Peter Liberman

Politics on the Couch

"Vengeance at Last!"

Killing OBL Satisfied American Desires to Avenge 9/11

Posted May 21, 2011

The nation's hunger for revenge was most obvious in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. A special issue of Time magazine published two days after carried an editorial titled, "The Case for Rage and Retribution." A week later, President Bush declared, "Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Indeed, his Administration initially called the Afghanistan War "Operation Infinite Justice," until reservations about the allusion to divine punishment prompted a change to "Operation Enduring Freedom."

As time passed, however, most commentators forgot about the fury and focused instead on the fear. According to one political scientist, "terrorism shattered America's sense of invulnerability and unparalleled might on a sunny September morning. Almost overnight, the American landscape went from one of prosperity, safety, and power to one of threat, fear, and uncertainty." A trio of psychologists described Americans' fear of death after 9/11 as "unparalleled in American history." Dozens of books appeared on the powerfully corrosive effects of threat and fear on U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski opined that "the ‘war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America." Obama even pledged his 2008 presidential campaign to "a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear."

In fact, the 9/11 attacks angered Americans more than it scared them. Linda Skitka, a social psychologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago fielded a national public opinion survey in the first weeks after the attacks. According to her data, 70% of Americans felt much or very much outrage, whereas only 40% percent felt that degree of fear. A second survey fielded by Skitka in January 2002 found that two thirds of Americans acknowledged having felt a "compelling need for vengeance," an admission that correlated highly with feelings of anger and outrage.
Moreover, anger and the desire for revenge were closely connected to the broad, bipartisan public support for Bush's "War on Terror." In Skitka's January 2002 survey, 97% of those with a strong need for vengeance (but who were otherwise average in education, age, political ideology, and worry about terrorism) also felt a strong "need to wipe out terrorists and those that harbor them." In contrast, this degree of support for the War on Terror was expressed by only 51% of those who felt little or no need for vengeance.

Some terrorism experts have argued that terrorist organizations employ suicide terror campaigns to intimidate democracies into concessions or negotiations. In this case, however, rage and retribution clearly trumped intimidation and fear. That may have been bin Laden's strategy all along-to provoke a U.S. military response, in order to enflame Middle Eastern radicalism and anti-Americanism. Although he probably underestimated the U.S. ability to topple the Taliban regime, he successfully ensnared the United States into years of military occupation and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moral outrage is usually a constructive spur to useful resolve and action. But it sometimes blinds us to risks and heightens tendencies to blame and punish scapegoats. This risk effect was demonstrated by psychologist Jennifer Lerner and collaborators in a clever experiment soon after 9/11. They asked some Americans to recall their feelings of anger about 9/11, and others to recall their fear, and then asked all to estimate the likelihood of air travel safety improving, future terrorist attacks, bin Laden's capture, their catching the flu, and other risks. Those asked to recall what had made them angry were significantly more optimistic about future risks than were those asked what had made them feel afraid!

Thus, anger and fear can affect perceptions and judgment, as well as motivating productive behavior. If and when we have to confront another national tragedy like 9/11, Americans are likely to angrily demand justice once again. If that comes to pass, we would do well to keep in mind the old proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold."