Bioethics Blogs

Dehumanization and terrorism

Most people would agree that terrorism is no good. The word itself is rich with moralized connotations. It is true that some have argued that terrorism might sometimes be justified, but in popular discourse, terrorism is typically deemed obviously horrible.

What are the consequences of branding some action an act of terrorism, or of branding some group a terrorist group? Note, in connection with this question, the ratcheting up of rhetoric surrounding ‘cyberterrorism,’ with many government officials now listing it as a major ongoing threat (e.g., here and here).

A recent study by Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely of the Michigan Institute of Technology found that describing a group of people as ‘terrorist’ had far-reaching results. In general, participants in their study were less willing to “understand the group’s grievances,” less willing to “negotiate with the group.” Further, participants in their study found violence directed towards a group described as terrorist more permissible, and perceived such a group as less rational when compared to a group not described as terrorist.

One interesting feature of this behavioural profile is its similarity to behavioural profiles associated with dehumanization. It is sadly quite easy to implicitly characterize other people as less than human, and there is evidence that doing so leads to anti-social behaviour, and can lead to justification of wrongdoing towards the dehumanized (for a recent review of dehumanization literature, see here). It might be that categorizing a group as ‘terrorist’ engages the dehumanization process known to negatively influence social perception of out-group members.

One might wonder why this matters.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.