" >Iran (Hersh, 2008). 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):
Research Article: In Denial of Democracy: Social Psychological Implications for Public Discourse on State Crimes Against Democracy Post-9/11
Psychologist Laurie Manwell of the University of Guelph argues that the CIA-designed “conspiracy theory” label impedes cognitive function. She points out, in an article published in American Behavioral Scientist (2010), that anti-conspiracy people are unable to think clearly about such apparent state crimes against democracy as 9/11 due to their inability to process information that conflicts with pre-existing belief.
Protecting democracy requires that the general public be educated on how people can be manipulated by government and media into forfeiting their civil liberties and duties. This article reviews research on cognitive constructs that can prevent people from processing information that challenges preexisting assumptions about government, dissent, and public discourse in democratic societies. Terror management theory and system justification theory are used to explain how preexisting beliefs can interfere with people’s examination of evidence for state crimes against democracy (SCADs), specifically in relation to the events of September 11, 2001, and the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reform strategies are proposed to motivate citizens toward increased social responsibility in a post-9/11 culture of propagandized fear, imperialism, and
Nearly everyone in our transport [to Auschwitz] lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well. We did not realize the meaning behind the scene that was to follow…. Again, our illusion of reprieve found confirmation. The SS men seemed almost charming. Soon we found out their reason. They were nice to us as long as they saw watches on our wrists and could persuade us in well-meaning tones to hand them over. – Viktor E. Frankl (1939/1963), Man’s Search for Meaning (pp. 16-20)
Around the same time Golding (1954) composed his moral tale of the disintegration of an immature society—with Piggy naively decrying the power of fear to override reasoned debate in democratic governance—a landmark symposium by leading political scientists in American Political Science Review (Griffith, Plamenatz, & Pennock, 1956) reported agreement that the psychological attitudes necessary to sustain a democracy—individual liberty, equality, and responsible participation—must be internalized by its citizens for that democracy to survive. Documenting changes in attitudes toward democratic values across 50 years, researchers have called for greater public education on matters requiring political tolerance. That the freedoms bestowed by Western democracies have been under attack since September 11, 2001, is obvious, but the dynamics underlying this threat are not so obvious. Piggy prophesied the crisis now upon us: The right to dissent with the majority opinion, and the necessity to have this dissenting discourse within the public sphere, must be protected. This article dis-cusses the role that individual and collective attitudes play in public discourse and dissent regarding the current state of democracy in the post-911 world. Preserving democracy requires exposing illusions of external threat that can prevent citizens and leaders from addressing more concrete internal threats to continued self-governance. The use of repression and terror, including threats of censorship, suppression of information, imprisonment, and torture, by leaders to subjugate 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 congruent with their belief system (Altemeyer, 1996).1 Indeed, as some have argued, “In a sense, government repression is the inverse of terrorism” (Baumeister, 1997, p. 112). For example, the most recent Human Rights Watch World Report, repudiating many leaders and governments worldwide as “despots masquerading as democrats,” reveals how leaders use rhetoric, fear mongering, and suppression of a free press to undermine the rule of law: charges relevant to the current state of democracy in North America (Roth, 2008):
Today, democracy has become the sine qua non of legitimacy. 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)
Under conducive social conditions, for example, when mass fear is used to increase public compliance with government and there is a concordant lack of institutional safeguards protecting citizens from authoritarian leaders (Baumeister, 1997), persons in positions of authority certainly “come to devalue those over which they wield control,” leading to tyranny and atrocity (Bandura, 1999, p. 200). As Frankl (1939/1963) cautioned, 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.
