threat.
Social Motivations and Goals
People’s behaviors are largely regulated by social motivations and goals. Motivations are the processes that initiate an individual’s behavior directed towards a particular goal, and motives and goals are focused either on desired or rewarding end states (approach) or on undesired or punishing end states (avoidance). For example, one’s beliefs that another person is harmless may lead one to feel safe in approaching and interacting with that person in a positive way — a response based on approach-oriented motives or goals. Alternatively, one’s beliefs that another person is threatening may elicit fear, leading one to avoid any interaction with that person or interact in ways that provoke confrontation — a response based on avoidance-oriented motives or goals.
These cognitive-behavioral mechanisms also underlie self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein one’s motives, goals, or stereotypes directly influence interpersonal behavior in ways that tend to confirm, rather than disconfirm, preexisting beliefs. Conversely, interactions that disconfirm one’s beliefs may lead to cognitive dissonance, which can be a powerful motivator for changing both public behavior and private beliefs.
For example, if a person works for a government institution because he believes strongly in democracy and government by the people, but he has recently discovered that colleagues are using the rule of law for personal gain, he would likely experience inner conflict and tension between these cognitions. To resolve cognitive dissonance, he could publicly voice his concerns, becoming a “whistleblower,” even at the expense of his employment. Alternatively, he could change his opinion on the matter in two ways: Either he was wrong about his strong belief in democracy, or he was wrong in the belief that his colleagues had done something to violate the rule of law.
The attitude that is the weakest is the one that is also the most vulnerable to change; hence, in this situation, the person in question would most likely change his mind regarding the most recently formed belief about his colleagues — the path of least resistance — as opposed to his longstanding belief about government.
Research indicates that many people experiencing cognitive dissonance change their beliefs to make them consistent with otherwise dissonance-causing information; but occasionally some do not, as exemplified by the case of researcher Dr. Jeffery Wigand and the tobacco industry. After discovering that his employer, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation, was intentionally manipulating the effect of nicotine in cigarettes, Wigand exposed the company’s practice of “impact boosting” in the mainstream media. He was fired, testified in court, was constantly harassed, and was subjected to death threats because of his actions.
With respect to alleged SCADs, there have been many whistleblowers who, rather than change their beliefs, chose to publicly expose the problems they encountered in their respective fields of expertise. In response to the U.S. government’s official account of the attacks of September 11, 2001, hundreds of officials, academics, and professionals have publicly expressed their objections — including the courageous Kevin Ryan, who testified at the Toronto Hearings, and who has co-authored several academic papers on 9/11.
Unfortunately, when people are confronted with evidence contradicting the U.S. official account of 9/11, it is unlikely that immediate, prolonged discussion and debate regarding evidence supporting alternative accounts will change their minds. However, the more the general public is presented with dissenting opinions and the more accessible to conscious processing that information becomes, the more this familiarity can lead to increased support for those dissenting opinions. By implication, social truth and justice movements and reform initiatives need to include strategies for resolving the cognitive dissonance and worldview defense reactions that their claims and proposals regarding SCADs inevitably provoke.
TMT: Mass Manipulation of Behavior via Mortality Salience
Basically, Terror Management Theory (TMT) proposes that, because people feel threatened by the fact that eventually they will die, they create a belief system that brings meaning and purpose, and thus a feeling of security, to their lives. This helps us understand why some people will vigorously defend any threats to their belief system.
Threatening the validity of a person’s worldview, and hence the “security-providing function of that worldview,” can result in vigorous cognitive-behavioral defenses, reactions collectively referred to as worldview defenses (Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997), ranging from contempt to physical aggression directed toward the source of the dissonant information. According to TMT, people create and defend cultural belief systems to deal with the existential dilemma of an “inevitable fate of nonexistence” after death:
“The two most illuminating implications of TMT for understanding social behavior concern self-esteem and prejudice. By explicating how self-esteem comes to serve an anxiety-buffering function, the theory can explain the groping for self-esteem that seems to play such a prevalent role in human behavior — including the facts that those with high self-esteem fare much better in life than those lacking in self-regard, and that threats to self-esteem engender anxiety, anger, and all sorts of defensive reactions (from self-serving attributions to murder). The theory also offers an explanation for what is humankind’s most tragic and well-documented flaw: the inability to get along peacefully with those different from ourselves. If culturally derived worldviews serve a deep security-providing psychological need and are yet fragile constructions, it makes perfect sense that we respond to those espousing alternative worldviews with a combination of disdain, efforts to convert those others to our views, and aggression.”
