Ingrained and unquestioned beliefs lead us to do stupid and self-destructive things all the time, but our minds are frequently so strongly on auto-pilot that we don’t even realize the contradictions. That’s what I’m seeing from many people in their reactions to the assassination of Anwar al-Aulaqi.
Are you familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance? It’s an idea in psychology that says when we’re confronted with two contradictory pieces of information or beliefs, our minds experience some discomfort, so the mind is forced to ignore one or the other of the contradictory pieces — in order to make the psychological pain go away. (That’s an oversimplification, but it’s good enough for our purposes.)
After I wrote Saturday about the case of al-Aulaqi, I experienced some of that cognitive dissonance from one of my Facebook friends. Or, rather, someone who was a Facebook friend until she got so angry about my view that she defriended me, but not before demonstrating the bizarre nature of contradictory thinking about al-Aulaqi and blind support of government on certain subjects. Her initial exposition of her position started with simply, “Whatever….He was a traitor!!”
I pointed out to her that the man was accused of crimes by the U.S. government, but were those accusations adequate grounds for the government to become prosecutor, judge and jury in passing down a sentence of death? I asked her whether the government should use the same standard for others accused of crimes. She refused to answer the question — which was the only question on the table — and she continued to make an issue of what the guy had said. She quoted al-Aulaqi’s words which she indicated showed that he deserved to be killed:
“To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters? I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad (holy struggle) against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim.”
To which I asked, “And your point is that because he believes that, he should be killed? Which other beliefs do you also believe qualify for the death penalty with no trial?” Again, she wouldn’t answer the question, instead choosing to say, “HOW CAN YOU DEFEND HIM…” She honestly seemed confused about the difference between defending a man’s actions and defending the rule of law.
I asked her why she trusted government to make these sorts of life and death decisions with no checks. She claimed that she doesn’t trust the government:
“I dont’ trust ANYONE in the government. and I bet I am on their s***list with all my posts…I wouldn’t put it past them to take me out and half of my friends..BUT in context of the POS the fact is and not alledged is this man is a traitor…it is on tape for the world to view…”
So she doesn’t trust the government, but she does trust government to kill people without trials. Does this make sense? My question to her: “So you don’t trust the government, but you believe the people you don’t trust when they tell you what they ACCUSE him of doing — because of the particular charge. Are you familiar with cognitive dissonance?”
And that’s what made me start thinking about the contradictions in people’s thinking on this subject. The conservatives (and even a few libertarians) who are willing to support this assassination almost universally say they don’t trust government in general (and don’t trust the Obama administration in particular), but they do trust this government to kill a U.S. citizen without trial or oversight. That’s a clear contradiction, but the people taking this position just can’t see it.
When the brain is given two contradictory things, it has to believe one or the other — and discard the one that’s not convenient to accept. In this case, the people taking this position feel the need to believe that it’s OK to kill this particular bad guy. In order to believe that, they have to ignore what they also believe about not trusting government. They have to ignore what their position means about the government being able to do the same thing to them. And they have to angrily dismiss anyone who points out the contradictions of their position.
I don’t defend al-Aulaqi. He clearly wanted to recruit other Americans to oppose the U.S. government, and he clearly believed that it was moral and acceptable to encourage others to use violence to do that. But there are many of us who oppose what the U.S. government is doing. At what point does the U.S. government start lumping everybody together who opposes it? At what point does it start jailing people as traitors for opposing the immoral things it’s doing?
If you actively oppose the things the U.S. government is doing around the world, but you support the assassination of al-Aulaqi, you’re suggesting that it might be acceptable for government to punish you for your beliefs and your words — without a trial. Even if you think al-Aulaqi was a bad guy — as I do — it’s shortsighted to support giving sanction to government to kill him without charges and without trial.
I don’t support or defend al-Aulaqi, but I do support and defend the rule of law. The U.S. government made it clear that it has no respect for the rule of law. The people supporting this assassination are doing the same thing.
Note: If you’d like to know more about why the human mind fools itself in this way — disregarding contradictions that are painful to see — I strongly recommend that you read, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.” It might change the way you look at things you’ve done and things that people you love (or hate) have done.