Ask the Experts: What Does Bin Laden's Death Mean to Us and Society?

It all depends on your social identity--how you relate as an individual to different groups
osama bin laden, mind, brain, death

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The death of Osama bin Laden elicited many different types of responses and feelings—triumph, sorrow and anger among them. Each of us, as individuals, is capable of having conflicting feelings about the death of the al Qaeda leader, depending on how we happen to see ourselves at any given moment—as parents, spouses, workers, Americans, and so forth. The variety of our responses reveals the subtle and powerful forces surrounding social identity: how we relate to different groups and roles, which is changeable and influenced by circumstances. To explore these social mechanisms, Scientific American contacted S. Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter in England, and Stephen D. Reicher of University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who collaborate on studies of group dynamics. Their book, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, written with Michael J. Platow of the Australian National University (Psychology Press, 2010), describes how successful leaders cultivate an understanding of "us" as a group and then find the best way to represent that understanding. Haslam and Reicher are advisers for Scientific American Mind.

When the news of Osama bin Laden's death was announced, some reacted by cheering on the White House lawn. Others reflected on how losing a life does not bring back the people who died at the World Trade Center. What is going on?

Social representations theorists have shown how we make sense of novel events in two ways. First, we find a way to make the abstract concrete and, second, we anchor the new and unfamiliar to something old and well understood. The attack on September 11 was a new and shocking event, which rocked old certainties about the world in general and American invulnerability in particular. It became understood in the West in terms of an Islamic terrorist threat against civilization as best represented by the U.S. Terror, an abstract concept, was made concrete by putting the face of Osama bin Laden on it. And the war against Osama was anchored in our understandings of the past, familiar war against Hitler. Once bin Laden was killed, those who identify strongly as Americans experienced a clear sense that "we" have won, that "we" have avenged the humiliation wrought upon "us," that "we" have reasserted "our" ascendancy.

But people have many group identities and hence many ways of relating to an event. We are not only "Americans," we are also parents, spouses and friends. So we don't only think of the death of bin Laden in terms of a national victory (and hence jubilation), we also think, as parents or as spouses, of those who will be remembering the loss of a child, a husband or a wife in 9/11—and therefore our sense of jubilation will by tempered by sadness. In other words, it isn't as simple as saying some crowed and some cried when they heard the news. The same person may react in both ways or even experience great ambivalence as his or her different identities become salient.

Bin Laden was discovered in Pakistan. Surely he must have had the aid and assistance of many. What are the mechanisms behind that kind of group reaction?

It is well accepted that those who oppose the state in any way can only operate where there is at least tacit social support in the community. Their activities will always be known by some and hence they have to be confident that these people, even if they don't give active support, at least don't inform on them. This is true if one is talking of ordinary criminality, it is true if one is talking of resistance to an oppressive state (and explains in part, for instance, the different survival rates of Jews in different countries during World War II), and it is certainly true in the case of contemporary terrorism.

There are at least three mechanisms that secure this type of support. The first is simple fear of retaliation: if you tell, you and your family will suffer. This effect certainly happens, but it is the least effective of mechanisms because it only works as long as the threat is credible and it leads to the build-up of increasing resentment from the community over time. In time, fear almost always fails.

The second mechanism involves genuine support based on the fact that those who oppose the state are "one of us" or even that they represent "our" struggle against an oppressor. As we have explained in our recent book The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, these are the conditions under which people come to be regarded as leaders and genuinely influence what we think and do. This mechanism is far more effective because it means that people do not feel inclined to inform even if they could do so with impunity.

A third mechanism sits between these first two and probably best represents the feeling in Pakistan, judging from Twitter, blogs and our own discussions with Pakistanis. That is, people may not like or identify with those who fight the state, but they don't like the state either. Hence they might not actively support the former but it is counter-normative to help the latter by informing. In Pakistan, many people hate bin Laden and various other insurgent elements. But they also see America as an enemy and hence are disinclined to aid U.S. forces.

