ALTHOUGH recorded history includes countless grim reminders
of the destructive potential of misapplied blame, the primitive human instinct
has proven remarkably resistant to the lessons of the past. Psychologists say
the events of Sept. 11 offer a stark example of how scapegoating can spawn
unspeakable violence. In the weeks that have followed, however, new cycles of
blame have begun spinning poisonous yarns around everyone from Arab-Americans
and structural engineers to Jews and feminists.
Some Americans have turned their anger against mosques and anyone
resembling a Muslim, blindly lashing out at the recognizable symbols of a
less-easily defined suspect.
Conversely, Internet hoaxes and hard-line Muslim clerics have fueled other
rumors that commandos from Israel's Mossad secret service orchestrated the
terrorist attacks to provoke U.S. revenge against the Arab world.
Despite many engineers' initial opinions that the unique design of the
World Trade Center towers saved thousands of lives, callers to some radio talk
shows have angrily blamed faulty engineering for the towers' eventual collapse.
During an interview on fellow televangelist Pat Robertson's "700 Club" just
two days after the attacks, the Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed the ACLU, feminists,
abortionists, gays and lesbians, and other groups "who have tried to
secularize America" and left the country vulnerable to attack.
The spate of anthrax-tainted letters has spawned yet another round of
finger-pointing, against former government administrations for failing to spot
the danger or limit the availability of the deadly bacteria, against the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for responding too slowly, and
against the media for creating a climate of panic and fear.
"I think in real life, blame is one of the most primitive responses that we
have," said Mark Alicke, a professor of psychology at Ohio University in
Athens, Ohio. "And it comes from the fact it's evolutionarily adaptive to
strike back at the thing that can harm you. If you think about going to the
refrigerator in the dark at 3 in the morning and stubbing your toe on the
refrigerator and kicking it, that's how primitive the response can be."
When blame is misapplied, however, cycles of scapegoating can unleash
lasting damage. With personal attacks, psychologists say the emotional damage
can persist for decades. When entire nations and belief systems are the
subjects of scapegoating, however, the damage - and acrimony - may linger for
The cycles contain the same underlying patterns, "whether we're talking
about 10-year-old bullies in the schoolyard or spousal abuse or terrorism or
acts of genocide," said Cher Shenassa, who completed her doctoral dissertation
on the psychology of scapegoating at Union Institute in Cincinnati earlier this
year. "The difference is in scope and intensity. The bully is going to give
someone a bloody nose in the schoolyard, and the terrorist is going to knock
down buildings in New York."
The term "scapegoat" itself derives from an Old Testament ritual in which
the high priest confessed the sins of a community over a goat, then banished
the "escaped" goat and its transferred guilt to the wilderness while a pure
goat was sacrificed as a temple offering.
Less ritualistic forms of scapegoating have existed since recorded history,
however, and the 20th century is littered with harsh examples of misapplied
blame and its horrific consequences.
Psychologists say all humans create categories, often to distinguish
between friend and foe. Scapegoating arises when people overgeneralize a
category and throw a guilty-by-association "psychological net" over a blameless
individual or an entire group of people.
That tendency, experts say, increases toward people who are recognizably
"In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, you didn't see any tendency to
scapegoat people who looked like Timothy McVeigh, because he looked like most
Americans," Alicke said. "You don't even know what category to put him in."
But the turbans and hijabs of Muslim men and women have enabled not only
rapid classification but also overgeneralization to the extent that similarly
attired Sikhs also have been singled out for attacks despite their separate
"I have a hard time thinking of many environments in which [scapegoating]
doesn't flourish, because it's keyed into the way in which we are and think,"
Alicke said. "All humans have strong emotional reactions." The Sept. 11
attacks, he said, carried so much emotional weight that many people responded
almost as though their own children had been assaulted. "It's in those events
where you see the most scapegoating."
A traumatic event, he said, can exaggerate the human tendencies to
categorize and blame to such an extent that the safety valves of
self-censorship and rational thought often fail completely.
"We not only lack the censorship, but we also will tend to go out of our
way to confirm the hypothesis," Alicke said, either by ignoring facts or by
paying attention to normally suspect information such as the swirling stew of
Internet conspiracy theories, rumors and hoaxes.