Brief Review of Social Psychological Foundations of Democracy
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835/1945), argued that the civic culture necessary to support early representative government flourished in America primarily because of the near equality of social ideas and economics of the times, cautioning that, “to remain civilized,” these must “improve in the same ratio” for all citizens (Vol. II, p. 110). He also equated “America to a developing individual, going from childhood to adolescence” (deHaven-Smith, 1999, p. 7) and emphasized the necessity of a free press to the maintenance of self-government (Graber, 2004). In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers recapitulated Tocqueville’s emphasis on the individual and collective attitudes necessary to support a vibrant democracy. Many political scientists agreed that “there should be a consensus on the procedural norms by which substantive matters are negotiated, as well as on fundamental values such as liberty, equality, and individualism” (e.g., Griffith, Plamenatz, & Pennock, 1956; cf. Sullivan & Transue, 1999, p. 627). A decade later, analyzing data from more than 20 countries, Neubauer (1967) argued that democracy requires citizens to be socialized into the “rules of the game” and that mass communication systems supporting this are essential to the performance of political democracy, even more critical than substantial socioeconomic developments. By the 1980s, research on how divisive political culture affects an individual’s attitudes and participation in democratic governance generated interest in the concept of political tolerance (refer to Figure 1):
Robust democracies require citizens to tolerate others’ efforts to participate in politics, even if they promote unpopular views. Research shows that citizens’ political tolerance is influenced strongly by the depth of their commitment to democratic values, by their personality, and by the degree to which they perceive others as threatening.
… Altemeyer (1988, 1996) has shown that right-wing authoritarians are highly threatened and highly reactive to threat. He views this as one of the major sources of their authoritarian attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Staub (1989) also identifies threat perceptions as one of the primary contributing factors to mass genocides and malignant political aggression in general. (Sullivan & Transue, 1999, pp. 625, 632; italics added)
Failure to internalize important principles of democracy, such as majority rule, protection of minority rights, free speech, and equal voting, leads to apathy and double standards, or “democracy for the few” (McClosky, 1964; Prothro & Grigg, 1960; Stouffer, 1955). Nunn, Crockett, and Williams (1978) argued that improvements in public education have contributed to the general public’s support for equal application of democratic principles across all citizens, reducing reliance on political leaders as “carriers of the [democratic] creed” (Sullivan & Transue, 1999, p. 629). For example, individuals with greater political understanding and experience tend to be more tolerant of dissimilar views (Sullivan, Walsh, Shamir, Barnum, & Gibson, 1993), and participation in politics requires citizens who are aware of, fully understand, and accept their resp-onsibilities to protect democracy (Sullivan & Transue, 1999):
Thus, aggregate levels of intolerance are somewhat malleable, depending upon how political elites and the media portray those with less popular ideas. Threat perceptions—both dispositional and environmental—play a central role in det-ermining whether a set of citizens will internalize and apply the democratic principles of restraint and tolerance, or whether they will set them aside in par-ticularly difficult situations. (p. 633)
The important role of political tolerance in applied judgments was underscored in a study on people’s evaluations of intergroup aggression. In two experiments, Falomir-Pichastor, Staerklé, Depuiset, and Butera (2005) tested the theory that when an aggressive act is committed, it is the perception of the perpetrator’s political association, as either democratic-egalitarian or authoritarian-hierarchical, that determines whether the act is perceived as legitimate. Democratic-egalitarian groups were defined by the “presence of collectively designated leaders and by participation of all group members in important decisions,” whereas the authoritarian-hierarchical groups were determined by “self-proclaimed leaders [who] took decisions without consulting other group members” (Falomir-Pichastor et al., 2005, p. 1684). The results were telling, particularly because research participants were university students in psychological and educational sciences: 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, whether the aggressor was seen as authoritarian or, instead, also 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 et al.’s (2005) 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…. In spite of some-times considerable public opposition to war decisions, most aggressions have by and large been accepted and considered as legitimate.
… 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…. 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. (pp. 1683-1684, 1693; italics added)
Threat Perceptions and Political Tolerance Post-9/11: “Democracy for the Few” Revisited
The U.S. government and news media’s explicit and implicit linking of 9/11-related terror-ism to any group or government construed as hostile to “vital American interests”—primarily state and non-state actors with nondemocratic status—continues to dominate North American political culture without the public scrutiny Tocqueville would have considered de rigueur of American civic culture (Edwards, 2004; Miller, 2004; Rich, 2006; Zwicker, 2006). This abdication of civic duty has resulted in the 9/11-wars on Afghanistan and Iraq (Rich, 2006) and currently leads the call for a war on As Iran’s economy teeters on the brink of collapse under the tough sanctions regime imposed by the Trump administration, the Islamic Republic’s authoritarian leadership has spent its limited cash reserves to bolster terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as militant terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran has spent more than $16 billion during the past several years to fund militant terrorists across the Middle East, cash that was repatriated to the Islamic Republic under(...)
