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).