TMT is supported by research repeatedly showing that when people are exposed to information that increases death-related thoughts, known as mortality salience, they display more worldview defenses, such as showing greater bias toward their country or religion (known as compensatory conviction) and increased support for charismatic leaders, especially in times of national threat.
TMT dual-defense model proposes that mortality salience first activates proximal defenses, serving to immediately remove from conscious awareness thoughts related to death (e.g., via suppression, minimization, and denial), followed by distal defenses, acting to preserve one’s self-esteem and worldview (e.g., via out-group stereotyping and in-group favoritism). Research indicates that increases in mortality salience can trigger displays of psychological dissociation and related behaviors; that is, threatening thoughts and emotions that are associated with an event are mediated independently of conscious awareness, rather than integrated, putatively to protect one from re-experiencing trauma.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, heightened mass anxiety and fear have likely been fostered by classical conditioning of emotionally laden thoughts and behaviors. For example, repeated media presentations of highly emotional images, such as images of the WTC Twin Towers being destroyed, paired with the horrific screams of witnesses, have produced enduring fear and aversion associated with these events. Because subliminal exposure to 9/11-related cues can bring death-related thoughts closer to consciousness, the phrase “9/11” — which is eerily similar to the “911” emergency response in North America — has become implicitly associated with traumatic death, destruction, and terrorism. The effect for many Americans and Canadians has been a corresponding increase in defensive and aggressive behavior when exposed to reminders of 9/11.
For example, in one study, when Americans were exposed to reminders of their mortality and 9/11, their support for U.S. President Bush and his counterterrorism policies increased. In another study, New York residents who continued to report greater distress (e.g., being angry, suspicious, or frightened and avoiding certain cities and events) a year after the attacks also displayed a greater willingness to surrender some of their civil liberties (e.g., favoring the use of citizen identification cards at all times to show police immediately upon request and allowing the U.S. government to monitor e-mails, telephone calls, and credit card purchases). Clearly, prompting people with reminders of 9/11 may arouse strong emotions that can be used by both government officials and mainstream media to manipulate citizens’ behaviors.
The majority of research on TMT indicates that people’s motivations to reduce the anxiety that arises from reminders of death and 9/11 can result in strong religious and patriotic displays and intolerance for people holding different cultural and political beliefs. Similarly, justification of the current social system can serve to reduce anxiety arising from uncertainty when the system’s faults are exposed. These findings do not bode well for progressive social change in the face of injustice and crimes perpetrated by the state against its citizens.
System Justification Theory
According to System Justification Theory (SJT), there are many “social psychological mechanisms by which people defend and justify the existing social, economic, and political arrangements, often to their own detriment.” As with reducing the negative effects of mortality salience proposed by TMT, justification of the system maintains “consistency, coherence, and certainty.” SJT is supported by research showing that people can be strongly motivated to shorten their evaluations of information in order to reduce uncertainty, confusion, or ambiguity, also known as the “need for closure.” The persistence of faulty beliefs, then, at both individual and societal levels, may perform an important psychological function, for example, by promoting feelings of safety and justice rather than permitting acknowledgment of potential vulnerability and exploitation.
Hence, system justification motives may interfere with SCADs inquiry because people are highly motivated to defend the institutions with which they are most familiar (e.g., religious, political and economic institutions, as well as military institutions), behavior that is supported largely by selective attention and interpretation of information (Jost et al., 2008):
Research by DeSensi and Petty (2007) on authoritarianism and political conservatism indicates that system justification is a mechanism for some people to resist change and to rationalize inequalities in the status quo, even to their own detriment. In addition, social change is largely impeded by the low occurrence of collective action and protest against the system unless it is brutally unjust, and by the fact that criticism of the system can paradoxically increase justification and rationalization of the status quo, particularly when alternatives appear unlikely. This is especially true for alternatives proposed by a minority of dissenters, as research shows that information appearing to represent the majority opinion tends to induce “immediate persuasion,” in comparison to minority opinions, which often induce “immediate resistance.”
Contributing to people’s failure to think critically about the validity of their worldviews is another psychological phenomenon known as “naive realism” — the tendency to believe that one always sees and responds to the world as it objectively is. Thus when others do not agree it is because their cognitions and behaviors are not based on reality.
Threats to Self and Worldviews Posed by SCADs
Naive realism, cognitive dissonance, TMT, and SJT all indicate that uncertainty reduction and threat management generally support the persistence of preexisting worldviews in the face of evidence that challenges those worldviews.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when confronted with the inconsistencies of the events of September 11, 2001 — for example, conflicts between information widely reported by the mainstream media, government, and the 9/11 Commission on the one hand, and dissimilar information presented by less-well-known alternative media, dissenting experts, scholars, and whistleblowers on the other — many people initially react by aggressively defending the official story, even to the point of fabricating arguments to support their beliefs.