One such e-mail Alicke received told of a man who was spurned by a Muslim
woman and then warned not to go near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The
story was almost certainly concocted, Alicke said, as a way of regaining
standing and offering a ready target for blame.
"If you're mad, and you're looking for Muslims, you can get an e-mail to
confirm your suspicions," he said.
Kelly G. Shaver, a professor of psychology at The College of William & Mary
in Williamsburg, Va., said the underlying mechanism of scapegoating derives
from an inability or unwillingness to differentiate among causality,
responsibility and blameworthiness.
"Blame is applied to anyone who participated in the terrorist act with the
intention of doing what was done," he said. "There may be other people who are
responsible. There may be governments who are responsible in a more general
sense because they sheltered or housed the terrorist cells. But those
governments didn't specifically intend to blow up the World Trade Center."
And the structural design of the World Trade Center itself is a potential
contributing cause as to the extent of damage, he said, "but a contributing
cause is only a contributing cause if other things happened. These buildings
didn't fall down on their own. If someone hadn't flown planes into the
buildings, nothing anyone else did would have mattered. It's important to
understand who the real culprits are."
Shaver said public figures such as Jerry Falwell who have targeted
scapegoats with their scorn are adopting an "I don't like them, they must be at
fault mentality that justifies their own behavior. It's just not a very
sophisticated view of the nature of the world," he said. Similarly, "to say
that all Arab-Americans are responsible for this is every bit as silly as
saying all bankers are responsible, or New Yorkers, because if they weren't
bankers or New Yorkers they wouldn't have been in the building," Shaver said.
"It's just nonsense, which of course doesn't prevent people from doing it.
People ignore the distinctions between causality, responsibility and blame.
They kind of want to tar and feather everybody."
Simon Crosby, a psychotherapist in Forest Row, England, said scapegoating
was such a recurring theme in his practice that he created a Web-based
self-help resource called The Scapegoat Society (www.scapegoat.demon.co.uk).
In the international arena, he said, unpopular foreign policies may be
seized upon, distorted and amplified until a target audience is convinced of
another country's malevolence without the scapegoat's fully realizing the
extent of the damage until its international reputation has been destroyed.
"We scapegoat the people we envy," he said. "That's a bit sadistic, but I
think that goes on, one ego battling with another ego. When it comes to
nations, you have a collective ego battling against another collective ego."
Psychologists say such collective scapegoating adds an international
element that can run deeply and present enormous difficulties in uprooting. The
current anti-American backlash in the Arab world, Crosby said, "has created an
incredible amount of unity, because the collective ego has been prodded."
The effectiveness of the message depends on just how much prodding can be
done, whether by Osama bin Laden, his Taliban supporters or other anti-American
agitators. "The audience is sort of the fertile ground in which the seeds get
planted," Crosby said. "It's not good enough for the scapegoater to say to the
person that they're bad. He needs an audience to stand with him."
Precisely defining the enemy can also assist the call to arms, Shaver said,
by demanding a unified response and justifying a more rigid allegiance that
stifles dissent in the face of a perceived larger cause. And by punishing the
scapegoat, a group in disarray can achieve some sort of cohesion.
"The bully in the schoolyard gets his cronies to unite by focusing on
someone they all consider a nerd or a dweeb," Shenassa said. "Then they don't
have to focus on their own weaknesses."
On a more basic level, cleansing oneself of guilt can empower or
re-establish a sense of leadership. In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini brought
cohesion by projecting the guilt of society onto the United States and certain
minority groups like the Baha'i, Shenassa said. The Mujahideen, or soldiers
fighting Iran's holy war, were then able to bring together the various Iranian
factions by focusing on a shared hatred of a common enemy.
In the case of bin Laden, experts attribute much of his hatred for the
United States to its post-Gulf War military presence in Saudi Arabia, the site
of Islamic holy cities Mecca and Medina.
"He took it as a personal threat to himself," Shenassa said, although
experts have debated whether bin Laden's extreme religious or political views
were most threatened.
"When the status quo and leadership are threatened, the threat is
overwhelming," Shenassa said. "In order to seek equilibrium and balance, there
is a state of denial, and guilt is denied and projected. An internal power
struggle about how to project ensues, and a scapegoat is selected."
