9/11, Iraq and the Desensitization of the Victimized

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, September 8, 2008

In the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the twin towers vanished from Manhattan's skyline, a poem by W.H. Auden could have been the song of a wounded nation. "September 1, 1939," written on the eve of World War II, seemed eerily prescient:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid . . .

The unmentionable odor of death

Offends the September night.

Now, a series of experiments offers empirical evidence in support of another passage from the same poem:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Reminders of the Sept. 11 attacks seem to dull the responsibility that Americans feel for the harm caused by the botched U.S. war in Iraq, according to controlled experiments by social psychologists Michael J.A. Wohl and Nyla Branscombe.

In research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wohl and Branscombe randomly divided volunteers into groups. One group was reminded of the terrorist attacks, while another was told about Nazi atrocities in Poland during World War II. A third group was reminded of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The volunteers were then quizzed on their views about the Iraq war.

Volunteers reminded about the Sept. 11 attacks were less likely to perceive the distress the war has caused many Iraqis, and less likely to feel collective responsibility, compared with volunteers told about the tragedy in Poland.

Is the result confused by the fact that many Americans associate the Sept. 11 attacks with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein? Although links between Hussein and 9/11 have been systematically debunked, it is possible that Americans reminded of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon feel less responsibility for Iraq because they think it was implicated in the terrorist strike.

That's where the third group of volunteers comes in. When it comes to dulling Americans' sense of responsibility for their country's actions in Iraq, it makes no difference whether you remind them about the Sept. 11 attacks or about Pearl Harbor. Even though there is no conceivable link between Pearl Harbor and the war in Iraq, reminding volunteers about the Japanese attack on Hawaii that left about 2,400 Americans dead reduces their sense of responsibility for the harm caused to Iraqis by the war.

"We show that when you remind Americans of those instances in which their group has been victimized in the past, you see an increased legitimization of American actions in Iraq and reduction in the amount of guilt they feel for the amount of harm their country may have inflicted on another group," said Wohl, of Carleton University in Ottawa. "Even when you remind Americans of their history of victimization with an event that cannot be linked to the war in Iraq, you see an increase in legitimization and a decrease in collective guilt."

Wohl and Branscombe believe that when people are reminded of times they felt helpless and victimized, they become unconsciously primed to lash out -- to do everything in their power to prevent such trauma from happening again.

In real life, of course, President Bush has repeatedly linked the war in Iraq with Sept. 11. The psychological experiment suggests that Bush may have succeeded in justifying the war in the minds of even those Americans who did not link Hussein with al-Qaeda: Merely reminding people of the trauma of Sept. 11 seems to trigger a "they had it coming" attitude -- even if "they" had nothing to do with the original trauma. The effect was true for both liberals and conservatives.

The psychologists re-ran the experiment with Canadian volunteers. Two groups heard reminders of the Sept. 11 attacks and Pearl Harbor, while a third heard about a deadly terrorist attack in Sri Lanka. None of these tragedies affected Canadians personally. Wohl and Branscombe found no differences among the groups in whether they felt distress on behalf of Iraqis, or a sense of collective guilt.

"What is the basis for feeling guilt?" asked Branscombe, of the University of Kansas. "Guilt stems from feeling you or your group is responsible for having done illegitimate harm. . . . To the extent people feel their actions were completely legitimate, they won't feel any guilt."

The psychologists similarly found that Jewish volunteers in North America feel reduced guilt and responsibility for Israeli actions that cause suffering among Palestinians when they are first reminded about the Holocaust, compared with when they are reminded about the genocide in Cambodia. There is no difference in the level of sympathy toward Palestinians between groups of Christian volunteers because, again, neither the Holocaust nor the Cambodia tragedy is personal to them.

Auden's poem suggests that suffering can create ever-widening circles of pain. Traumatized Palestinians and Iraqis, in turn, are likely to feel reduced responsibility for the harm they inflict on others.

"With great effort, people can interpret history to mean something different," Branscombe said. "Our participants are interpreting their victimization history as 'We are vulnerable.' But you can also interpret that history to say, 'We should never become the kind of people who did this to us.' "

© 2008 The Washington Post Company