The great danger is that too simplistic a view of matters (for example, coming to think that "those who are not with us are against us") leads this stance to be misunderstood as a pro al Qaeda position. Clearly, this misunderstanding may lead people in the West to treat Pakistanis as the enemy. And this treatment, in turn, may gradually lead Pakistanis to see those who fight the Americans as their kind of people. In this way, a Manichean view of the world can end up turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby our third mechanism is transformed into our second. And it can make people in Pakistan view the ultra-radicals that they once shunned as their leaders.

Bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda is not. What might be the terrorists' reaction? Are there steps the U.S. or other countries can take to reduce the likelihood of retaliation?

Al Qaeda's power amongst those who felt disempowered and even humiliated by U.S. power was the fact that it could strike back at the "enemy" and make "them" suffer as "we" suffered. In a way, the dynamics of humiliation and revenge are working on both sides. If al Qaeda wishes to retain its mobilizing power, then it needs to demonstrate its ability to strike. Undoubtedly, then, in the short term, there will be a desire to strike (although whether the organizational capacity exists is quite another question).

Equally, in the short term, the question of whether al Qaeda will succeed or not is a security question. But in the longer term, the issue is social and political and comes down to understanding the conditions that have allowed al Qaeda and other insurgencies to thrive.

Recent work by Russell Spears, Rim Saab and their colleagues at the University of Cardiff on violent collective action suggests that this is most likely to occur when people believe that a system is unjust and oppressive but stable (in the sense of being immune to change in the short term). As many analysts have pointed out, the primary focus of bin Laden and many other insurgents is the Arab and Islamic world. They feel that these states (such as Saudi Arabia) are corrupt due to the influence of the U.S. and its allies. This feeling is why, in the absence of an ability to transform these states domestically, they target the power that is supposedly maintaining them.

But once people feel that these states are unstable and that their collective action can transform them into democratic countries under the control of the people, then al Qaeda's violent, conspiratorial and backward-looking approach becomes increasingly irrelevant. The success of democratic mass movements in the so-called "Arab spring" is the nemesis of al Qaeda and its like. So what can other countries do? Support the democratic movements. And what can our countries do? Stop supporting the anti-democratic regimes.

Sohaib Athar live-tweeted about the raid on bin Laden without knowing it, noting the arrival of helicopters and blast sounds. How has social media changed the information landscape?

Certainly it has.

One of the things that is becoming increasingly clear in psychology is that the way we act often has as much—if not more—to do with our sense of what others think as with what we think ourselves. The work of people such as Julie Duck, Debbie Terry and Mike Hogg (the first two at the University of Queensland in Australia, the latter now at Claremont Graduate University in California) shows that we are far more likely to act on an individual belief when we believe that it coincides with a shared social norm. And what the new media (Twitter, Facebook and so on) do is to transform our ability to establish shared views.

This ability is especially important in repressive contexts where alternative forms of communication (putting up posters, handing out leaflets, and so on) can lead to harsh punishment. But it is far harder to clamp down on the virtual world. So, to go back to the previous discussion, social media were critical in spreading dissent in Tunisia and then Egypt. They led people to realize that they were not alone in opposing the regime. They allowed people to plan mass demonstrations, knowing that if they turned up they would be in sufficient number to challenge state repression. They guided the eyes of the world to what was happening so it would be harder from the state to use its repressive apparatus without being held to account.

But, important as the social media were, we should not overstate their importance. They facilitated people gathering together in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and they provided a means whereby the people could grow strong in the embrace of strangers. But ultimately it was the mass gatherings that they led to that drove change; and alone the social media could never be a substitute for this mass gathering.

Do you think that the reported disposal of bin Laden's body at sea, in observance of Muslim tradition, was a well-conceived idea?

Sometimes the same act can have complex or even paradoxical effects by having an impact on multiple processes in different ways at the same time. In their classic work on collective action, social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in Britain, who developed social identity theory in the 1970s, pointed to a number of factors that are critical to the emergence of collective conflict. Two of these are "illegitimacy" (a sense that the system is unjust) and "cognitive alternatives" (a sense that an alternative form of society is possible).  The greater the combination of illegitimacy and cognitive alternatives in a closed society, the more people will challenge the status quo.