The specific role of defensive denial in supporting flawed ideological belief systems was recently highlighted in two case studies analyzing the psychodynamics of attitude change. Bengston and Marshik’s (2007) identification of several mechanisms of attitude resistance (e.g., dissociation, narcissistic withdrawal, and hyperrationalization) underscored the fact that merely arousing cognitive dissonance is not a sufficient catalyst for changing behavior. Bengston and Marshik also identified several mechanisms of attitude change (e.g., moral culpability, realism, and experiential enlightenment) and discussed both findings in regard to public education on matters of democratic responsibility:
“For [democratic governance] to work as a viable alternative to rule by sheer power, citizens have to be not only knowledgeable but also educable — able to learn from civil experience and debates about policy to take a more perspicuous view of what constitutes their interests than they might have started with. But defensiveness has its appeal. If it did not, if ideologues and neurotics would not be amply gratified by their illusions and delusions, they would have no reason to resist moving forward. And so it is a measure of teaching effectiveness, on par with successful psychoanalysis, that it can cultivate open-mindedness in persons who would otherwise be happily closed-minded.”
However, according to SJT, when changes to the collective worldview become inexorable, people’s defense of the status quo begins to weaken in response to a growing support for the emergent worldview. According to Jost et al. (2008): “The implication of a system justification analysis for social change is that it will either come not at all or all at once, the way that catastrophic change occurs in dynamic systems and in tipping point phenomena.”
Democracies are not immune to government officials using fear and propaganda to gain popular support for policies of external aggression and internal repression. As North Americans struggle with repercussions of the attacks of September 11, 2001 — the deaths of nearly 3,000 people from 90 countries on that day, the U.S. declaration of a global war on terrorism, the erosion of civil liberties by the passing of PATRIOT Acts I and II, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — American and Canadian citizens continue to be manipulated by their governments and media into forfeiting their freedoms and duties in exchange for security. These are grave matters that continue to be ignored by the mainstream media, the putative “watchdog” of democracy. As a political culture grows increasingly intolerant, public dissent is often demonized. Thus we find a persistent, broad refusal to challenge current political posturing despite overwhelming evidence that the Bush administration misled or outright lied about the events of 9/11 and its ensuing wars.
The integrity of a free press, where dissenting opinions and public discourse are presented — a matter integral to democracy — is already disappearing in Canada, according to a report on the news media from the Senate of Canada (2006). One of the greatest threats to democracy is mainstream news media’s collusion with government in censoring information, especially in times of war (Williams, 1992):
“Wars prosecuted by democratic societies are done so in the name of the people. If the public supports a war then it has a responsibility for the consequences. Citizens have rights and responsibilities, and surely one of the responsibilities in wartime is to see — or at least be provided with the opportunity to see — the price being paid to prosecute the war, whether this is the body of your neighbor’s son or innocent civilians killed in the crossfire. Even if people do not want to accept their responsibilities it is difficult to argue that they have a right to be protected from seeing what happens on the battlefield. This would appear to deny a necessary democratic impulse.”
According to alternative news media, this “necessary democratic impulse” is being weakened to the detriment of both “democratic” and “nondemocratic” lives, albeit unequally, as reported by Escobar (2008):
“Roughly two minutes of coverage, per network, per week. This is what the 3 major U.S. networks [ABC, CBS, NBC] now think that the drama in Iraq is worth…the networks are not telling Americans that more than one million Iraqis have been killed due to the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to sources as diverse as the medical paper The Lancet, [the website] Iraq Body Count, the British polling firm Opinion Research Business, and the website Just Foreign Policy. The networks are not even discussing the different numbers of violent Iraqi deaths, which may range from 600,000 to 1.2 million. The networks are not talking about the Pentagon underreporting or not reporting Iraqi civilian deaths. As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, the Pentagon “don’t do body counts.” The networks are not talking about the millions of Iraqi widows of war. The networks are not talking about almost 5 million displaced Iraqis — 2.4 million inside Iraq and 2.3 million in Jordan and in Syria. And the networks are not talking about — and especially not showing — U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. Iraq is a human disaster worse than 9/11.”
The effect of government and media manipulation on political tolerance is summarized by Snow and Taylor (2006):
“The dominance of censorship and propaganda is a triumph of authoritarian over democratic values. During times of international crisis like the Cold War or now in the so-called ‘Global War on Terror,’ authoritarian values of secrecy, information control and silencing dissent would appear to take precedence over democracy, the First Amendment and a free press. The general trend since 9/11, especially in the U.S., has been away from openness and toward increasing government secrecy coupled with what can seem a rise in contempt among inner circle policy-makers for a public’s right to know that may override national and homeland security concerns.”
