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August 11, 2006


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Speaking as someone who does not generally approve of Bush's policies, I think Sunstein's "visceral fear and outrage" is a good explanation of the phenomenon, at least for me. On 9/11, once I realized the extent of the destruction, I felt a furious desire to launch missiles and kill people. Ideally, the people responsible, but anyone vaguely similar would do. It is our ability to resist these horrible feelings that makes us civilized, but the feelings exist nevertheless.


I think the situation *is* relevantly different than it was in 2004, because the general public is realizing that the Bush Administration hyperbole mixing together the Iraq war and terrorism is wrong. I predict that if reminded of their mortality in 2006, subjects would be less likely to support Bush, since they would remember that he diverted 140,000 troops in an unnecessary war that made America more vulnerable to terrorism than before we invaded.

That is why the great police work by the British authorities should boost Democratic candidates. The 2006 election was about the Iraq war even before this latest terrorist plot was foiled.



No offense, but it doesn't take a law prof to know what's going on here. When people are scared they seek protection and consolation, inevitably from whoever's "in charge." Human nature. The really interesting thing going on these days is the unprecedented extent to which the current administration has cynically manipulated this phenomenon for its own political benefit. What's dissapointing about your post is that it adopts a Bush Administration (I won't say Republican, I don't consider this adminstration Republican) talking point - that is, it takes seriously the possibility that people honestly believe this administration is any better or worse than any other at protecting the nation. That's part of the manipulation & only enters the calculus as the end-product of self-fulfilling political doublespeak.


Prof. Sunstein notes two possible explanations for the shift, but it seems there could at least be a third - the "rally around the flag" effect - which was left unmentioned. Mightn't moderate liberals (perhaps James above) support Bush more not because they view him as more aggressive than Kerry, but simply because he's who we're stuck with as "representative of America"?

The Law Fairy

If the theory still holds true, would this mean that we ought to count any media coverage of terrorist attacks as campaign contributions?

I partly jest, of course, but it may be worth looking at to what extent simply over-reporting on terrorism (as I would argue the media does) affects people's willingness to simply turn over their rights to the government in the belief (sound or not) that it makes them safer.


Some of the interpretations mentioned here rely on the assumption that when people are reminded of their mortality they experience "fear and outrage" or become "scared." This is not true in all cases. For many, a reminder of mortality makes them more serious and reflective.

It would be interesting to know if the studies examined how people felt about being reminded of their mortality.

Frederick Hamilton

Mortality salience. Sounds like what we always simply called "life and death issues". Of course most sane Americans think more highly of Bush, et al than Kerry, et al on fighting the terrorists. On their land, not on ours.

70% of Americans approve of the government listening to all aspects of terrorist calls. NSA wiretaps helped with the recent London plots. Britain has laws that allow MI5 and MI6 to be "robust" when it comes to keeping tabs on those who want to kill us.

Democrats don't want to keep tabs on al Qaeda. They want to be nice and have a great chat. Maybe even enter into some agreements. al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas all know Americans can be counted on to eventually fade. Just ask the likes of Feingold and Lamont.

We'll see if America has the guts, determination, courage and stamina to see the fight on the war on terror to a successful conclusion. My heart tells me we will. My head tells me too many will go wobbly and we may cave. I pray not.

How would the Univ of Chicago Law School be at teaching Sharia law? I suspect they like all good lawyers could adapt to any arrangement. Time will tell.

As I write this, Israel is agreeing to a brokered peace deal put together by the U.S. and France. Looks like we'll be seeing many a dead Israeli for decades to come as the world has little stomach for destroying an evil force. Too bad.

Yes indeed, mortality salience. It is amazing how potential death, especially insane terrorist deaths will focus the mind on taking the fight to the sick Islamic fascists rather than bending over and sticking our heads in the sand.

And of course. It is all Bush's fault. If only Gore could have been elected. Or even Kerry. We could be vacationing in Beirut right now. Right. I welcome an election based on the war on terror. At least it will focus voters minds on dead innocent women and children destroyed by intention. Not by an accident of war. By an intentional airliner going down. By a Islamic fascist with a bomb at a Pizza Hut. Welcome Democrats to mortality salience. This is a discussion we need throughout the nation. A discussion that should take place every week in Congress. Like strong, determined Israeli's, we should never forget 9/11. Never.

Frederick Hamilton

How ironic that NSA wiretaps might have helped save Senator Schumers life, who was in London and getting ready to fly back to the U.S.

