|When Does Political Anger Turn to Violence?|
By BENEDICT CAREY
The mercury is running high, all right, and it has nothing to do with the weather.
Public displays of political anger have been a staple of the American scene for the last eight months or so, but in recent days a handful directed at members of Congress have gone a bit further than noisy, sign-carrying assembly to window-smashing, spitting, threatening faxes and phone calls, even a cut propane line on a barbecue grill. At the end of last week, Democratic and Republican leaders, while denouncing any violence or threat of it, reached the point of trading accusations over who was most responsible.
Each party charged the other with fanning the flames of public outrage for political gain. The Fox News host Glenn Beck, a galvanizing figure for the Tea Party protesters, might have offered the most inventive explanation for the isolated instances of violence when he said on his radio program that the Democrats were inciting protesters by walking through their ranks on the way to the Capitol. “I can guarantee you they walked out and said, ‘What the hell do you have to do to these people to get them to kill us?’ I swear to you!”
But back up a minute, to the flame-fanning. What is the nature of public anger anyway, and can it be manipulated as easily as that? Is it possible for tough-guy talk to prompt any more than an occasional nasty outburst or can it indeed sustain and amplify anger to the point of organized mayhem?
It’s true that anger is contagious, just as most emotions are — probably even more so. At a basic level, people subconsciously mimic the expressions of a conversation partner and in the process “feel” a trace of the other’s emotion, recent studies suggest.
This can be especially potent in small groups in which the leader is projecting a strong emotion like anger, said Leigh Thompson, an organizational psychologist at Northwestern University.
And in groups organized around a cause, it’s the most extreme members who rise quickest, researchers have found. Among vegetarians, vegans are accorded high status; among church members, the most devout often take leadership positions.
“If the source of a group’s identity is some grievance, then clearly this is a recipe for elevating whoever can express the most anger” over the issue, Dr. Thompson said.
In today’s political climate, where some politicians are taking their talking points from radio and TV jockeys, outraged leaders are easy to find.
Most experts agree that such rhetoric probably raises the remote risk of lone-wolf violence — acts of individual terrorism like the shooting at Fort Hood last November, or the attack last month in Austin, Tex., in which a man flew his plane into the building housing an Internal Revenue Service office, killing himself and an office worker.
Such acts are far too rare to be studied in any rigorous way. When they do occur, however, often there is evidence that the perpetrator was playing to a larger audience perceived to be sympathetic, whether radical Muslims, antitax crusaders or, in the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, citizens angry about government intrusions.
But what about the risk of organized destructive action?
So far, experts say that the discontent pooling on the right (anti-Washington and anti-Wall Street) and to a lesser degree on the left (anti-Wall Street) has some, but not yet all, of the ingredients needed to foment radicalism.
“As long as there is some possibility of getting results by political means, the chances that any group will turn truly radical are small, and maybe vanishingly small,” said Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College. But if those efforts to engage are thwarted, he said, the equation changes.
The risk that angry words themselves will incite violence is higher when they are aimed at a despised minority, or a feuding enemy, if history is any guide. The local press in many towns in the American South in the late 1800s and early 1900s played a role in inciting lynch mobs, for example. Inflammatory, racist propaganda on the radio station RTLM reportedly played a central role in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which extremist Hutus slaughtered rival Tutsis.
Even those who see an underlying racial element in today’s political anger don’t suggest that these extreme conditions apply.
Furthermore, the psychological distance between talk and action — between fantasizing about even so much as brick heaving and actually doing it — is far larger for a typical, peaceable citizen than many assume. In the aftermath of the July 2007 London subway bombings, for instance, polls found that about 5 percent of Muslims living in England said that they believed violence was justified in defense of Islam. “That projects to about 50,000 Muslims in the U.K.,” Dr. McCauley said, “but very, very few of them are acting violently.”
Kathleen Blee, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said the same was true even for groups that consider violence a central tenet. “In the white power groups I study, people can have all kind of crazy racist ideas, spend their evenings reading Hitler online, all of it,” she said, “but many of them never do anything at all about it.”
Protest groups that turn from loud to aggressive tend to draw on at least two other elements, researchers say. The first is what sociologists call a “moral shock” — a specific, blatant moral betrayal that, when most potent, evokes personal insults suffered by individual members, said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.”
This shock may derive from an image: the horrific posters of tortured animals published by animal rights groups, or of aborted fetuses by anti-abortions organizations, which speak for themselves. It can also reside in a “narrative fragment,” like the Rodney King beating, which triggered a riot all on its own.
Perhaps the best available candidate for such an outrage today is the Wall Street bailout, Dr. Polletta said. “The message there is rich people being rewarded for bad behavior,” she said. “That’s going to hit home, especially if you’ve lost a job, or know someone who has.”
The second element is a specific target clearly associated with the outrage. A law to change. A politician to remove. A company to shut down. “If the target is too big, too vague — say, the health care bill, which means many things — well, then the anger can be hard to sustain,” Dr. Polletta said. “It gets exhausting.”
Not that the rage, or the risk of escalation, necessarily goes away. If a group with enduring gripes is shut out of the political process, and begins to shed active members, it can leave behind a radical core. This is precisely what happened in the 1960s, when the domestic terrorist group known as the Weather Underground emerged from the larger, more moderate anti-war Students for a Democratic Society, Dr. McCauley said. “The SDS had 100,000 members and, frustrated politically at every step, people started to give up,” he said. “The result was that you had this condensation of a small, more radical base of activists who decided to escalate the violence.”
Given the shifting political terrain, the diversity of views in the antigovernment groups, and their potential political impact, experts say they expect that very few are ready to take the more radical step.
“Once you take that step to act violently, it’s very difficult to turn back,” Dr. Blee said. “It puts the group, and the person, on a very different path.”