Post-9/11 Political Tolerance
Essentially what we have is a system that creates threats which result in fear of terrorism that then needs to be managed by justifying the very system that created it in the first place. Two examples are denial of deep state politics and defense of disaster capitalism.
Perhaps the most serious threat to political tolerance, and thus democracy, is the one-percent doctrine – a policy, emanating from the Bush administration, of preemptive aggression against any state or non-state actor posing even a “1% chance” of threat, which must be treated as a 100% certainty. For example, as the November 2008 U.S. presidential election neared, neoconservatives continued to invoke the threat of “radical Islamic extremism” as the “absolute gravest threat” to the existence of America, even conceding that another 9/11-like terrorist attack would be “a big advantage to [Republican Presidential candidate John McCain].”
Incredibly, the Bush administration and mainstream media were still following in the same steps that led up to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, this time preparing to support a possible Israeli-led war on Iran before President Bush left office in January 2009. In fact, Pentagon officials have acknowledged that covert operations against Iran including plans to use “surrogates and false flags — basic counterintelligence and counter-insurgency tactics” similar to those used in Afghanistan, have been underway since 2007 with congressional approval and no major public debate. In fact, war propagandists are now predicting that Israeli and U.S. strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities will be welcomed by the Arab world, stating that their reaction will be “positive privately . . . [with] public denunciations but no action,” words sounding alarmingly familiar to Vice President Dick Cheney’s erroneous prediction that Iraqi’s would greet Americans “as liberators.” Furthermore, the rhetoric of fear in attempting to link 9/11 terrorism to Iran cuts across both conservative and liberal party lines. In a speech as the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama made repeated references to the terrorist threat facing the United States as “a powerful and ideological enemy intent on world domination” with the “power to destroy life on a catastrophic scale” if terrorists were permitted nuclear bombing capabilities:
“The future of our security — and our planet —– is held hostage to our dependence on foreign oil and gas. From the cave-spotted mountains of northwest Pakistan, to the centrifuges spinning beneath Iranian soil, we know that the American people cannot be protected by oceans or the sheer might of our military alone. The attacks of September 11 brought this new reality into a terrible and ominous focus.”
Within the first 6 months of taking office, President Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, using fear-provoking rhetoric similar to that of the Bush administration.
This continued shift toward ever-increasing authoritarianism and imperialism, precipitated by the mass fear and propaganda of 9/11, brings in its wake an ever more closed security state (Wolf, 2007; see Figure 1). According to Wolf (2007), all of the 10 historical steps prospective despots employ to close down open societies are well underway in North America: (a) invoking national external and internal threats, (b) establishing secret prisons, (c) recruiting paramilitary forces, (d) surveiling ordinary citizens, (e) infiltrating citizens’ groups, (f) arbitrarily detaining and releasing citizens, (g) targeting dissenting individuals, (h) restricting the free press, (i) reframing criticism as “espionage” and dissent as “treason,” and (j) subverting the rule of law.
In an increasingly fearful and intolerant political culture, this authoritarian mindset, escalated primarily by the events of 9/11, is also a disastrously dissociative one: it exemplifies “democracy for the few.” This belief system places a premium on democratic rather than nondemocratic lives and compartmentalizes this fear of terrorism, separating it from a patriotic fervor to spread democracy and capitalism through war and occupation to anti-American states in the Middle East. These disparate beliefs are fueled by the imperialist agenda of American leaders committed to both military and economic conquest of regions in the Middle East.
The Bush administration implemented numerous policies that promote disaster capitalism — economic profiteering in the aftermath of collective shocks, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and war — both in America and abroad in regions where it maintains military control. Huge profits can be acquired in the aftermath of wars through “post-conflict reconstruction” loans provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, organizations “often consulted prior to the onslaught of a major war” and that have been pivotal in channeling “foreign aid” to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
These policies have permitted collusion between war profiteers and elite opinion makers in Washington on one hand and the news media on the other to support a growing disaster capitalism complex, one in which corporately controlled media fail to investigate allegations of a “global war [being] fought on every level by private companies whose involvement is paid for with the public money” while simultaneously promoting “the unending mandate of protecting the United States homeland in perpetuity while eliminating all ‘evil’ abroad.” (Klein)
U.S. officials have also used justification of free-market economic systems to minimize focus on the human disaster in Iraq and to rationalize and defend the exportation of American capitalism as a means to support democracy in the Middle East. Recently, the major U.S. entertainment conglomerate Disney announced its plans to increase profits by building an amusement park on expropriated Iraqi national park land in the middle of one of the most violent war zones in the Middle East, even though it clearly will not service the immediate needs of the Iraqi people.