Dean C. Rowan

Isn't there at least one other possibility that would have to do with a more nuanced view of human psychology? Suppose, for example, that a "reminder" of mortality--already a sloppy formulation, since it may be taken to assume that folks have utterly expelled it, as when one absolutely forgets an address at a former residence--serves to objectify or sublimate an otherwise viscerally unappealing notion. The effect, in other words, might be the reverse of the "visceral fear and outrage" hypothesis. One's mortality becomes psychically more manageable because it's linguistically manipulable, and therefore one is more free--less anxious, say--to decide weighty matters such as how aggressive leaders ought to be. As for the first hypothesis, why must mortality be the sole source of folks' "reflection" as to the superiority of Bush's protection? How would a reminder of mortality differ from, say, simply asking people to reflect on Bush's capabilities? If there's no difference, then the political strategem of simply asking folks to reflect ought to generate the same shift in opinion.


Jesus Frederick. Those oppesed to warrantless wiretapping are not for the end of wiretapping or terrorist surveillance. Just doing so without a warrant or any cause.

Your suggestion that these guys would not have been caught but for warantless wiretapping is simply disingenuous,and I expect more from you. You are too smart not to be able to grasp that distinction. Hell, FISA even allows warrantless wiretapping and then the acquisition of a warrant and a demonstration of cause ex post. So stop suggesting that the Bush's illgal practice of wiping his ass with the Constitution had anything to do with these guys being caught, or that democrats or leaders who would respect the rule of law would not have been gathering intelligence and trying to thwart terorism.


And Frederick, there is a huge difference between fighting Terrorism and invading countries based on lies. I know you are just a doctor, but you should really try to wrap your head around that distinction. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and Al Qaeda until we got there, unless you bend the truth like the Bush administration. but back to this post. I think it doesn't require a Law professor or a study to know that people, when confronted witha bloody vision of their own mortality become more amenable to brutish violence. Welcome to hundreds of thousands of years of evoultion.

Frederick Hamilton


Just trying to get this going. Now these are discussions worth having. I do understand the difference between having a FISA warrant and not having one for NSA wiretaps. I do not know (for good reasons, they are not divulging just what NSA's role in the London plot was) whether the NSA wiretaps were warrantless or with a warrant.

As you know from our previous discussions, I agree with the position that wiretapping international calls of suspected terrorists do not require warrants and do not fall within the FISA law. Great minds can disagree. We won't settle that here, other than to say there are new legislative approaches under considerataion to make what the NSA is now doing fall comfortably within FISA. That would be a good thing.

Don't disagree at all that people faced with their own bloody, non-sensical death are willing to get aggressive as hell to ensure the sicko's that want you and I beheaded or bombed to death don't succeed. That may take government moves that may encroach on some of our freedoms. The threat may warrant that. Simple as that. And yes, there are those not quite aligned with Bush that are much more passive than I when it comes to Islamic terrorists. I am firmly in the big stick camp of dealing with al Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas, et al. They should be knocked down and destroyed at every opportunity, before they kill me, or my attorney daughter in NYC, or you.

The American people need to let our representatives know just what we expect of our government regarding terrorism, our rights, NSA wiretapping, the Iraq war, et al.

I am thankful in a perverse way of Hizbollan, Hamas, al Qaeda, Iran constantly reminding us what the real world is and what the real threats are. You bet. Mortality salience. What I call life and death decision making. Or as asked by the hospital when being wheeled into the OR for my kidney stone removal, "do you have a living will?", no, I said, but I have a strong will to live. I still have it and want my government doing whatever it takes (within some reasonableness) to keep me alive and to destroy al Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas, Iranian change of regimes, et al.

Kimball Corson

Being reminded of perceived threats against us and implicitly or more of the consequential possibility of our death is precisely the "scare tactic" the Republicans deploy to garner support for Bush Republicans. An interesting way to consider the issue is to assume that we are, like Superman, immortal or at least impervious to death. Were that the case, such wrongs of others would wain in significance, actually and psychologically, and we would be more tolerant of them and those perpetrating such wrongs. We are simply seeing the reverse here.

Kimball Corson

A third possibility or variation on the second is people think that Bush is right in some sense to take the war to the Middle East because that protects us more on our home turf. Not that I agree, but many do, I believe.

Kimball Corson

Should the Democrats attack "mortality salience" with a program of universal health care and its attending improved longevity? I think not and believe therefore anger and rage are the base motivators (as the authors suggest). . . and not very good ones at that. We are back to the monkey theory of humanity: we are basically maurading chimps with bad tempers badly in need of good bonobo training.

