A nation of scared sheep

Why don't Americans care that Bush may have lied to them about Iraq? The answer lies deep in our reptilian brains.

By Louise Witt
Published July 9, 2003 10:09PM (EDT)

The deep, almost spiritual conflict between honesty and lying is ingrained in our national psyche. Who doesn't remember as a schoolchild hearing the tale about George Washington father's discovering the young boy next to a felled cherry tree? When asked who had cut the tree, George is said to have replied, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." As it turns out, that story was a lie concocted by an early 19th century biographer to embellish Washington's rather staid character.

But the story illustrates Americans' paradoxical approach to lies. Certainly most humans hold complicated and deep-seated views on deceit and candor; Americans, however, seem to have an especially bipolar one. At times, they assume a puritanical, absolutist stance on telling falsehoods: It is always bad. Other times, they're far more lenient: It's acceptable. This conflict is evident today when we look at how Americans have reacted to the fact that the Bush administration hyped, and perhaps in part fabricated, its case for invading Iraq, and that it grossly distorted who would benefit from its massive tax cuts. Americans put a premium on honesty and forthrightness, but they appear willing to forgive Bush's exaggerations and hype and the convoluted excuses his administration has offered in the aftermath of war. At one point -- in response to those who questioned the administration's assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- Bush accused his critics of indulging in "revisionist history."

It's ironic that this is the very same populace that a few years ago was glued to its TV sets as Congress impeached then-President Bill Clinton for fibbing about his sexual dalliances with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was vilified, even though his lie was one many men caught in a similar position wouldn't have thought twice about committing. (In fact, some of his most vituperative opponents, including Newt Gingrich, hid their own sexual affairs.) Eventually, Americans wearied of the drawn-out impeachment process, and the Senate acquitted Clinton. Still, many Americans thought -- and still think -- that his lie undermined the integrity of the presidency. A more recent example is Martha Stewart. Many Americans believe Stewart should be punished for allegedly lying about the sale of roughly $240,000 in ImClone stock.

Why is it that Americans have given Bush a pass on his misleading and trumped-up evidence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, when they pilloried Clinton and Stewart for far less devastating transgressions? The answer may be simple: It's human nature. We're hard-wired to forgive some lies -- and liars -- more than others.

"People don't focus as much on the sin as on the sinner," says Robert P. Lawry, a professor of law and the director of the Center for Professional Ethics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, in Cleveland. "Bush's popularity explains the shrugging of the shoulders. An awful lot of people seem to have a visceral, negative reaction to Martha Stewart; they don't like her. They like Bush, so they forgive him. It has nothing to do with the lie. Going to war is much more problematic a lie than one that nets you a small gain, relatively speaking, in the stock market. People are not paying attention to the implications and importance of the lie."

Lawry surmises people base their likes and dislikes on fairly superficial assessments: They see Martha as an uppity bitch and George W. as a regular guy. Yet, there are deeper, more complicated reasons why Americans are forgiving Bush -- and it has nothing to do with his magnetic personality and far more with the times we live in.

We're scared.

Since 9/11, Americans have been living in a state of fear and anxiety comparable to the Cold War in the '50s and early '60s, or to the World War II era. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took more than 3,000 lives, making it the deadliest foreign attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor. Experts who study deceit in all of its forms and degrees contend that it therefore makes perfect sense that Americans are willing to accept and forgive, though not necessarily believe, Bush's statements, even if those were intentionally or otherwise misleading. Humans are more or less genetically programmed to accept falsehoods that comfort them during periods of extreme stress. Call it the fear factor: Being able to rally around a strong leader -- and the flag -- is reassuring to many Americans.

"An audience is softened up to believe information when they feel threatened or when they are aroused by anger or fear," says Carolyn Keating, a professor of psychology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. "Two things happen when we are under threat: We focus on peripheral, superficial clues and we don't follow complex logic -- only what we feel."

