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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Go beyond 'evil' in analyzing terror attacks, Zajonc says

A political cartoon published in newspapers earlier this month depicts President Bush on television saying, "We have evidence that the evildoer is even eviler than we thought ... making him the evilistdoer of them all!"

Robert Zajonc, a professor of psychology at Stanford, believes that the humor in the cartoon points to something disquieting about the president's attachment to the word "evil."

"'Evil' is a disturbing word. It pretends to explain terrorist actions but offers only one response: extermination," Zajonc recently told scholars from across the nation who had gathered for a two-day conference titled "A New Look at Race: How Social Representations of Race Affect Visual Perception and Attention."

The event, sponsored by the Research Institute of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and the National Science Foundation, was organized to examine the construction of race and its effects on basic-level cognitive processes.

Close to 20 people made presentations. Zajonc's was titled "Demonization and Collective Violence" and focused on massacres in the name of moral imperatives.

"In the last 30 days, 'evil' found its way into 189 New York Times articles," Zajonc said. "The word 'evil' and 'evildoer' has been on the president's lips on almost every public occasion."

He also noted that U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also appears to back the if-it's-evil-kill-it philosophy. Shortly after the attacks, McCain said, "Shed a tear, and then get on with the business of killing our enemies as quickly as we can and as ruthlessly as we must."

But Zajonc argued that the overwhelming and indiscriminate use of the word "evil" to describe the terrorists makes people blind to some important realities.

"If we are to confront the terrorists, we must be clear not only about the relations of the terrorists to the devil but about their habits, their motives, their presuppositions and, above all, about what they seek to accomplish by their vicious acts," he said.

"By calling them evil, we deceive ourselves. ... We are deceiving ourselves because 'evil' in the present context is a euphemism for 'hate' their hate for us. We are reluctant to name hate as the driving force of the terrorists because it is painful to accept that one is hated. And if we accept the fact we are hated, then we must ask the question, 'Why?' Our response, if it is to be intelligent and sensitive to the objective, must take their passions into account."

Zajonc said the events of Sept. 11, however, represent a special case of a broader phenomenon of massacres, which often are predicated on racial or ethnic differences. Massacres are more frequent than terrorism and more deadly, he said. Over the past century roughly 168 million innocent people have died in massacres.

For the most part, the conditions that make terrorism possible also undergird massacres, which are not expressions of "spontaneous rage" or "bloodthirsty evil" but rather premeditated, rational, methodical collective actions, Zajonc said. Massacres and terrorism are organized and executed under firm leadership, and the perpetrators, who have been indoctrinated over a period of years, usually commit the crimes in the name of some moral imperative.

"Moral imperatives are microcultures that give direction and meaning to behavior they seek to recruit," Zajonc said. Such moral imperatives promote collective action, which may be motivated by political forces, ideological commitment, religious fervor or economic pressures and any combination of the above.

He cited the past American notion of a Manifest Destiny and the rallying speeches of Albert Beveridge, an early 20th-century U.S. senator from Indiana who gave imperialism a hard sell.

The popular belief in the United States that the country had a divine mission to expand led to the Philippine-American War, in which roughly 250,000 Filipinos were killed or died of disease and hunger, Zajonc said.

But waging terrorism, massacres and war are not the only enterprises often motivated by moral imperatives; so are saving Stanford's red-legged frogs, losing weight and quitting smoking, he said.

In the eyes of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks and their champions, the destructive and suicidal acts were noble and heroic, Zajonc said.

"In massacres, ordinary men are brought to commit extraordinary atrocities," he said. "Normally, they would regard such actions as sinful and criminal. How do they nullify the basic immorality of these unspeakable atrocities?"

The answer, according to Zajonc, is dehumanization. He cited the 1921 massacre of African Americans in Tulsa, which was fueled by dehumanizing propaganda in the Tulsa Tribune, and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans Hutu perpetrators referred to Tutsi victims as "inyenzi," meaning "cockroaches."

Of course, there are plenty of such examples: Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews as rats and parasites; Poles and Russians were called "subhuman." At a 1971 event sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, one former Marine sergeant who served in the war said this: "It wasn't like they were humans. We were conditioned to believe that this was for the good of the nation, the good of our country, and anything we did was OK. And when you shot someone you didn't think you were shooting at a human. They were a gook or a commie, and it was OK."

Dehumanizing or demonizing victims reduces the perpetrators' sense of guilt and allows immoral acts "to be committed in the service of a higher purpose," Zajonc said. "The higher purpose, whatever it is, is embedded in the moral imperative of the perpetrators. And most important, dehumanization [and] demonization create a perception imbued with negative value that allows for impunity for these atrocious acts."

But there is a silver lining to all this: Understanding that terrorist acts and massacres are a product of rational planning and structured institutions gives people a much better chance of preventing and fighting against them, Zajonc said.

If such acts were spontaneous, they would be hard to study. Zajonc concludes that the collective processes leading to violent conflict and nonviolent conflict resolution are the same, with a couple of key differences: While both require a moral imperative, firm leadership and organization, collective violence generally relies on elements of dehumanization or demonization. In addition, the process of indoctrination for collective violence often focuses on past oppression and injustice, whereas nonviolent conflict resolution focuses on the future, he said.


By John Sanford

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