In psychology, an attribution bias or attributional bias is a cognitive bias that refers to the systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to find reasons for their own and others’ behaviors. People constantly make attributions regarding the cause of their own and others’ behaviors; however, attributions do not always accurately mirror reality. Rather than operating as objective perceivers, people are prone to perceptual errors that lead to biased interpretations of their social world.
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On 23 March 2017, Khalid Masood ploughed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London, stabbed a police officer with a knife, and then was shot dead. He killed four people in the rampage, which injured an additional forty people and disturbed the equanimity of a major Western city. Masood, who was born in Dartford (Kent, United Kingdom), had run afoul of the law for many years—mainly because of acts of violence and possession of weapons. The gap between the act of Masood and a common criminal is narrow.
Two months ago, the head of the Metropolitan Police said that “warning lights are flashing” over the rise of violent crime across England and Wales. The preferred weapon, said Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, was the common knife. Violent crime had risen by twenty-two percent, with the last quarter of 2016 registering 30,838 crimes committed with knives. Masood’s crime could well have been read alongside this data, as a serious problem of an increase in violence with knives as the weapon of choice.
Instead, the media and the British political class offered a sanctimonious lesson in civics. This was, said UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, “an attack on our democracy, the heart of our democracy.” UK Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that despite this attack, “we will move forward together, never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.” One newspaper suggested that Boris Johnson’s statement was “Churchillian.”
ISIS, which has been under serious threat in Iraq and Syria, has called upon people around the world to conduct acts of criminal violence in its name. There is no evidence yet that Masood acted on the instructions of ISIS or that he was following the ISIS edict to attack people in public areas in the West. What is known is that right after the attack, ISIS took credit for it, calling Masood its “soldier.” ISIS social media celebrated the attack. There is a form of delirium at work here—a group weakened now seeks to glorify itself by a pathetic attack by a man with a criminal record, using an old car and a knife.
Attribution bias is a familiar theme in the literature of modern psychology. It refers to the problem that occurs when people evaluate the actions of themselves or others based not on the facts but on attributions transferred from inherent biases. Fritz Heider, who first developed this theory in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958), suggested that attributions are made mostly to preserve one’s self-concept—namely one’s sense of self. Rather than evaluate one’s own behavior in a bad situation, one tends to blame others and to disregard the constraints that others operate under. This is typically considered to be a “self-serving bias”—the winner of an election says, “I won because the people voted for me,” whereas the loser says, “I lost because of voter fraud.”
Masood’s act has already been pinned on ISIS, and ISIS has already adopted him as one of its combatants. Both decisions are self-serving—the one to deny any native role for the production of Masood and the other to uplift a flagging insurgency. Masood’s own convulsions with racism, his own desire to seek glory above his miserable situation: these are not taken seriously. “Home-grown” terrorists have ‘home-grown’ problems. But the term ‘terrorist’ allows the “home-grown” person to be exported—as it were—to other countries, to defer blame to them—to ISIS, in this case.
Three thousand miles southeast of London sits the town of al-Mansoura, near the city of Raqqa (Syria). Aerial bombardment by the United States in the area around Raqqa had pushed about fifty families to take shelter in the al-Badia school in the town. The US bombings had come to soften up ISIS positions in the towns around Raqqa as hundreds of US forces take their positions in its periphery. The US forces—and their allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces—have sought to seize a major dam on the Euphrates River at the town of Tabqah. This dam is essential to the water supply for Raqqa. The battle over Tabqah, one of the last remaining conduits into and out of Raqqa, will be essential before the US and its allies turns its firepower against ISIS’s “capital.”
On 22 March 2017, hours before Khalid Masood conducted his terror attack in London, US aircraft bombed the school. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, says that thirty-three civilians died in this bombing run. Hamoud Almousa of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently says that the number might be as high as 101 civilians. The day before, on 21 March, US aircraft bombed the town of Tabqah, hitting the Maysaloon school, a field hospital and homes on al-Synaa street—killing twenty civilians. A week before, US aircraft bombed the town of al-Jineh (near Aleppo), hitting a mosque and killing forty-six civilians. Col. John Thomas of the US Central Command said that the US aircraft did not hit a mosque. “We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike,” he said. This statement always suggests that the Central Command knows that it hit civilians, but does not want to make a direct statement one way or another.