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. (p. 365)
Thus, protecting democracy demands that citizens must be made aware of how they can be manipulated by government and media into forfeiting their civic liberties and duties: information vital to protecting citizens from crimes against democracy orchestrated by the state, as history has repeatedly demonstrated can happen particularly in times of disaster, collective shock, and national threat (Klein, 2007; Wolf, 2007).
Social and Psychological Constructs Interfering With Inquiry and Investigation of State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADs)
Representative democracies are susceptible to “subversion from within,” such as leaders’ and officials’ attempts to circumvent, exploit, or otherwise deconstruct laws and institutions for personal or political gain, events collectively referred to as SCADs (Lasswell, 1937-1962; cf. deHaven-Smith, 2006; p. 331). However, alternative explanations of political assassinations, terrorist attacks, and other national tragedies that differ from official state accounts can be dismissed by mass publics because they evoke strong cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon occurring when new ideas or information conflict with previously formed ideologies, accepted beliefs, and corresponding behaviors (Festinger, 1957; Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2008).
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 (Altemeyer, 1988, 1996; Baumeister, 1997; Chanley, 2002; Falomir-Pichastor et al., 2005; J. Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2008; Jost, Pietrzak, Liviatan, Mandisodza, & Napier, 2008; Peck, 1983; Stout, 2005; Zimbardo, 2008). 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 (e.g., more than doubled to 64%) in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, suggesting that heightened focus on national security breeds support for incumbent foreign policy makers (Chanley, 2002). Claims that state intelligence and other officials within dem-ocratic states could conspire with criminal elements to kill innocent civilians are difficult for citizens of those states to comprehend, even when backed by substantial corroborating evidence (Griffin, 2004; Mandel, 2004; Blum, 2005; Parenti, 2007; Bugliosi, 2008; Hersh, 2008; Scott, 2007c, 2008).
Research shows that people are far less willing to examine information that disputes, rather than confirms, their beliefs; information that contradicts worldviews often paradoxically serves to strengthen preexisting beliefs (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2008). For example, conservative portrayals depicting America as a benign or benevolent providence to the rest of the world, and “just how important continued American dominance is to the preservation of a reasonable level of international security and prosperity” (Kagan, 1998, p. 11), are broadly disseminated within North America in the media (D’Souza, 2002; Griffin, 2007c), although actual historical precedent documents the extent to which imperial ambitions have tarnished nearly every U.S. foreign imbro-glio (Barber, 2003; Blum, 2005; Bugliosi, 2008; Klein, 2007; Mailer, 2003; Mandel, 2004; D. Miller, 2004; Parenti, 2007; Roberts, 2004; Scahill, 2008; Scott, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2008; Taylor, 2003; Wolf, 2007). This is succinctly illustrated by Richard Falk (2004),2 professor emeritus of international law and policy at Princeton and recently appointed UN official:
There is no excuse at this stage of American development for a posture of political innocence, including unquestioning acceptance of the good faith of our government. After all, there has been a long history of manipulated public beliefs, especially in matters of war and peace. Historians are in increasing agreement that the facts were manipulated (1) in the explosion of the USS Maine to justify the start of the Spanish-American War (1898), (2) with respect to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to justify the previously unpopular entry into World War II, (3) the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, used by the White House to justify the dramatic extension of the Vietnam War to North Vietnam, and, most recently, (4) to portray Iraq as harboring a menacing arsenal of weaponry of mass destruction, in order to justify recourse to war in defiance of international law and the United Nations…. Why should the official account of 9/11 be treated as sacrosanct and accepted at face value, especially as it is the rationale for some of the most dangerous undertakings in the whole history of the world? (pp. ix-x)
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 inca-pable 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. (Bugliosi, 2008, p. 13)
How Social Motivations and Goals Can Influence SCADs Inquiry
People’s behaviors are largely regulated by social motivations and goals (refer to Figure 2). Motivations are the processes that initiate an individual’s behavior directed towards a particular goal, which is defined as the “cognitive representation of a future object that the organism is committed to approach or avoid” (Elliot & Fryer, 2008, p. 244). Motives and goals are focused either on desired or rewarding end states (approach) or on undesired or punishing end states (avoidance) (Gable & Strachman, 2008). 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 [Rosenthal & Rubin, 1978].) 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 (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2008).
