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A cause for celebration?

By Clark McCauley


A year ago President Obama announced that US Special Forces had shot and killed Osama bin Laden. Jubilant crowds gathered outside the White House in Washington and at Ground Zero in New York City. Pictures of the crowds show them smiling and cheering, raising US flags and flashing victory “V”s.

A crowd gathers May 2, 2011, at the corner of Vesey and Liberty Streets next to ground zero in New York after hearing that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, had been killed during a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall Clinton. Source: Department of Defense.

It is interesting to compare this reaction to the reaction when Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq. So far as I know, no crowds appeared on American streets. Saddam was taken to court, convicted, and hung. A small crowd of Iraqi-American Shi’a came out to celebrate in Dearborn, Michigan, but most Americans were unmoved. His body was not shown but taken back to his home town and buried next to the graves of other family members.

As the authoritarian head of an authoritarian state, a man held up as a new Hitler when he invaded Kuwait, Saddam was arguably a more dangerous man than Osama. US casualties in Iraq include over 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded, more than the casualties suffered on 9/11. Why were there crowds to celebrate Osama’s death but not Saddam’s?

The answer is easy. Osama humiliated us and Saddam did not.

Here is Osama, speaking about the 9/11 attacks in March 2003:

[the attackers] smashed the American idols and damaged its very heart, the Pentagon. They struck the very heart of the American economy, rubbed America’s nose in the dirt, and dragged its pride through the mud. The towers of New York collapsed, and their collapse precipitated an even greater debacle: the collapse of the myth of America the great power and the collapse of the myth of democracy. People began to understand that American values could sink no lower.

There is not much empirical research on humiliation, but in my own work I stipulate this definition: humiliation is a corrosive combination of anger and shame. The appraisal associated with anger is the perception that someone has unfairly disrespected us or harmed us and thereby reduced our public status. Thank you Aristotle. The appraisal associated with shame is a perception that we have failed to live up to our own values. Thank you Mom.

In asymmetric conflict, when the more powerful disrespects or hurts the less powerful, the imbalance of power usually means that the less powerful are unable to express their anger. The weaker swallows his anger. But the reciprocity rule requires that we should try to strike back, no matter the odds. If we meekly accept disrespect, especially in an honor society, we feel shame. The result is a spiral of suppressed anger, shame for not striking back, anger at being made to feel shame, more shame for not striking back, and so on.

In this formulation, humiliation is the prototypic emotion of asymmetric conflict. Whenever the strong and the weak are in conflict, feelings of humiliation will be the lot of the weaker.

But what about the stronger? Can the stronger ever feel humiliated?

Common speech suggests that the answer might be ‘yes.’ If a smaller boy thrashes a larger bully we talk about the bully as having been humiliated. At the group level, we talk about a weaker team humiliating a stronger team if the weaker pulls out a tie, let alone if the weak team manages to win.

As the world’s only superpower in 2001, the United States took a beating from a ragtag bunch of political nobodies. Honor required striking back to regain our status, and the war on terrorism was born. But — and here is the point — we were unable to strike back. US forces toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan but most of al Qaeda and its leaders got away. Honor demanded we obliterate the terrorists, but we could not reach them.

Making matters worse, Osama began issuing audio and video tapes from his hideaway. He claimed credit for 9/11, and he urged more 9/11s to be carried out by every Muslim who could reach Americans. Perhaps worst of all, he kept sending out the tapes: I’m still here; you haven’t got me; you’re still eating dirt.

For ten years, Osama taunted us with impunity, each tape a new disrespect and an increment in American shame and anger. The power of this humiliation was such that, for ten years, no one called it by its name. Talk about war and justice covered over but did not reduce our experience of humiliation.

Finally, after ten years, killing Osama was a release from the humiliation of 9/11 and the continuing humiliation of Osama’s messages to the world. No wonder Americans celebrated.

But here’s the important thing we can learn from our experience. In finally seeing in ourselves the power of humiliation, we can learn to be more careful about humiliating others. Today US military and security forces operate in many countries, and drone attacks are a growing replacement for boots on the ground. The people of these countries need respect as much as security assistance.

Clark McCauley is Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. He is author of Friction: How radicalization happens to them and us with Sophia Moskalenko (Oxford University Press, 2011). His research interests include stereotypes, group dynamics and intergroup conflict, and the psychological foundations of terrorism and genocide. He is a consultant and reviewer for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for research on dominance, aggression and violence, and a principal investigator of the National Consortium for Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START). With Dan Chirot he is author of Why not kill them all? The logic of mass political murder and finding ways of avoiding it (Princeton University Press, 2006). He is founding editor of the journal, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict.

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