For bin Laden and others, experts say the unevenness of U.S. foreign policy
has likely contributed to the country's attractiveness as a scapegoat for many
of the world's ills.
"So does it mean that we deserved to have the things happen that happened?
No, of course not," Shenassa said. "But in this case, the persecutor has taken
an infraction and turned it into a punishable offense, and feels entitled to be
the one doing the punishing."
Terrorist attacks, by their provocative nature, may only exacerbate that
cycle of wrongful blame and punishment. "They are very provocative, and they
provoke someone to behave very badly," Crosby said. "Someone is attacked, and
they react violently or crossly or negatively. And then the scapegoater can
say, 'See, I told you so.'"
Images of white middle-class Americans attacking Arab-Americans or their
property won't sit well with an Arab audience, for example, just as repeated
pictures of Palestinian suffering and blanket stereotypes of Jews and Americans
have already created tacit support for bin Laden among many in the Arab world.
"I think he has intuited scapegoating, he understands that we will react
this way," Alicke said. "If we play it out the way that he has envisioned, then
by our targeting Muslims, that's the way that he really will gain power. He
won't accomplish it by just killing 5,000 people."
Psychologists say bin Laden is also harnessing the raw emotion by
transforming himself from notorious criminal to international scapegoat and
besieged defender of Islam in his statements.
"It gains him sympathy," Shenassa said. "He then twists that sympathy into
hatred to help him gain his power base."
As a result, a thicket of multilayered and intertwined emotions could
intensify animosity on both sides.
"The question is how well we're going to feed into it, and so far we're
feeding into it pretty well, I'd say," Alicke said. "Our success in this war
depends on the help of moderate Arab states, and if you alienate them, then
we're in big trouble."
Shenassa said she believes Americans have learned from past incidents such
as the Iranian hostage crisis of Jimmy Carter's administration when anti-Arab
scapegoating spread across the United States.
"I know Iranian college kids who literally had to carry around baseball
bats to protect themselves," she said. "Twenty years ago, as a society, we were
in a much different place. From then to now, we've matured as a collective."
Other psychologists aren't as generous with their assessments.
"If you equate the times, I'm not as optimistic that you're going to see
less blaming of Muslims this time around," Alicke said. "If there are more
terrorist activities, it's hard to imagine that anti-Arab sentiment will abate.
I think it's only going to increase."
"I think no matter how hard they try, Americans just want to kick that
refrigerator," he said. "The more it hurts, the harder you kick back."
Another psychological hurt may derive from the difficulty in accepting that
the United States could be so vulnerable to attack. And with the recent spate
of anthrax-tainted letters, Shaver said, the specter of bioterrorism could
further undermine the public's sense of safety and lead to more scapegoating.
"Yeah, you can avoid going to New York," he said, "but crop dusters are
Despite climates in which fear and mistrust prevail, psychologists say
information, intervention and isolation have all worked in the past to defuse
potentially explosive situations. In South Africa, for example, President
Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission staved off fighting by
offering a national dialogue on the previous practice of apartheid.
"Mandela's leadership and leadership group were empowered and also external
forces empowered them to do the right thing, allowed them to find a
foundation," Shenassa said. "It took away the need to purify the society with
Once a situation has escalated too far, the only effective intervention may
be to isolate the threat. "Put the bully in the corner so the rest of the
classroom is safe," she said. "Then you can begin to deal with the bully's
Although such issues are never easy to address, Crosby said, taking on some
of the responsibility for a perceived transgression could take "some of the
wind out of the sails of the blamer" and deprive the scapegoater of a future
But audiences can't be converted overnight, and people are understandably
reluctant to accept responsibility for past mistakes that could have
contributed to a climate in which scapegoating blossoms. "If you're full of
fear," he said, "it's hard to listen to the other person's point of view."
Nevertheless, Alicke said a bit of courage can yield surprising results.
For example, he cited former Ku Klux Klan members whose children's close
friendships with blacks changed their deep- seated prejudices. "That's what
finally overcame their racism," he said. "It's the close intermingling that
makes the difference."