For example, if one works for a government institution because one believes strongly in democracy and government by the people but has recently discovered that colleagues are using the rule of law for personal gain, one would likely experience inner conflict and ten-sion between these cognitions (refer to Figure 3). To resolve cognitive dissonance, one could publicly voice his or her concerns, becoming a “whistleblower,” even at the expense of one’s employment. Alternatively, one could change his or her opinion on the matter in one of two ways: Either one was wrong about one’s strong belief in democracy, or one was wrong in one’s belief that his or her colleagues had done some-thing to violate the rule of law. The attitude that is the weakest is the one most vulnerable to change (Petrocelli, Tormala, & Rucker, 2007); hence, in this situation, one would most likely change one’s mind regarding the most recently formed belief about one’s colleagues—the path of least resistance—as opposed to one’s long-standing belief about government. Thus, one might decide that nothing was done that was not necessary so that, essentially, it is tolerable to look the other way without feel-ing tension or guilt.
Research indicates that many people experiencing cognitive dissonance change their beliefs to make them congruent with otherwise dissonance-causing information; but occasionally, some do not, as exemplified by the case of researcher Dr. Jeffery Wigand and the tobacco industry.3 After discovering that his employer, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation, was intentionally manipulating the effect of nico-tine in cigarettes, Wigand exposed the company’s practice of “impact boosting” in the mainstream media, 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 instead 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.4 Most recently, Brigham Young University physics Professor Steven Jones, who was forced into early retirement for his work analyzing World Trade Center (WTC) dust for evidence of thermite residue, an explosive used in controlled demolition, published several articles with his colleagues—in the Open Civil Engineering Journal,the Environmentalist, and the Open Chemical Physics Journal—countering several popular myths about the WTC collapses and findings of chemical energetic mate-rials in the recovered debris (Harrit et al., 2009; Jones, Legge, Ryan, Szamboti, & Gourley, 2008b; Ryan, Gourley, & Jones, 2008).
People’s judgments and corresponding behaviors can be profoundly influenced by the different types of motives and goals that are activated when they are exposed to reminders of 9/11 whether they are consciously aware of such influence or not. Stud-ies show that people are influenced by nonconscious evaluations of information that often occur before conscious judgments are made (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999): Although people may believe that they are still in the process of evaluation, they have in fact already made up their minds, mostly in the instant they first encounter a new person, object, or idea (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). In fact, a substantial amount of information about an individual is transmitted by way of that individual’s unintended behavior, for which more lengthy conscious observation and deliberation does not lead to judgments different from those based on a “thin slice of evidence” (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992). 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 people’s minds. However, the more the general public is presented with dissenting opinions, the more accessible to conscious processing that information becomes; such familiarity can translate into increased support for those dissenting opinions, as demonstrated in research by Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz, and Miller (2007):
An opinion is likely to be more widely shared the more [frequently that] different group members express it…. Repeated exposure to an opinion increases the accessibility of the opinion in memory and results in a feeling of familiarity when the opinion is encountered again…. Opinion repetition from one source can lead individuals to change their own attitude toward an issue. (pp. 831-832)
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. Drawing from research on terror management theory (TMT) and system justification theory (SJT), the following sections discuss the cognitive constructs that can prevent people from processing information that challenges preexisting assumptions about government, dissent, and public discourse in a democratic society.
TMT: Mass Manipulation of Behavior via Mortality Salience