In terms of illegitimacy, many Muslim voices are saying that burial at sea is allowed under extreme circumstances but, where possible, bodies should be buried pointing toward Mecca with the head to the right. Hence the disposal of bin Laden's body was an illegitimate act that does not respect Muslim practice.

As for cognitive alternatives, well, as we have argued recently, these have as much to do with the practical ability to organize opposition as with the ability to imagine a different world. Organization is always facilitated by having concrete symbols and sites to organize around and by having sacred relics, which can provide a material focus for a given movement. This effect has clearly been denied by burial at sea.

So, in the end, it is a close call as to whether the mobilizing effect of increased illegitimacy will be outweighed by the demobilizing effect of decreased cognitive alternatives. We suspect that the U.S. is already seen as so illegitimate and that the killing of bin Laden can further be represented as illegitimate in so many ways (for example, desecrating the soil of an Islamic country by the raid) that the mode of burial can't make things much worse. Conversely, some advantage (from the U.S. perspective) is to be gained by denying a site of pilgrimage. On balance, then, the decision probably serves U.S. ends.

Do you think that the burial at sea could help avoid some of the massive protests that followed in Pakistan and elsewhere after actions thought of as disrespectful of the religion, such as the burning of a Koran?

If the burial were seen as a real desecration, then one might expect it to increase protests. But the critiques to this point have been fairly muted and it is unclear whether it will become a major controversy.

It is also unclear whether there have been major protests. In the Pakistani media, there have been reports of demonstrations in Quetta (one of the more conservative religious centers in the country) of some 800 to 1,000 people. That number is really rather small. It does suggest the ambivalence that we referred to above when it comes to bin Laden and al Qaeda.

In all this, however, there is a real danger that we view everything in Pakistan through an Islamic lens and thereby lump things together that are very different. Yes, bin Laden was a Muslim, as are most Pakistanis. But that doesn't mean that most Pakistanis viewed bin Laden as "one of us" and as part of a shared Muslim identity. Many view him as an outsider, as a Saudi, as a terrorist or in terms of still other categories. They view what happened to him not in terms of something done to a Muslim but as the treatment meted out to a mass killer. Once again, in making sense of reactions in Pakistan as well as in the U.S., we must be alert to the multiple identities and multiple lenses through which people view the world, in coming to decide who is "them" and who is "us" and thereby arriving at a sense of what is or is not acceptable.

Do you think that it might spur a counter-reaction in the U.S.? For instance, the reasoning might be: Why should we respect this mass murderer? Will it cause some people to suspect that we never really caught bin Laden? Witness the birther controversy.

Certainly there are already widespread conspiracy theories both in Pakistan and the U.S. Even if people think bin Laden is dead, they are not convinced he was killed in this raid. Burial at sea and the lack of a body could play some part in this, but it is hard to see it as playing a causal role or to imagine that such theories would be seriously dented by producing a photo of the body, a DNA test, or even the body itself. After all, in the end you have to have some trust in those who provide the information in order to be persuaded by it.

In the end, conspiracy theories are rooted in broader representations of the "true processes" by which the world works. They normally see the authorities either as an alien outgroup in themselves, or as the dupes of a hidden outgroup (the Jews, the Freemasons, and so on). And, as we know from the work of Tom Tyler at New York University and others, to the extent that information is presented by outgroups (rather than ingroups) it is far less likely to be trusted. 

Further Reading
Haslam and Reicher also wrote a feature article, "The Psychology of Tyranny," for Scientific American Mind's October 2005 issue and are advisers for Scientific American Mind.

The New Psychology of Leadership
Recent research in psychology points to secrets of effective leadership that radically challenge conventional wisdom
By Stephen D. Reicher, Michael J. Platow and S. Alexander Haslam

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