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the PSYCHOLOGY of BLAME / Scapegoating during times of crisis is a basic human insticnt with a long history of destruction

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 (

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."

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