AirWars, a non-profit group that maintains a record of casualties from aerial bombardment, says that in March alone there have been over a thousand civilian non-combatant deaths in Iraq and Syria as a result of what it calls “Coalition actions”—with the US aircraft inflicting the bulk of the casualties. This considerable spike has led AirWars to suspend its investigation of Russian-inflicted casualties (fifty in March) and to divert its staff to look at those inflicted by the Coalition aircraft alone.
The Western media focused on the actions of Khalid Masood and remained silent on these deaths. Brief notes of this or that massacre appeared, but without the focus and intensity of the kind of coverage given to the attack by Masood. No front page story with a large picture, no “Breaking News” coverage on television with correspondents insisting that spokesperson for US Central Command give them more than pabulum. It is as if we live in two alternative universes—one, where terror confounds the population with moral indignation and two, where large deaths from jet fighters are treated as the necessary side-effects of war. One is terrorism; the other is an accident.
It does not feel accidental to the people of al-Mansoura or al-Jineh.
I have spent decades thinking about the asymmetry of reactions to these sorts of incidents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I have written about them, indignation as the mood of these essays. But this is spitting into the wind. It is futile on Facebook, for instance, to make the suggestion that the 2016 Karrada bombings in Baghdad (Iraq), which killed over 300 people, should have driven people to turn their profile pictures into Iraqi flags (as the world had done after the 2015 Paris attacks, when 137 people were killed). “Je Suis Charlie” is easy to write, but not #AmiAvijit. Eyes roll when these gestures are urged, whether through bewilderment at their meaning or exhaustion at their sanctimoniousness. After all, the eye-roll suggests, how could one compare a satirical French magazine with obscure Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death? It takes an immense act of will to push editors to run stories on tragedies that seem distant even from the places where they occur. All eyes focus on the latest attack in Molenbeek, but few turn with the same intensity to look at the tragedies in Beirut or in Cairo.
Over the years I have settled on some binaries that operate to blind thinking about violence in the world. Our days have become hallucinations, with violence always at the edge of consciousness. But violence is understood through these binaries in ways that befuddle those who believe in a universal humanity, those who believe—in concrete terms—that people in Kabul deserve empathy and sympathy as much as people in Berlin. In fact, the scale of the violence in Kabul is so much greater than in Berlin that you would imagine greater sympathy for those in far more distress. But actually the logic of these binaries moves consciousness in the opposite direction.
Eastern Malevolence / Western Benevolence
There is standard belief amongst reporters—for example—that Western actions are motivated by the highest values and are therefore benevolent. The loftiest values of our time—democracy and human rights—are sequestered inside the concept of the West. The East—bedraggled—is treated as a place without these values. It is bereft, a bad student. There is what Aimé Césaire calls “shy racism,” for it suggests that Easterners cannot be given the benefit of doubt when they act, or that Westerners could not also be malevolent in their objectives. The way this logic runs it is the Eastern bombing of Syria’s Aleppo, conducted by the Oriental despot Bashar al-Asad, that is inhumane, while it is the Western bombing of Iraq’s Mosul (250 to 370 civilians killed in the first week of March) that is humane. It would pierce the armor of Western self-regard to admit that its armed forces could—without sentiment of care—bomb mosques and schoolhouses.
What about Hitler? Is he not the epitome of Western malevolence? Hitler is the madman, much as white terrorists in the West are madmen. They do not define the society or the culture. No one asks after their attacks for Christianity to answer for their crimes or for Western Civilization to stand condemned. They are not compared to Hitler. The modern analogues of Hitler are always to be found in the East—Saddam, Bashar, Kim Jong-un—but not in the West.
