Book Review – Scapegoats of September 11th

I picked up Michael Welch‘s Scapegoats of September 11th – Hate Crimes & State Crimes in The War on Terror based on Todd Krohn’s recommendation (He’s made Welch his Sociologist of the Semester). In this book, Welch retraces the emergence of the discourse that emerged after 9/11 that ultimately materialized into the apparatus of the War on Terror, grounded in religious dichotomy of good versus evil, and provided the basis for scapegoating. Such scapegoating had very real consequences in terms of both domestic and foreign policy: hate crimes, profiling, erosion of privacy and civil liberties, torture, renditions and other state crimes. Welch then analyzes both these policies and the discourse sustaining them.

Welch is a criminologist, so there is a lot in the book about the legislative and legal work that went into the crafting of the whole GWOT apparatus. There is a lot that is not new at this point in the book. A lot of “ink” has been spilled detailing the gory details of the Bush administration policies, and their continuation under the Obama administration. Similarly, several books have been written on the whole torture / rendition issue.

The strongest aspect of the book, in my view, lies in Welch’s mobilizing sociological and social-psychological theories and concepts to address the larger cultural aspects of the GWOT, and how the administration was successful in building up cultural support for its policies and creating a culture of denial, facilitating scapegoating. This is what I will focus on.

“Scapegoating involves displacing aggression onto innocent people selected as suitable enemies due to their perceived differences in race, ethnicity, religion and so on. As a social psychological defense mechanism against confronting the real source of frustration, scapegoating provides emotional relief for people racked with fear and anxiety. That solace inevitably short-term, prompting scapegoaters to step on a treadmill of endless bigotry and victimization.” (4)

Welch argues that after 9/11, there was indeed quite a bit of scapegoating against Muslim men and the level of hate crime against Muslims in the US increased significantly. Sometimes, it was cheered on by right-wing talk radio (the usual suspects, the same “Obama is a Muslim” crowd). This was accompanied by more systematic policy of rounding up Muslim men by the Department of Homeland Security. In that logic, Muslim man = terrorist prevailed both discursively and institutionally.

Similarly, Welch argues that the reaction to 9/11 can be best explained through the lenses of both moral panic framework and that of risk society:

“Moral panic, simply put, marks a turbulent and exaggerated response to a perceived social problem whereby there is considerable concern and consensus that such a problem actually exists. Blame is then shifted to suitable villains who absorb societal hostility. Along the way, the perceived threat exceeds proportionate risks, forming a disaster mentality from which it is widely believed that something must be done urgently or else society faces a greater doom.” (13)

Therefore, according to Welch, there are four elements of moral panic:

  • Concern
  • Consensus
  • Hostility
  • Disproportionality

Moral panics tend to be fairly circumscribed in time. They are specific events, with a beginning and an end. They are not perceived as systemic issues but as moral tales of good and evil. Risk society, on the other hand, establishes that the risks that are the conditions of the post-industrial, information age, are systemic risks. They are less moral in nature, less easily framed in terms of good and evil. Less conducive to scapegoating. Moral panics call for punishment of the scapegoats. Risk society would call for systemic reform that would call into question the social, economic and political arrangements of the global system (hence the hot potato attitude that prevails then). Which is why powerful actors (politics and media) may be seen as cheering on moral panics (calling for drastic policy and keeping the panic alive) while trying to calming things down on global risks (don’t run to the bank when it looks like we’re going into economic recession, don’t sell your stocks).

In the case of 9/11, the dominant theme that emerged and eclipsed all the other is that of safety and security. What can make America secure and Americans safe. For Welch, security and safety became the major sites of social anxiety (a major precondition for moral panic). But this fits very well as well with the risk society approach where risks are man-made (terrorism) and the solution is neither clear nor clear-cut: what is security, after all? What is safety? And the solutions are not easy either: it is impossible to eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth. Not only that but the risk of terrorism it self is unpredictable and incalculable.

The GWOT shares elements of both moral panic and risk society but they operate at different levels and trigger different reaction as mentioned above. They are both sources of social anxiety. Moral panics are sites of social anxiety because the political and media organizations amplify the actual dangers. Risk society is a source of social anxiety because the risks themselves may be invisible and unpredictable. How does one protect oneself against that? The need for security and safety then presents a political opportunity for “tough on (whatever)” political attitude and rhetoric. There was no shortage of that in the Bush administration and their cultural cheerleaders (think Toby Keith and others).