Consider the now famous suggestion made by President Bush in his January State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to buy "significant quantities" of uranium from an unnamed African country, widely assumed to be Niger, for use in nuclear weapons. In the days before the war started, the documents on which the allegation was based were debunked as forgeries by United Nations weapons inspectors. Top administration officials insisted as recently as last month that they were not aware of the forgeries at the time of Bush's speech. But then, on Sunday, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV wrote in the New York Times that the CIA sent him to Niger in 2002 to assess the validity of the alleged uranium sale. Wilson wrote that he'd quickly determined the reports were false and that his findings were forwarded to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Finally, on Monday, the White House admitted the president relied on inaccurate, incomplete information for that crucial passage of his State of the Union address.

It is among the clearest evidence to date that the administration ignored critical information that didn't support its war cause and that it thereby misled the American people. But what Americans feel right now, according to psychologists and other experts, is that they want to support Bush whether he's right or wrong.

Of course, it remains possible that the administration received bad information from the intelligence agencies. And, too, the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or the materials and means to produce them extended far beyond the White House to many Western intelligence agencies and to past and current members of the United Nations weapons inspections team.

Or perhaps Americans were less concerned about WMD than about other justifications for war. Saddam was well known as a megalomaniacal dictator who gassed his own people, assassinated and tortured his political opponents, and waged war against neighboring Iran and Kuwait. Influential Times columnist Thomas Friedman summed up this the-ends-justify-the-means argument in an April piece: "Whether you were for or against this war, whether you preferred that the war be done with the United Nations' approval or without it, you have to feel good that right has triumphed over wrong. America did the right thing here."

Friedman's reasoning might go a long way to explaining why, despite grumblings from a few Democrats, there hasn't been public outrage over the fact that the United States' preemptive attack on another country may have been based on errant or manipulated intelligence. In mid-June, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that almost a third of the respondents didn't expect the United States to find WMD in Iraq. However, a poll in September 2002 showed that a large majority of Americans supported the Iraq war because they believed administration contentions that Saddam's regime had biological or chemical weapons, was developing nuclear weapons, and had harbored terrorists. At the time, Americans thought the war was justified because of Saddam's threatening weapon arsenal.

More than two months after U.S. Marines took control of Baghdad, no WMD have been located. Sure, a couple of tractor-trailers, stripped bare by looters, have been found, but even the State Department's intelligence division isn't sure those are the same mobile bioweapon factories that Secretary of State Colin Powell warned of when he spoke before the United Nations in February. The Iraqi nuclear arsenal? Parts of equipment that could be used to enrich uranium were found buried in a scientist's garden. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that the few pieces don't show that Saddam had resumed his nuclear weapons program.

That may be why Americans are willing to overlook Bush's statements about the WMD and instead accept that the war was necessary to topple a murderous, tyrannical dictator. "There's an odd sense that maybe they [the Bush administration officials] lied to us, but we still did the right thing, so it doesn't matter," says Evelin Sullivan, the author of "The Concise Book of Lying" and a lecturer at Stanford University.

It's not as though Americans don't take lying seriously. They do. According to a Gallup poll conducted in early June and released on June 24, a majority didn't think the federal government unfairly targeted Martha Stewart for allegedly selling ImClone stock on an inside tip. Her crime? Fibbing. Federal prosecutors charged Stewart with lying about her actions to federal investigators and her shareholders -- not insider trading. Only 35 percent of Americans believe Stewart is being unfairly singled out because she is a successful woman. Most didn't buy Stewart's lawyers' arguments -- presented on her Web site -- that the Department of Justice is attempting to divert attention away from Enron and WorldCom.

For those who may not be up on the Enron saga, Ken Lay, the former CEO of the energy company and a Bush political supporter, hasn't been indicted for his role in the financial scandal even though he publicly assured investors, employees and the press that his company was healthy only months before it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2001.

And Americans' contradictory views on deceit have nothing to with the implications or relevance of the false statements in question. Hundreds of American and British soldiers have been killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, along with several thousand Iraqi civilians and soldiers. More are being killed each week. An untold number have been either injured or maimed. And U.S. involvement in that country is not over. Establishing order and rebuilding the infrastructure during the occupation will cost billions of dollars and more American lives. The consequences of Stewart's mendacity, in comparison, seem, inconsequential.