It took some guts for the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor to remark that “Churchill was no better than Hitler” —a statement that has led to the routine objections from the British political class. US President Donald Trump insisted on returning his bust to the Oval Office, where he showed it with great aplomb to the UK Prime Minister Theresa May (she gave him a copy of a Churchill speech during her visit). It does not bother either Trump or May that Churchill was a racist, who believed that the “Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” Cliches are mobilized to defend him: he was a man of his time, when such ideas were commonplace. But such ideas were being vigorously challenged from the colonies and from within Britain. Hitler’s Endlösung was not of a different quality from Churchill’s Bengal Famine of 1943. Tharoor’s comparison of Churchill to Hitler will not stick. It will eventually be swept away. Far easier to see Hitler in Bashar al-Assad or in Kim Jong-un than in Churchill or George W. Bush. Hitler was Europe’s aberration, not—as Césaire pointed out—the logical culmination of colonial brutality.
State Legality / Non-State Illegality
States do not normally act outside the confines of international law. If they do, then it is in error. Or there are some states that are not proper states, but “rogue states” that do not behave according to the principles of civilization. Normal states, not rogue states, the logic of shy racism goes, never intentionally violate the laws of war and behave in a barbaric way. Their acts of murder are always unintentional because it would be too costly for them to intentionally murder civilians.
When the United Nations Human Rights Council wanted to investigate NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya, based on UN Security Council resolution 1973, its Brussels headquarters stalled. NATO’s legal adviser, Peter Olson, wrote to the United Nations saying that NATO deserved immunity. “We would be concerned if NATO incidents were included in the commission’s report as on par with those which the commission may ultimately conclude did violate law or constitute crimes,” Olson wrote. What NATO would like, he concluded, was for the UN commission to “clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.” In other words, without any investigation, the UN Human Rights Council should give NATO a certificate of high moral character.
If civilians are killed, then it is either entirely accidental or it is because the enemy has used them as human shields. Strange illogical statements emerge from the power centers of the West to befuddle criticism. US President Obama’s drone strike policy allowed his operators to strike at crowds of people who looked like enemies (the “signature strike”). If, later, the intelligence services determined that some of them were not indeed enemies then those civilians would be ‘posthumously exonerated’. But they would—of course—be dead, murdered by a state actor that is not seen to be rogue and that sees itself as abiding by international law.
Rogue states and rogue non-state actors do not abide by the protocols of the laws of war, and therefore they are the only ones who violate them intentionally. The violence of the rogue state and the rogue non-state actor is always worse than that of those who are deemed to be legitimate states and legitimate non-state actors. The nuclear weapons of India, Israel and Pakistan are acceptable, but Iran’s nuclear energy program is a grave threat to humanity. A ‘knife attack’ by a Palestinian child is horrendous and it is taken to define not only the Palestinian liberation movement, but Palestinian culture in general. The bombing of four young Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach is accidental and not definitive of either Israeli state action or of Israeli culture. This asymmetry of evaluation is fundamental to the ruling ideas of our time.
Violence to Heal / Violence to Hurt
When the US military conducted its massive bombing run against Iraq in March 2003 under the name “Shock and Awe,” it was considered to be in the service of human rights and security. But the language used by its architects was genocidal. Harlan K. Uliman, who developed the theory of “Shock and Awe,” said in 2003, “You take the city down. You get rid of their power, water. In two, three, four, five days, they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted.” A Pentagon official said of the actual bombing runs, “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad. The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.” Hundreds of cruise missiles rained on Baghdad. Eventually, after a decade of war and occupation, the violence of the war would claim at least a million Iraqi lives.
But yet, the language to define the war is muted. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said of the war that “from the [UN] charter point of view, it was illegal.” This should mean that US President George W. Bush and his coterie are war criminals. But his successor, US President Barack Obama refused to open an investigation and the world followed suit. Bush’s language about bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq became the anthem. If a million people died, so be it. It was all to heal Iraq, to free Iraq.
The violence of the Iraqi insurgency, on the other hand, was immediately considered to be violence intended to hurt, to create problems not only for the United States, but for Iraq itself. The violence of the West is prophylactic, while the violence of the East is destructive.
