(9/11 seems an appropriate date for a rerun of this post)
Suppose you wanted to create a perfect enemy. An enemy so vile that its evil would be recognized by almost everyone. An enemy that would inspire people to come together in order to ensure its defeat.
To be more specific: suppose you were a screenwriter with the assignment of creating a suitable villain-organization for a major motion picture. The marketing plan for this movie suggests that it will be marketed primarily to a certain demographic and that, hence, your villain-organization should be particularly appalling to members of that demographic. The demographic in question consists of people who are affluent, highly educated (college with at least some postgraduate education), not particularly religious, and who consider themselves politically liberal or “progressive.” The plot of the movie demands that the audience must see the necessity for Americans–of many beliefs, occupations, and social backgrounds–to come together in order to defeat the enemy.
Oh, and one other thing. The year in which you are given this assignment is 1999.
You will clearly want your enemy to share many of the characteristics of the Nazis–disrespect for human life, wanton cruelty, a love of apocalyptic violence. But to make the enemy particularly awful from the standpoint of your target demographic, you will want to emphasize certain aspects of its belief system.
Members of your demographic usually have strong beliefs about women’s rights. So, your enemy must have a particularly disrespectful belief set, and a violent behavior pattern, towards women. Similarly, your demographic is generally favorable toward gay rights…so the enemy must advocate and practice the suppression, torture, and killing of gays. Your demographic is generally nonreligious and often hostile toward religion…so, make sure the enemy includes a large element of religious fanaticism. Members of your demographic talk a lot about “the children”–so make sure your enemy uses children in particularly cruel ways.
Had you created such an enemy for your screenplay in 1999, you would have surely felt justified in assuming that it would achieve its intended reaction with your target demographic.
It didn’t work out that way, though.
The enemy I’ve described is, of course, the one that we currently face in the form of radical Islamic terrorists and their associated rogue states such as Iran. In real life, not in the movies.
But the members of the demographic I specified have been strangely reluctant to engage in wholehearted condemnation of this enemy (observe, for example, the endless excuse-making, for and even glamorization of, Palestinian terrorism), and even more reluctant to join with their fellow Americans for its defeat. Indeed, it seems that many journalists, entertainers, writers, and college professors have such strong feelings of fear and/or contempt for the majority of their fellow Americans that these greatly overshadow any concerns about terrorist fanatics and terrorist states with nuclear weapons.
In Poul Anderson’s 1972 SF story A Chapter of Revelation, God stops the movement of the sun across the sky. (Technically, He does this by slowing earth’s rotation period to a value identical with Earth’s year.) The reason for the miracle is to demonstrate His existence to the world, thereby encouraging people to prevent the nuclear war which is about to occur.
Anderson describes the initial reaction to the miracle: The pilgrimages by torch to the Ganges, by candlelight to the Western Wall and the Mosque of Omar, by furnacelike sunlight to Our Lady of Guadalupe, were not frantic in any true sense of that word. They were awesome: men, women, children by the millions flowing together and becoming a natural force.
A theology student, in conversation with a scientist, offers the view that “…today we’re so far gone into spiritual savagery that nothing except the most primitive, public sort of demonstration could touch us”…to which the scientist replies “As if we’d flunked quantum mechanics and been sent back to roll balls down inclined planes?”
Very soon, people begin to use the miracle to justify whatever belief systems they already hold. A Russian scientist (remember, this was written in 1972) suggests that “The requirement of minimum hypothesis practically forces us to assume that what happened resulted from the application of a technology centuries beyond ours. I find it easy to believe that an advanced civilization, capable of interstellar travel, sent a team to save mankind from the carnage threatened by an imperialism which that society outgrew long ago.” The Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party suggests that it was all about the intersection of Marxism and ESP: “The mind of man may have tremendous abilities, once liberated from the blinkers of the past. More than a third of the contemporary human race is guided by Marxism; more than half this number has for more than a generation been under the tutelage of wholly correct principles. Thus, the massed concentration of the peace-loving peoples may well have triggered cosmic energies to produce those events which have halted the imperialists in their bloody track and thrown them wallowing back into the basest superstitions.”
In the U.S., extreme right-wing evangelists use the miracle to prove that their vision is the correct one. Radical Black Power advocates do the same: “‘What He really stopped was this rich man’s war that was getting started when the bombs of white Amerika’…he formed the K with his fingers, a gesture that had become his trademark–‘struck our Chinese brothers. The rich man’s war on the poor, the white man’s war on the black, the brown, the yellow, the red.’” Moralists assert that the miracle was a warning about moral degeneration: “Satan’s agents continue to gnaw like rats at the heart of faith, morality, and society. These atheists, evolutionists, free-love swine, boozers, tobacco smokers, dope fiends still try to hide from us the plain truth of God’s word as revealed in the Holy Bible.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff propose a preemptive attack on China–“I keep thinking of Jehovah the Thunderer,” says their spokesman, “–the Crusades–Don John at Lepanto, saving Christendom with sword and cannon..”
Basically, just about everyone responds to the miracle by reinforcing whatever belief systems they already had, and the world slides into further chaos, with riots, coups d’etat, and cross-border military attacks. The story is a beautiful description of confirmation bias on a very large scale.
The attacks on 9/11 were a “primitive, public” demonstration like the stopping of sun in Anderson’s story, albeit a demonstration which was intentionally brutal rather than benign. But even with an enemy that seems custom-designed to be appalling to “progressives,” and with the most primitive and public demonstration imaginable, confirmation bias has, for many proved far stronger than evidence.