Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Psychology of "The War on Terror" and Other Terms for Counterterrorism

Framing is a huge topic in psychology these days. Framing refers to how we contextualize an idea or an agenda:

A frame in social theory consists of a schema of interpretation—that is, a collection of stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events.[1][page # needed]

To clarify: When one seeks to explain an event, the understanding often depends on the frame referred to. If a friend rapidly closes and opens an eye, we will respond very differently depending on whether we attribute this to a purely "physical" frame (s/he blinked) or to a social frame (s/he winked).

Though the former might result from a speck of dust (resulting in an involuntary and not particularly meaningful reaction), the latter would imply a voluntary and meaningful action (to convey humor to an accomplice, for example). Observers will read events seen as purely physical or within a frame of "nature" differently than those seen as occurring with social frames. But we do not look at an event and then "apply" a frame to it. Rather, individuals constantly project into the world around them the interpretive frames that allow them to make sense of it; we only shift frames (or realize that we have habitually applied a frame) when incongruity calls for a frame-shift. In other words, we only become aware of the frames that we always already use when something forces us to replace one frame with another.[2][3]

In recent history, I can't think of any issue that has been more poorly framed that our effort to reduce Islamic terrorism. The metaphor that we have been using -- the "war on terror" -- puts us at war with a whole people, not an idea. Crucial mistake that represents the Bush administration mindset.

Scientific American Mind ran a great article looking at this issue and how to reframe the metaphor we use in the counterterrorism effort.

The Psychology of "The War on Terror" and Other Terms for Counterterrorism

How we characterize an issue affects how we think about it. Replacing the "war on terror" metaphor with other ways of framing counterterrorism might help us curtail the violence more effectively

By Arie W. Kruglanski, Martha Crenshaw, Jerrold M. Post and Jeff Victoroff

Vladimir Dmitriev/iStockPhoto

Key Concepts

  • Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has used a war metaphor to define counterterrorism strategy. Such a description may simplify a complex reality, making it more mentally manageable, but it may also oversimplify and distort reality.
  • Metaphors can guide national decision making. The wars that began in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 clearly demonstrate that the concept of a war to combat a method of violence used by nonstate agents is more than rhetoric.
  • Viewing counterterrorism through the lens of law enforcement may yield more tightly focused tactics that are less costly than war and less likely to provoke resentment and backlash.
  • Relating counterterrorism to disease containment or prejudice reduction shifts the focus to the psychological underpinnings of terrorism and, in doing so, may suggest successful long-term strategies that chip away at the motivations of terrorists.

On the eve of our national election, we realize that one challenging issue facing the next president is how to address terrorism and the options for counterterrorism. As psychological research has made clear, what he and his administration say about these issues will influence how the public thinks about them—and will affect our national and international policy. [For more on the power of words, see “When Words Decide,” by Barry Schwartz; Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007.]

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the Bush administration has used a battle metaphor: the “global war on terrorism” and the “war on terror.” Such descriptive terms simplify complex realities, making them more mentally manageable. But they do not adequately represent the complexities of the problem, resulting in selective perception of the facts, and they may reflect the views of only a few key policy makers. Nevertheless, they can guide national decision making. The wars that began in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 clearly demonstrate that the concept of a war to combat a method of violence used by nonstate agents is more than rhetoric.

Although the war metaphor has some advantages, the next president should consider other terms that lead to thinking that is more nuanced—and ultimately more effective. Viewing counterterrorism through the lens of law enforcement, for example, may yield more tightly focused tactics that are less likely to provoke resentment and backlash and are also less costly than war. Two other metaphors—relating counterterrorism to disease containment or prejudice reduction—home in on many of the deeply rooted psychological underpinnings of terrorism and, in doing so, suggest strategies that may chip away at the motivations of terrorists and thus may be the most successful at squelching the scourge in the long run [see “Inside the Terrorist Mind,” by Annette Schaefer; Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008].

Here is a key passage from early in the article.

The war metaphor helps to define the American perception of the threat of terrorism. If terrorism is war, then the national security, indeed the existence, of each side is threatened. The conflict is zero-sum; the outcome will be victory for one side or the other. Being in a state of war also requires national unity, and dissent is easily interpreted as unpatriotic. The solution has to be military. Thus, the Department of Defense must play a lead role in shaping policy, and the president’s duties as commander in chief must take precedence over his other tasks. An expansion of executive power accompanies the war metaphor: measures that would not be acceptable in peacetime, such as restrictions on civil liberties and brutal interrogation practices, are now considered essential.

But in several ways, the struggle against terrorism differs significantly from conventional war. First, the entity that attacked the U.S. in 2001 was not a state. It was an organization, al Qaeda, with a territorial base within a weak “failed state,” Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban regime was not internationally recognized. Since 2001 the entity that the U.S. is fighting has become even more amorphous and less like a state. It has progressed from the so-called terrorist organizations to an ideology that aspires to world domination. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on September 21, 2006 , called it “chaos theory in human form—an ever-shifting array of state and nonstate actors who cooperate, coagulate, divide, feud and feed on one another without end.”

Victory in a war on terrorism is similarly difficult to define. A typical war ends in the capitulation of the enemy, but al Qaeda is unlikely to surrender formally. In 2006 the revised (2002) U.S. National Security Strategy, articulated in a White House “wartime” document, set a goal “to defeat global terrorism.” It will be difficult to tell when this objective, which involves eradicating a method of violence and a way of thinking, has been met. As a result, the war drags on, breeding disappointment with the results and a public outcry to bring the troops home.

The psychological rationale of war is to bring the enemy to its knees and to convince it and its support base that terrorism is counterproductive. And yet experience in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ireland, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip suggests that the use of military force does little to “prove” the inefficacy of terrorism. Military strikes against terrorist targets may temporarily interfere with terrorists’ ability to launch their operations, but they do not generally lessen the motivation to engage in violence—and may even boost it as a result of the enmity that foreign occupation typically engenders and of the injustice and excesses of war.

The war concept also deafens ears to the underlying troubles of the terrorists—the frustrations and grievances that may have fostered terrorism, as well as the belief systems that lent it ideological sustenance. Meanwhile the metaphor encourages stereotyping and discrimination against members of the broad social categories to which terrorists may belong, such as Muslims, Saudi Arabians or Middle Easterners.

Finally, framing counterterrorism as war has considerable costs. It threatens to corrupt society’s values, disrupt its orderly functioning and reshuffle its priorities. War calls for the disproportionate investment of a nation’s resources, with correspondingly less left for other concerns, including the economy, health care and education. “Collateral damage,” ethnic profiling, harsh interrogation tactics and unlimited internment of suspects may all be condoned in the name of security and excused by the uniqueness of circumstances the war concept implies. These costs are especially steep in a war that has no definite end.

Read the whole article.

As far as I can see, framing this issue as a war removes all subtlety from the situation. Like it or not, there are infinite shades of gray in all of this, not a simple black and white, wrong and right opposition. The article helps to explain how we might better frame the issue.

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