Why, then, does Bush get a pass? The answer is that humans are hard-wired to believe their leaders, especially during times of anxiety and fear. Psychological studies show people are apt to identify with those who make them feel more powerful, says Keating, who studies charisma and leadership. In that sense, we're less likely to criticize a leader if it would make us feel worse about ourselves at a time when we already feel vulnerable. If you doubt Americans feel insecure, consider the duct tape fiasco earlier this year, when the new Department of Homeland Security advised citizens to stock tape and plastic sheeting to seal their homes in case of biological or chemical attacks.

In her studies, Keating found that people tended to describe themselves in positive terms after seeing images of Bush. Shortly after he took office in 2001, she showed participants in an experiment computer screens that flashed subliminal pictures of him. Later, she showed them screens that flashed subliminal pictures of an anonymous New Jersey pig farmer. Even though the participants weren't conscious of seeing either portrait, they were more apt to describe themselves in positive terms -- powerful, compassionate, and strong --after seeing Bush's face. This was even truer a couple of months after the al-Qaida attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

After the September strikes, Bush took an aggressive stance against terrorists. At one point, he even invoked a line reminiscent of the Old West, saying the United States wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Bush also said that the largely Christian U.S. would wage a "crusade" against the Muslim terrorists. After the attacks, numerous news articles and TV commentaries extolled Bush's newfound leadership abilities. So it wasn't surprising to Keating that test participants thought of themselves in more positive terms after 9/11. Bush was being presented as a virile leader. "In the face of a threat," she says, "we are particularly susceptible to falling under the influence of powerful leaders."

When we're stressed, we also block out more complex thoughts and instead focus on easily assimilated information. It's as though our cognitive reasoning abilities fall asleep and our emotions take over. "Studies show that during those times they are more likely to process information that they have received on a very superficial level," Keating says. Not only are we more apt to support our leaders, then, but we're also not really discerning what we're being told.

The best evidence that the public doesn't make rational judgments during troubled periods is its acceptance of the administration's implication of a link between al-Qaida and Saddam. Though Bush administration officials never provided concrete evidence Saddam was behind the 9/11, they mentioned the two in the same breath often enough for most Americans to believe that there was a legitimate connection. It's almost as though it was a subliminal message -- and if it was, it worked. In a February CNN-Time poll, 76 percent of those surveyed felt Saddam provided aid to al-Qaida and 72 percent thought he was "personally involved" in the September attacks. This misconception served to bolster Bush's contention that Saddam was an immediate threat to the United States. At the end of June, a U.N. group charged with monitoring al-Qaida reported that so far it hadn't found evidence connecting the terrorist group to Saddam's regime.

The tactic of creating a menace to rally the populace around a cause isn't new. "This is the oldest trick in the book for politicians," Keating says, "even if they don't know how it works."

When Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist who interviewed the Nuremberg prisoners, talked to Hermann Goering, the former leader of the Third Reich's Luftwaffe, Goering volunteered that it was relatively easy to persuade a populace to go to war. As quoted in Gilbert's book "Nuremberg Diary," Goering said: "It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship."

Gilbert disagreed with Goering's analysis. "There is one difference," he answered. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars." But Goering held his ground: "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Which may explain why Americans overwhelmingly supported the Iraq war, even though most of the rest of the world was willing to let the U.N. inspectors ferret out any weapons of mass destruction. But now that the war is over and our fear is, presumably, eased, why do we still believe Bush? Once again, it's our human nature.

Homo sapiens are built to obstinately hold on to their beliefs, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Which means Americans who believed Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks and posed a threat to the world with his WMD will sift through all the information being presented to them and choose to heed only that which confirms their preexisting point of view. They will chose to believe administration speculations that Saddam may have moved his deadly arsenal to Syria before the war or perhaps hid it in obscure places around the country. (That may indeed be the case, but, so far, there's no evidence to support those theories.) This is consistent with dissonance theory, says Douglas Raybeck, a professor of anthropology at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

"If we supported the war initially, then we are invested in that decision," Raybeck says. "If you encounter information showing that the reasons for the war were not well founded, or were exaggerated, you have two choices: the war was indeed worthwhile, or we were took. We either acted wisely or were damned fools." And few, understandably, want to think of themselves as fools.