Kimball Corson

Crimine, Frederick, you make us sound like a band of maurading chimps ralling around the flag, motherhood and apple pie, in the face of the only alternative: our immeninent demise. Anyone who disagrees is a wishy- washy democratic bonobo. Who needs civil rights when we are crafting our clubs, right? Hell, why not step up the food chain and nuke all the Arabs before they get the bomb (Pakistain excepted) and make quick work of the whole mess? I mean why mire ourselves in the present costly inefficiencies if we can do so much better? We could even pick up a few contaminated oil fields too along the way. Of course, like the Church of yore, we should give the Arabs a chance to convert first and get only a life sentence instead working in those fields. It shouldn't be much of a logistical problem for us because they like virgins and gardens and we don´t need that many to run the fields. Chimps uber alus.



"Don't disagree at all that people faced with their own bloody, non-sensical death are willing to get aggressive as hell to ensure the sicko's that want you and I beheaded or bombed to death don't succeed. That may take government moves that may encroach on some of our freedoms. The threat may warrant that."

Hmmm, I'd again first point out, this being a Sunstein thread, that people utilize that availability heuristic(or whatever he calls it) where one will think the probability of low probability events is much higher if one can conjure vivid scary images of the consequnces of that low probability event in their minds. Thus you get people who won't fly in airplanes but also forget to put on their seatbelts in their cars.

Further,the government encroaching on our freedoms is unnecessary given how flexible FISA is already. You say:

"As you know from our previous discussions, I agree with the position that wiretapping international calls of suspected terrorists do not require warrants and do not fall within the FISA law."

And as you should know, you are wrong. Great minds can disagree about many things. This simply is not one of those things. FISA was amended after 9/11 (and *after* the grant of war powers) specifically and explicitly to include wiretapping calls of foreign terrorists. So unless you think the commander in chief clause trumps the rest our whole constitution, including its most basic provisions like the separation of powers, the fourth amendment and our republican form of democracy, you are wrong.

"I am thankful in a perverse way of Hizbollan, Hamas, al Qaeda, Iran constantly reminding us what the real world is and what the real threats are. You bet."

Actually what should be the most real threat to you is heart disease and the consequences of poverty. I think the fear has clouded your ablity to rationally determine what is and isn't a real danger to you and yours.

The fearful tone you take about your "will to live" only goes to show that you are falling victim to that scaredy cat heuristic, and have irrationally overreacted to scary low probability threats because you have the horrific vision of their consequences burned into you mind's eye.

So please stop stooping down to the RNC's tactic of conflating Bush's bellicose war mongering policies in Iraq with pur government's ability to combat terrorism. Spanks.

Kimball Corson

I can buy into LAK's less exasperated, more patiently rearticulated position here. Two collateral questions are, in the circumstances, how scared are we? and how scared should we be?

I heard a set of suggestions this morning from a retired military officer (Brigader General): for each suicide bomber(s), identify their home town(s) or neighborhood(s) and, in retaliation, bomb it (or them) into oblivion. He explained, That is a message Arabs and their communities would understand and they would then turn on the suicide bombers themselves. With Vietnam and since, he said, we fight all wars defensively with both hands tied behind our backs trying to protect too many that are directly or indirectly complicit.

It is a thought, but not a pleasant one, but then our present situation is not a pleasant one either.


As I understand it Israel has already tried something like this with Palestinian suicide bombers by bulldozing their family homes. And the bombers are still admired or at least tolerated by a sizable percentage of the Palestinians. So in addition to its immorality, mass murder of innocent civilians has been ineffective in bringing about peace. Also, by saying that this is a message that "Arabs and their communities" would "understand" are you insinuating that they are of low intelligence?

Frederick Hamilton

Agree that we shouldn't try to make each others arguments seem trite. I'll be glad when Nov08 comes as we will be able to get beyond the blame Bush mentality. 9/11 really happened. The threats are real (London plot, Michigan cell phone plot now coming out, et al). Is the government trying to scare us because Bush/Cheney want to enrich their oil/military buddies? The conspiracy arguments fade with every 9/11, Madrid, Bali, London x2, Hizbollah, example. Can't believe Bush/Cheney are orchestrating all of this. They really are devishly talented aren't they?

The threats are real. We have to be real in dealing with them. Politicians need to put their cards on the table and tell we Americans what they want to do to protect us from these real threats (again 9/11 really happened folks). Should we tap the phones of international calls regarding terrorists in real time with the British threshold of "reasonable suspicion" or should we insist on the American "probable cause" issuance of a judicial warrant?

The British also have "control orders" allowing more robust intercept of terrorist conduct. Now admittedly they have honed their system on years of IRA terrorism and IRA bombings. Also the British have the "official secrets act". We have the 1st Amendment and the New York Times. Secrecy in today's terrorist enviorment should have some more acceptance I would think.