Institutionally speaking, the need for security and safety makes possible the unquestioned (and unquestionable) emergence of the homeland security-industrial complex (the latest version of the military-industrial complex, then the corrections-industrial complex) composed of

  • Private corporations
  • Government agencies
  • Professional organization

And that is alongside the intelligence-industrial complex. Both benefit financially (corporations) or in terms of institutional power (government agencies) or respectability for expertise (professional organizations) from the state of anxiety.

Scapegoating, of course, is one way in which individuals and groups try to regain control over their safety in the absence of clear solution to the risks  to which they are exposed. Social anxiety prepares the ground for the type of “frustration / aggression” that precedes scapegoating, as many social-psychological studies have shown. Scapegoating is even easier if the targeted group can be seen as “different”, “not as human” (Erikson’s process of “pseudo-speciation”). This also involves the classical Authoritarian Personality theory.

Both theories are adequate to explain scapegoating. Sociologists are equally interested in the consequences of scapegoating, increased in-group solidarity, sense of belonging and superiority and denial of one’s responsibility for the problems. It is therefore not uncommon to see disasters turned into morality plays with heroes and villains, leading to punitive policies, and more generally, a punitive culture, as is the case in the US where more and more behavior come under criminal sanctions and where incarceration levels are the highest in the world. This also leads to a culture of control where the only the consequences of crime matter, rather than its causes. It is simply assumed that criminals are “different”, “not like law-abiding citizens”. Not considerations is given to structural factors.

And when one adds fundamentalist religion to the mix, when social problems are formulated in religious terms, when the GWOT is posited as a crusade, then the risk of scapegoating is increased. It is then not surprising to find an increase in hate crimes directed at the scapegoated religious group.

“In Justice and The Politics of Difference, Iris Marion Young (1990) identifies five ‘faces of oppression’ that generally typify experiences of minority groups” exploitation (e.g., employment segregation); marginalization (e.g., impoverishment); powerlessness (e.g., underrepresentation in political office); cultural imperialism (e.g., demeaning stereotypes); and violence (e.g., hate crimes).” (64-5 emphasis mine)

Combined, these structural and cultural factors render a minority more likely to be scapegoated and targeted for mistreatment and violence perceived as justified, or at least excusable. Scapegoating is also a means of social exclusion and social control towards “them” (whoever the target happens to be) to keep them in line so that violence is then legitimate and seen as the victim’s fault. But of course, if a population is going to be targeted for mass, symbolic or structural violence, perpetrators’ responsibility and agency has to be denied. So, this leads to what Welch calls a culture of denial that makes acceptable all the ways in which scapegoats are mistreated. It is this culture of denial that allows the US society to hardly question the practice of torture, rendition, detention, erasure of civil liberties and mass surveillance.

Following Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Welch identifies three forms of denial that have been used in the GWOT:

  • Literary denial: “We don’t torture” as former President Bush stated. It is a blanket denial that something happened.
  • Interpretive denial: the facts are not refuted but their meaning is reinterpreted (waterboarding is not torture, it’s enhanced interrogation).
  • Implicatory denial: the facts and their meaning are not denied but their psychological or moral impact is denied or minimized (yes, people were tortured but they were not permanently harmed).

When denial becomes embedded into the cultural narrative, then, certain things happen:

“Unlike totalitarian regimes that go to great lengths to rewrite history and block out the present, denial in democratic societies is subtle, often taking the form of  spin-doctoring and public agenda setting. But similar to totalitarianism, democratic nations also build denial into the ideological facade of the state, turning to fraud rather than to force (Cohen 2001; Willis 1999). Eventually, entire societies are subject to slipping into collective modes of denial and when that occurs, citizens adopt potent defense mechanisms against acknowledging atrocities within their own nation. In the war on terror, cultural denial and official denial operate in tandem, developments that pose great threats to civil liberties and human rights (see Neier 2003; Schulz 2004).” (174)

Which is why the antidote to the culture of denial, according to Welch, is the pursuit of the truth and bringing it to light, for instance through court litigation.

This is an important book for the obvious: its topic. It is a one-stop shop regarding all the policies of the Bush administration and all the ways in which scapegoating became policy and trickled down into the culture, where hate crime and state crime coexist. From my narrower perspective, it is also a book that neatly weaves together sociological theory and research with real world stuff and shows the explanatory power of sociological theories and concepts to real-life phenomenon.

3 thoughts on “Book Review – Scapegoats of September 11th

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