Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts

My research suggests that when a system is threatened, proponents of that system tend to respond defensively, almost instinctively, to bolster support for the central tenets of the system. In part, this is what has happened in the case of last week’s terrorist attacks: some Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a holy war against the U.S. allegedly to defend the existence and purity of their system against what they perceive to be our military, economic, and cultural imperialism. Of course, this does not justify the attacks (nothing could), though it may help to explain it.

Opinion polls suggest that most Americans will accept uncritically whatever the government does next. Perhaps this is also a defensive reaction to our system being attacked so viciously, in both symbolic and material terms. But we must avoid the trap of allowing our pain and fear to have the final word in handling this crisis. Why? Certainly the desire for revenge is understandable. I think that there are two main reasons why we need critical analysis, perhaps now more than ever.

First, good decision-making requires the capacity to scrutinize possibilities, evaluate consequences, and identify potential problems and shortcomings associated with specific courses of action. In short, there is a general need to examine the evidence in a manner that is as unbiased as possible. This requires the consideration of diverse perspectives, which is one reason why the success of our response depends upon careful consultation with, among others, leaders in Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. History suggests that unquestioning conformity of opinion can lead to disastrous decision-making outcomes. In this case, any wrong move virtually guarantees that terrorism will become part of daily life in the U.S. Or worse.

The second reason, which is even more crucial, pertains to issues of influence and legitimacy, which are intertwined. The broader and more diverse our base of international allies is, the more legitimacy we will have to “root out” terrorism. Our long-term legitimacy is especially dependent upon the support of Arab nations and moderate Islamic groups that are willing to denounce terrorism. Bush has been widely criticized, especially in Europe, for having spurned international cooperation in environmental and arms limitation treaties. Now that he is the de facto leader of the worldwide response to terrorism, he must establish and maintain complex, international coalitions, and he must win cooperation and consent from a wide variety of diverse constituencies. His ability to influence our potential allies is directly tied to the legitimacy of his requests and the reasons behind them. Many, including opinion leaders in Afghanistan and China, are calling for evidence directly implicating Osama bin Laden in the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Regardless of the reasons for this request, it is a legitimate one.

If we wish to distinguish clearly between the motives for the terrorists’ actions and the motives for ours, and if we wish to convince ourselves and others that our foreign policy is based more on reason than on rationalization, then our collective response -- whatever it is -- must involve careful analysis and searching debate rather than a swift confirmation of our Godliness and the righteousness of our wrath. Even if some debates are necessarily held in private, it is essential to the democratic process and to maintaining the trust of internal and external constituencies that the administration offers proof that a wide range of opinions are being fairly and thoroughly considered.

Although there has been no formal declaration of war, the Bush administration has framed these attacks from the start as “acts of war” rather than “crimes against humanity.” Framing the crisis in terms of “America’s New War” (as CNN is marketing it) is highly consequential because it implicitly delineates categories of legitimate and illegitimate action. In war, it may be unfortunate, but it is both legitimate and inevitable that innocent civilians will be killed. In the policing of crime, of course, it is far from legitimate to kill innocent bystanders in the process of apprehending a criminal. At the moment, Great Britain and other key European allies have accepted the “war frame,” but the consensus on this could unravel, and some of the U.S. actions could lose their legitimacy in the context of other frames.

In polarized conflicts such as this one, legitimacy is generally a zero-sum, distributive resource. Thus, the legitimation of one system implies the delegitimation of its opposite, and the delegitimation of one system similarly implies the legitimation of its opposite. Right now, the U.S. enjoys vast legitimacy on the world stage only because its adversaries have acted illegitimately. We must be extremely careful to insure that our actions are well-conceived, based on reason and evidence, fair and proportionate, and consensually endorsed by most of the international community, or we will not only lose our credibility, we will be helping our enemies in the struggle for legitimacy. If we are perceived (now or in the future) as indiscriminately killing innocent Arabs, then we will have delegitimized our cause, squandered our influence, and -- worst of all -- legitimized future generations of terrorists.

John T. Jost, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, has recently published a book on The Psychology of Legitimacy (Cambridge University Press).