The oft maligned "profiling" belongs in our arsenal. Any attempt to do a second look, and a 2nd question based on a profile of terrorist suspects brings the usual howl of "discrimination", and a quick round of ACLU lawsuits.

Found the 2nd Circuit appealate decision to allow NYC police to engage in random searches of bags on the subway sytem a nice touch of sanity. Were they wrong? Some here will say yes. Americans need to have a say in this. Our politicians need to explain in minute detail their thoughts on all of this so an informed electorate can decide the direction of the country regarding protection from these "scare tactics" some see and from real threats that most of us believe are credible.


Again though Frederick,

There is terrorism and there is the Iraq war, which people like you seem to support even though it has done nothing but make us more of a target and inspire hatred. "Why?" is the question. Folks like you seem to have nothing to say about the lies that were proffered to engage in a majory military campaign in Iraq, instead of devoting our precious resources to intelligence and actually fighting terrorism intelligently, through foreign policy and intelligence. Iraq is just a Madison Avenue War. Let's not forget "there are no targets in Afghanistan" was Rummy's quote after 9/11. You don't have to be a consiracy theorist to heap criticsm on bad decisions and identify vested interests that benefit from major military campaigns. The question is why do you think bombing the hell out of people and invading countries is going to solve terrorism? Why do you think that is an effective strategy? Bloodlust and fear is my answer and is that suggested by this post. Appealing to all that is animal and biological in us.


On the topic of fear tactics, has anyone seen "An Inconvenient Truth" recently? Politicians of every ilk use the "elect me or die" campaign slogan in some form.

Moving beyond partisanship, the problem with the experiment presented by Prof. Sunstein's post is that we can still argue over the correctness of the policy choice presented (Bush or Kerry), so it is unclear whether the mortality salience shift is for our benefit or detriment.

An experiment with more control would be more helpful because it would allow us to see if the "fear" caused by mortality salience regularly causes people to pick verifiably bad results. For example, maybe mortality salience would cause people to favor the short term over the long term with financial investments.


Does anyone here actually disagree that 9/11 happened? If not, Frederick seems to be rallying the troops...again.

Yet, does anyone disagree that 15-16,000 people die every year from murder? Never a word about that from the politicians. Does anyone disagree that 66% of those murderers use guns? Yet...I have this uncanny feeling that Frederick and all the right wing are going to say that the liberty to have guns trumps the liberty NOT to be searched on a subway. I'm not necessarily opposed to the searches (I'm not really that familiar with the case), but this is quite the paradoxical situation, is it not, given that about 20 times the number of people killed in 9/11 have died from guns since then?

By the way, how many Iraqis have been killed since the invasion? Great that it's on "their turf," isn't it? We can just sit back and not worry about it much because people half-way around the world aren't quite that important (even if Iraq had little, if anything, to do with 9/11). Are you sure, Frederick, that all that money couldn't have been put to a better use to fight terrorism in a different way? Maybe we could get some more people to infiltrate these networks, like the British did in the recent bomb attempts. Just a thought, but that seems to work.

And yet, nearly everyone who supported the Iraq war who I've spoken to has the same attitude as Frederick. Better there than here (regardless of how screwed up the "intelligence" was). Interesting that somehow human life in 3rd world countries isn't on par with human life in the U.S. Perhaps they're closer to the dogs in China, who knows.

Kimball Corson

Such Arabs are not of low intelligence. They're simply not willing to listen to much of what we have to say.


By the way,

The right wasn't so eager to call it a "real threat" after the embassy bombings in Afghanistan and Kenya during Clinton's administration. I think "Wag the Dog" was the applicable term used then. Frederick, you're assertion that Democrats just want to talk is wholly ridiculous. There were quite a few democrats who voted FOR the war in Iraq, before finding out that the intelligence was all messed up. Then they accused the Bush administration of manipulating the data available, which they did. It's not a case of not wanting to fight, it's a case of not wanting to fight the wrong people. That's understandable. But you and the "tough guys" always seem to turn your heads whenever there's a problem like Abu Ghraib, or the rape of little girls, or murders that go unprosecuted. A pretty sad state of affairs for people who believe that "all men were created equal."
These things are always dismissed as just a part of war.

Now, let's not forget that two major generals just testified to the Senate that civil war is not such a far-fetched possibility at this point. Whether or not that actually happens is a strong testament to the problems in that country now, and by all accounts, we're not going to stick around if that happens. Do you really think those problems aren't "real?"

Ironically, Saddam shared your affinity for using a big stick to deal with his enemies. It would seem that it's you, Frederick, not the liberals (as you suggested in a different blog) who have a soft spot...if not for Saddam himself, then at least for his philosophies.

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