Precious Life / Disposable Life
When news broke of the failed US raid on the village of al-Jineh (Yemen), the Western media concentrated on the death of Ryan Owens who was a Seal Team 6 member. There was a great deal of discussion on his death and little mention of the civilians who were killed by Owens’ comrades in that raid. If they were mentioned it was as a number: twenty-eight or thirty. There were no names in the stories, no way to make these people into human beings. Nothing about Mohammad Khaled Orabi (age 14), Hasan Omar Orabi (age 10), Ahmad Nouri Issa (age 23), Mustapha Nashat Said al-Sheikh (age 23), Ali Mustapha (age 17), Abd al Rahman Hasim (age 17), and not even Nawar al-Awlaki (age 8) whose father and brother had been killed in earlier raids. No mention of the names of the forty-two Somali refugees gunned down by a Saudi helicopter gunship, a weapons system provided by the United States. To offer these names would be to give these people humanity.
When twenty thousand or more people died because an US-owned factory exploded in Bhopal, Michael Utidjian, medical director of American Cyanamid said in 1984, it is sad but needs to be seen in context. What is that context? Indians do not have the “North American philosophy of the importance of human life.” They do not mind when people die, it seems. They have a different standard of humanity. Their lives are disposable. They are not precious. Thirty-three dead here, forty-two dead there. Sad yes, but not tragic. Tragedy is only possible if one has the “North American philosophy of the importance of human life.”
Legible Narrative / Illegible Narrative
It would be an illogical narrative to suggest that Western generals want to raze cities. That is not their motivation. When the US flattened Fallujah (Iraq) in 2004, under the command of then Major General James Mattis of the 1st Marine Division, this was not the intent. That the use of Depleted Uranium led to cancer rates fourteen times higher than in Hiroshima (Japan) after the atom bomb was dropped there was incidental, not deliberative. It is impossible to imagine an American, for instance, being cruel in military strategy. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine a Syrian general, such as General Issam Zahreddine, being systematically vicious. It is not possible to see both as ferocious. It would be an illegible narrative if these two stories were set side by side. One is so obviously a better man (Mattis) than the other (Zahreddine). The character of the man of the West always surmounts the character of the man of the East.
Who needs censorship when you have ideology? When anything outside the governing ideology tries to make an appearance it is dismissed as the rants of a conspiracy theorist or as “alt-facts.” Terrorism is terrorism and counter-terrorism is counter-terrorism. To break down the distinctions between them is a scandal against civilization itself. Of course al-Qa‘ida is bad and the US military is good! That is ipso facto, the essence of reality.
None of this is the blame of individual reporters or editors or indeed of individual readers of the press reportage. It is not something restricted to the West, for these attitudes are shared widely around the world. This is not a consequence of the impact of CNN or of BBC, but of much earlier, much deeper attitudes with deep roots from colonial times. It was an old colonial view that the violence of the imperial armies must have some Enlightenment logic behind them, whereas those of the darker world came motivated by messianism, tribalism, millenarianism or other illogical views of older times.
When in the 1950s the British violently crushed the aspirations of the Kenyans, sending thousands to concentration camps and killing—as the historian Caroline Elkins argues – a hundred thousand people, this was done for rational reasons. The Empire had to be protected. The uprising of the Mau Mau, which they were countering in Kenya, could not be allowed to succeed. Indeed, it could not succeed—the British suggested—because it was merely the eruption of older African instincts. Even the name of the group powerfully allowed the British to paint their insurgency in diabolical colors. The rebels called their outfit the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The use of the words ‘land’ and ‘freedom’ suggested a link to the national liberation movements of that decolonization era. They also suggested a rational political platform, to distribute land to the colonized population in a free Kenya. The British insisted on calling them the Mau Mau—the name carrying for a British audience the full flavor of traditional Africa in its sound, the rhythm of a drum, the call from deep in the forest, the sly racism of the denial of the more traditional national liberation force. In the name Mau Mau appeared the forest and in it would dissolve the accusations of concentration camps and mass killings. It was not the British that did those killings, but the Mau Mau. Always the Mau Mau, never Lord Evelyn Baring who wrote that the British had to inflict “violent shock” against the Kenyans or else the British Empire would be defeated in Kenya.
From Lord Baring’s Violent Shock to George W. Bush’s Shock and Awe: this cannot be terrorism. It is the business of rational states. Terrorism is what the others do. Always.
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Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.