A similar, if less glaring, example of denial took place over the Vietnam War. Americans were loath to condemn the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, even after it become known that President Lyndon Johnson had trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. As it turned out, the "unprovoked attack" on a U.S. destroyer on a "routine patrol" was a lie the Johnson administration used to ramp up military involvement in that Southeast Asian conflict. The war didn't end until almost a decade and 50,000 American deaths later. Of course, the administration advanced many other Cold War arguments for the war, but nonetheless the episode shows that facts cannot always dissuade people from their original beliefs.

As the world becomes more complex and frightening, cognitive dissonance becomes even more prevalent, Raybeck says. People filter out more and more information in order to hold on to their beliefs. "Dissonance theory appears part of general human psychology," he says, "but cultures, such as our own, that place a premium on individuality, are particularly subject to its influence."

This trend in the United States toward less thoughtful and less objective reasoning will be hard to reverse -- with ominous consequences for our democracy. Human behavior reinforces habits. Once people adjust their behavior to accommodate subtle deception or blatant lying from their leaders, it will be difficult for them to become more discerning or skeptical in the future, Raybeck says. It's similar to when someone's finger hurts when he bends it. If he avoids moving his finger, eventually the muscle will atrophy and he may lose all movement. Just as the body makes adjustments, so does the mind. Which may also explain why Americans didn't seem to care that the Bush administration lied, or at the very least egregiously distorted the truth, when it declared that the new $350 billion tax cuts would benefit all.

"To the extent that American people abandon a critical and observant stance toward those in power," Raybeck says, "it is more difficult to reverse this trend, especially since those in power will, or can, use their leverage to inhibit a change. One can anticipate more sound bites and 30-second political ads designed to associate the power holder with important symbols, but not a substantive treatment of issues."

Sullivan, author of "The Concise Book of Lying," believes the media may play a large role in determining which lies Americans care about and which ones they don't. Perhaps, she surmises, we're more concerned with Stewart's coverup because that is the story presented to us day after day in newspapers, magazines and TV shows. Conversely, she says, we may not be as concerned about Bush's prevarication, because the media hasn't played it up. "I find that alarming," Sullivan says. "If you package something right, you can get away with anything ... If this administration has figured that out, then they can do anything. That strikes me as sinister."

The British press, in fact, is giving Prime Minister Tony Blair a much harder time about the coalition's assertion that Saddam had WMD.

Michael Wolff, in his column in the June 30 issue of New York magazine, theorizes that the media may even have aided the administration in its packaging of the war. When coalition forces were in Iraq, U.S. media giants were gunning for relaxed FCC rules, so they had an incentive to give the Bush administration glowing, heroic coverage of the Iraq war.

Maybe the bigger question for American democracy is: Did the Bush administration intentionally use our evolutionary weakness against us? Did it use orange alerts, duct tape and scary tales of WMDs to create an atmosphere in which Americans would be so frightened and feel so vulnerable that they would believe almost anything they were told and ignore all conflicting evidence?

Perhaps, though, our inbred desire for truth and honesty will eventually prevail. If history is any indication, our denial may weaken as evidence and more evidence surfaces that the Bush administration may not have been as truthful with us as we once thought. It took the White House tapes to bring down Nixon after Watergate. Unfortunately, it took thousands and thousands of Americans lives before the United States left Vietnam.

A Fox News opinion poll conducted on June 30 and July 1 shows that 60 percent of the respondents approved of how Bush is handling Iraq, and 30 percent disapproved. That's a sharp decline from the time of Baghdad's fall, when 75 percent approved and 19 percent disapproved.

But Americans, like all other humans, are susceptible to fooling themselves. "We are highly self-deceptive as a species," Keating says. "Self-deception allows you to get behind the wheel of a car after an accident, or live at the foot of an active volcano. That's how human beings deal with stress that they can't control."

Louise Witt

Louise Witt is a writer who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Martha Stewart Middle East Taxes