To preserve what is left of North American democracy, and our responsibility for tolerance and restraint toward citizens of nondemocratic states, the culture of fear and political intolerance and a governing dissociative mindset of “democracy for the few” must be subjected to immediate serious public scrutiny and debate. This must begin with the thorough and scientific vetting of evidence that contradicts the U.S. government’s official account of 9/11, on which two wars of aggression have been predicated, with the possibility of a third looming in the near future.
Reform Initiatives for SCADs Inquiry
The importance of continued public education and debate about SCADs in the post-9/11 world cannot be overemphasized, especially with governments and media attempting to silence dissenting voices, often with ad hominem attacks. Many scholars have already subjected labels such as “conspiracy theorist” to critical scrutiny.
In a recent sociological analysis, Husting and Orr (2007) discussed the inherent dangers of applying “conspiracy” labels to public exchanges of ideas and scholarly dialogues in a democracy:
“In a culture of fear, we should expect the rise of new mechanisms of social control to deflect distrust, anxiety, and threat. . . . Our findings suggest that authors use the conspiracy theorist label as (1) a routine strategy of exclusion; (2) a reframing mechanism that deflects questions or concerns about power, corruption, and motive; and (3) an attack upon the personhood and competence of the questioner. . . . The mechanism allows those who use it to sidestep sound scholarly and journalistic practice, avoiding the examination of evidence, often in favor of one of the most important errors in logic and rhetoric — the ad hominem attack.”
Accordingly, social truth and justice movements and reform initiatives must address the social and psychological defense mechanisms that their inquiries into SCADs can provoke in the mass public. This approach needs to address both short-term and long-term solutions. First, immediate strategies to increase public awareness of SCADs should focus on framing information in neutral, nonthreatening language that gradually introduces people to the most serious of charges. Alternative accounts should be repeatedly presented within the public sphere with specific requests for citizens to themselves scrutinize the information presented to them and pass their findings along to others.
This suggestion is supported by research showing that (a) when controlling language is used to influence a message, it can arouse psychological reactance in people that results in rejection of that message; (b) civic participation is greatly increased when people are recruited to become involved during discussions of social responsibility; and (c) message repetition increases familiarity, which can translate into message tolerance and/or acceptance.
Regarding alleged 9/11 SCADs, public messages should encourage people to compare information presented by the 9/11 Commission Report (2004) with facts reported by nongovernmental sources and to contact their political representatives to follow up on any questions that they have not had answered.
Additional long-term solutions should include future public policy changes focused on increasing public education on media literacy and the social and psychological manipulation of citizens by the state. This proposal is supported by research showing that knowledgeable citizens possessing “firm, well-grounded political opinions are less susceptible to priming than audience members who know little about issues that dominate the news” and that “majority decisions tend to be made without engaging the systemic thought and critical thinking skills of the individuals in the group” but that dissident minority influence has been most effective when it “persisted in affirming a consistent position, appeared confident, avoided seeming rigid and dogmatic, and was skilled in social influence.” (Zimbardo, 2008, p. 267) Moreover, when people are educated about and highly motivated to reduce their interpersonal biases, they “exhibit less prejudice” and develop more “shared social beliefs.” Regarding SCADs, secondary- and postsecondary-level education should include courses on political psychology that deal with the social psychological foundations of democracy and citizens’ rights and responsibilities to protect themselves from manipulation by the state and media.
I briefly reviewed, first, the social psychological foundations of democracy, secondly, research suggesting how preexisting beliefs can interfere with SCADs inquiry, especially in relation to the events of September 11, 2001, and, thirdly, strategies to educate the public as to how it can be manipulated by government and media into forfeiting civil liberties and duties. In the same year that William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, proffered his warning about the importance of dissent in a climate of fear, another great spokesman, Edward R. Murrow, also reminded us of the necessity of dissent to fulfill our responsibility of defending democracy from rampant fear:
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
We can and must take seriously the citizen’s call to action and not allow fear to override the demand for interpersonal tolerance of different political views. We can and must create dissonance in the public psyche to encourage social responsibility and education on matters of national interest. We can and must investigate the current state of affairs for ourselves and not delegate accountability to elected officials who may harbor alternative agendas. We can and must remember that trading freedom for security destroys present and future collective power to participate in democratic governance. We can and must believe that change is possible when we choose to be a part of it. We can and must dissent in the face of everyday denials of democracy.
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