social psychology

Strange Fruit
11:36 am
Sat April 27, 2013

Strange Fruit: Who Counts as a Terrorist? (Hint: White Guys Don't)

Terrorist.

What image pops up in your mind when you hear that word? "When we think of the word 'terrorism,' most people get an image in their head of somebody who, of course, is a foreign national or somebody who's immigrated to the United States, who's Muslim, typically," explains clinical psychologist Dr. Kevin Chapman. "We think of things like violence. Guns. We think of airport screening."

Defining terrorism is challenging (even for the United Nations, apparently), but in common usage, it's an act of violence intended to intimidate or coerce, often for ideological reasons. The word itself has a long and emotional history, but this week, we were interested in how that word is applied, or not applied, following mass killings like the Boston bombing.

"We in America tend to react differently to terrorism depending on the ethnic, demographic, religious, and national profile of the alleged assailant," explains David Sirota. David is a political commentator who wrote a piece for Salon called Let's Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American. In it, he points out the double standard in public reaction to mass killings.

If the perpetrator is white, like in many recent shooting cases, it will be seen as an isolated incident, an aberration, possibly related to mental illness. We'll likely hear folks on TV mention how many hours a day the shooter spent playing video games. Any political fallout will probably be limited to gun control debate and will not involve taking action against the attacker's nation of origin, or adding surveillance against people who share his background. Or as Tim Wise wrote last week, "[I]f he's an Italian American Catholic we won't bomb the Vatican."

We spoke to Sirota this week about his piece, and the fallout from it. "My email box has been filled with the worst kind of anti-Semitic, racial epithets from the n-word to everything, for simply raising a point that should be obvious."

That reaction reveals just how deeply invested some folks are in their need to believe these acts are committed by people who are not like them. To understand what it is in our psychology that spurs this need to categorize "them" and "us," we called on friend to the show Dr. Chapman. "It's human nature to categorize, and unfortunately we dichotomize too often: ingroup, outgroup," he explains.  "We lump groups of individuals and profile them as a result, and that maintains our ingroup ideology."

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