Blargh Blog

Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Terrorist Schema

I've added Mixing Memory to my blogroll. It's a young blog - born only a month ago (which was a good time for a blog to be born) - and it's a good blog - one of the few that bring the very relevant field of cognitive psychology to the discussion of World Affairs. So go take a look. (Hat tip to Philosophy, et cetera for pointing it out.)

Chris at Mixing Memory has a post on the role played by schemas in memory, in the context of expectations for the debates. What's a schema? If you want an answer without clicking through to Chris's blog, perhaps the easiest way to understand what a schema is comes from this example that he gives:
The gist of the restaurant experience is pretty much the same for similar restaurants, and as a result, we have a restaurant schema for these restaurants that contains the general objects (myself, the server, the cook, etc.) and relations (when to order, when the food arrives, when we're given the check, etc.). When we go into a restaurant, we expect things to happen a certain way (e.g., the server brings our food before giving us the check), based on the schema.

Here's another example: the Islamist terrorist schema. Islamist terrorists are people who are out to kill innocent people for no good reason, they want to get weapons of mass destruction to attack us with, they have a crazy fundamentalist ideology and goals that are vague or unreasonable, they cannot be reasoned with, they've attacked us on 9/11 and they will attack us again if we don't stop them, that we need to fight back because they think we're soft, etc. It's a complex schema, and people usually don't bring up all of the related facts when they talk about terrorism, but a person can bring his whole "Islamist terrorism" schema to bear on a particular case even without the explicit mention of many of the particular facts. As Chris says,
because instances of a concept activate a schema while those instances are being encoded, and because information from those instances is integrated into the schema rather than being remembered individually, when trying to recall the instance, people often mistakenly remember information from the schema that was not present in the instance.

If you understand schemas, it becomes a lot easier to see how the Bush Administration tied Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, 9/11, and Islamist terrorism in the run-up to war. They weren't just trying to create vague associations between Hussein and bin Laden that uninformed, lazy thinkers would fall for - they were trying to associate Iraq with the Islamist terrorism schema. So, yes, they would mention bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same sentence as often as possible. They would refer to the bad things that Saddam has done as "terrorist." They would say that we had to go after Saddam on account of 9/11. They would talk about how his weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists. They would mention Saddam's support for terrorism. They would talk about the terrorist group in Iraq. And so on.

So, it wasn't an accident that half the country believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks, and it wasn't just that some people were gullible and uninformed. They were thinking in the normal way, using schemas, and they heard a lot of things about Saddam Hussein that fit in the Islamist terrorism schema. The pro-war people did an excellent job of setting the terms of the debate, so that people against the war always had to concede that Saddam was a bad guy but people in favor of the war did not have to always concede that Saddam was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many people didn't get enough of the details to know that Ansar al-Islam was in the part of Iraq that Hussein did not control, that Saddam's primary support of terrorism involved giving money to Palestinians, and that the argument for the connection between 9/11 and our war on Iraq was primarily a case of 9/11 reducing the alleged level of justification that we need to go to war against those who might be threats. And then there was the whole muddy issue of WMDs and weapons inspectors, which didn't do much to disconfirm the presumption that Hussein belonged in the Islamist terrorist schema.

Many people didn't get enough of the details or alternative schemas to realize Saddam Hussein did not fit nicely into the Islamist terrorist schema. And the rest, unfortunately, is history.


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