Term:

Other Articles

To the class of 2009, and all faculty and staff, welcome back. To the class of 2010, welcome to our community; we look forward to meeting you all. Many of us already know that this is the start of yet another phenomenal experience. In our Palo Alto microclimate, days are longer and fuller (and not just because we sleep less!).

After a year-and-a-half hiatus, The Reporter has once again opened its cyberdoors for business. We encourage you to step right in and have a seat – we would like to welcome you to The Virtual Reporter. Our address is www.virtualreporter.org.

To the Class of 2010:

We wanted to extend to you a heart-felt welcome to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. You are among an extraordinary group of people who have achieved incredible feats in their professional and personal lives. You have demonstrated that you could balance assertiveness with compassion and that you would not allow professional ambition to overshadow social responsiveness. Check also Help for students tuition fee and Building Career.

Ten years ago, Peter Dumanian, MBA ’92, and a few of his GSB classmates envisioned the East Palo Alto Chapter of the “I Have a Dream” (IHAD) program, modeled after a famous program founded a decade earlier in East Harlem. Within a year and a half, a core group of 20 GSB students raised $450,000 from classmates, alumni, and corporate donors, and adopted a class of 58 3rd and 4th grade “Dreamers” from Flood elementary school. The program was a phenomenal success, as class after class of GSB students tutored and mentored the Dreamers through high school.

OK. For those of you who decided to leave the Bay Area for your lofty summer jobs in New York and abroad, you have truly missed a fun time. That’s right. We have taken Summer FOAM to a whole new level. Alternating every other week between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, we have covered major ground and discovered some of the city’s best-kept secrets. Let me give you a taste of our travels.

“One time…in Math Camp!” Of course, we couldn’t help steal from American Pie to share our experiences in the Stanford GSB QPEP (Quantitative Pre-Enrollment Program, lovingly called Math Camp). Math Camp was a surprisingly memorable week that took place 4 days before most other first-year GSBers even arrived to campus.

Jen: The email arrived on a Saturday in early August. It contained the syllabus and reading list for my pre-term seminar with Dean Joss, “Issues on Leadership.” Summer wasn’t even over yet... a reading list?! What did I get myself into?

Fortunately, the books weren’t too academic. In fact, they were almost enjoyable. Shackleton’s Way taught leadership lessons as shown by an Antarctic explorer who was stranded on an iceberg in 1912 and kept his 28 men alive for 2 years. Leadership Pipeline examined different styles of leadership and the skills and values needed for each.

When 120 GSB students departed from Schwab to participate in their Outdoor Adventure Whitewater Rafting trip, many of them envisioned scenes from the movie The River Wild. However, due to a variety of circumstances, the search for whitewater rapids in Northern California was much more like Mission Impossible.

As the first-year students pile onto campus full of verve and optimism, trying to find their ways between S182 and S171, courageously ordering complex sandwiches and burritos in Arbuckle, the second-years ooze back to the GSB like an unsuccessfully eradicated slime mold, grimly noting the enthusiasm with which their junior colleagues snap up copies of Teamwork: A Guide for Suckers.

On September 10th, tomorrow seemed like just another day in the life of a first year GSB student. My biggest concerns about that Tuesday were standard orientation fare: Will I have a good hair day for that dreaded facebook picture? Who's going to help me configure my computer to the Schwab network? How on earth am I going to wake up for the way-too-early Excel review without an alarm clock?

My research suggests that when a system is threatened, proponents of that system tend to respond defensively, almost instinctively, to bolster support for the central tenets of the system. In part, this is what has happened in the case of last week’s terrorist attacks: some Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a holy war against the U.S. allegedly to defend the existence and purity of their system against what they perceive to be our military, economic, and cultural imperialism. Of course, this does not justify the attacks (nothing could), though it may help to explain it.

Tata Consultancy Services – eat your heart out. We’re on a GMIX at BaliCamp! While this is plenty of information to set the stage for second years, the first years will undoubtedly benefit from some additional background. GMIX, which stands for Global Management Immersion eXperience, is a four-week internship that SBS students can elect to take during the summer between their first and second years (see http://www-gsb.stanford.edu/gmp/opportunities/gmix.htm for more information). For additional info on Tata, you’ll have to wait and see…