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Wading through Quicksand:
Between the Philosophically Desirable and
the Psychologically Feasible

Dennis Fox & Isaac Prilleltensky

International Journal of Critical Psychology
2002, #6, 159-167

  • Revised & Expanded November 23, 2001
    • section commenting on American Psychological Association Statement on Terrorism
  • Original Draft October 31, 2001

In times of relative peace we can afford to speculate on the psychological and sociological features of the good society. In times of all-out war we desperately try to stop our quick descent into the worst society. Neither is an ideal time for testing the strength and validity of our values - in the former we can idealize the human capacity for goodness, while in the latter we see nothing but the capacity for destruction. We are, paradoxically, in an ideal time to test our beliefs precisely because we now stand on quicksand. The earth and buildings shake, and so do our views about ethics, justice, peace, harmony, diversity, and meaning. It is under these conditions, just before the terror erases our collective ability to reflect, that we need to question unexamined assumptions and seek sustainable principles for action.

For some on both sides of the conflict, recent world developments justify latent or virulent fanaticism. For others, the ensuing chaos is evidence of their morally and politically superior stand - they could have predicted it! We, too, were not surprised that symbols of American power were attacked on September 11th. And we, too, share the emotional impulse to bring mass murderers to justice. But we choose, during this difficult time, to engage in self-reflection rather than give in to either self-righteousness or revenge. As critical psychologists who believe that human psychology is intertwined with political and social structures, we also reflect on the role that psychologists might play during the current situation and beyond.

How to proceed? We suggest three steps.

    First, an analysis of how our values and assumptions about power, oppression and well-being stand up in the current state of affairs.

    Second, a response to events in light of our examined precepts.

    And third, an assessment of mainstream psychology's approach to war and terror, as exemplified by a recent report of the American Psychological Association.

Values and Assumptions

The well-being of individuals and communities depends on the balanced, simultaneous, and synergistic satisfaction of personal, relational, and collective needs. Values such as self-determination, health, growth, and spirituality foster personal wellness, whereas bonds of affection, social cohesion, and respect for diversity promote relational wellness. These types of well-being must be complemented by collective wellness values such as social and economic justice, democracy, peace, and respect for the environment. In the absence of any one component, personal, regional, national and international well-being cannot be achieved. Hence, societies that extol self-determination at the expense of social cohesion promote individualism and alienation, while those that impose rigid norms foster conformity, homogeneity, and even tyranny. In either case, the lack of justice and democracy robs people of the chance to attain basic necessities and seek higher aspirations.

On the wellness formula, both Western and Eastern societies fail on many counts. Oppression and discrimination, subtle and overt, exist here as well as there, taking different forms under different circumstances. Despite continuing social and economic inequality that hinders personal development and family well-being, women in the West experience liberties many in some Islamic countries merely dream of. Suicide bombers ready to kill thousands are not common in the West, but the urge to retaliate against the presumed perpetrators despite inevitable civilian deaths runs rampant, and Western publics have shown little interest in ending their own governments' long-time support for dictators and death squads. In terms of relational wellness, countries the world over have had colossal failures in establishing rules of conviviality, often reflecting the consequences of urban growth and economic dislocation. As for collective wellness, the economic powers have failed miserably to ameliorate the plight of poor countries, with ten million children under five dying of preventable diseases and malnutrition each year, often as a result of economic and environmental dynamics set in motion by Western colonialism and corporate policy. Unlike the case of Osama bin Laden, where the presumed chief culprit has not yet been found, in the case of infant mortality the enemy is known. Child poverty could be markedly reduced with a fraction of what the war in Afghanistan is costing developed and developing countries.

Until now the United States has not had to confront foreign terror on its soil the way so many people around the world do routinely. Nor did it have to contend with the risk of deadly bacteria, the way children in Sub-Saharan Africa do on a daily basis. What will this encounter with death mean for the national psyche, particularly if new atrocities arrive as predicted? Neither the escalation of right wing fervor nor blindness to the threat of suicide bombers will suffice.

Palpable threats test the validity of our idyllic notions. The closer we get to the lived experience of risk, the closer we are to understanding what others go through. We recognize the limitations of philosophically desirable states in the absence of structures that stretch the humanly possible. The problem: How do we stretch the humanly possible when planes crash into buildings, bombs drop, anthrax spreads, and refugees starve? How do we enact values of humanity when the real possibility remains of a descent into horror previously unknown to humanity? Utopian thinking helps push us toward the humanly possible and philosophically desirable, but can be risky if it blinds us to contemporary realities. So now - before mutual descent into mutual destruction makes consequences-be-damned blood lust irresistible - is the time to reflect upon possible principles to determine our course of action.

Reflection doesn't always lead to resolution. We too are torn by conflicting emotions, shaped by personal history as much as by philosophical musing. We each lived for a time in Israel, caught up in efforts to help create a better society. We left long ago, but today our Israeli friends and relatives routinely confront dangers only now reaching most of the West. Even as young Zionists we saw the Jewish tradition of social justice collide with the century-long search for national and personal safety, both the tradition and the search tested by the failure to create stable relationships among two peoples on one land. Victims became oppressors and victims once again, the cycle ever harder to break as resentments and body counts grew while political leaders on both sides became trapped in dehumanizing policies, stumbling toward mutual oblivion.

Is it ever legitimate - in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the United States - to inflict death and destruction on innocents? To save our own? To delay, for a time, the next round of death? We know the urge to be even-handed, to be fair to all, to repair history's mistakes, but we know too the urge to protect those we love. On both sides, those seeking resolution find themselves pushed toward extremes. Even-handedness becomes a luxury of distance even as we push ourselves back toward our overriding concern with justice.

The attack on the World Trade Center strikes many, certainly many Americans, as fundamentally different. It came out of nowhere, or so it seemed to a public too-long complacent about the nation's role in the world. Yet the terror came from somewhere, as did the widespread support for bin Laden by so many Muslims around the world, as shocking to many others as the horrendous attack itself. Both the terror and the support made obvious the clash of interpretations arising from wildly diverging lived experiences.

Toward a Principled Response

Under pressure of war and terror, too many people on both left and right succumb to one-sided reproach - calling for either action against Al Qaeda or reversal of US actions, condemning either Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians or oppressive Israeli policies - thus failing to oppose terror and injustice no matter where they arise. A more critical and sustainable response applies principles of justice wherever they fit, not only to those we oppose but also to ourselves and to those we support.

Oppression is dynamic and multifaceted, defying facile categorization into heroes and villains. Critical justice, for us, begins with the acknowledgment that we are subject to the same propaganda as the rest of the world. We must be mindful that, in the wake of September 11, some resonate with anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish sentiments. Critical justice implies that we apply the same stringent criteria to all.

Tentative principles emerge from our analysis of current events and invocations of good and evil:

    First, terrorism is unacceptable regardless of the reason for it. The September atrocity cannot be justified. Yet this principle raises complexities beyond easy condemnation. For example, our definition of terrorism is general: the knowing use or threat of violence against uninvolved civilians to achieve political or military aims. Importantly, we include violence by any group - state and non-state. Thus, while the media accept governmental definitions - focusing exclusively on groups such as Al Qaeda - we find it equally unacceptable when states bomb civilian populations, impose collective punishment, or destroy water systems and other components of civilian infrastructure. The predictable claim that such actions are merely unintended consequences of a justified assault on the enemy's military or an effort to foment popular rebellion against dictatorial regimes cannot be accepted. This is especially the case when alternative means of apprehending the targets have not been exhausted.

    Second, the distinction between justifying and understanding is crucial, as is the link between understanding and policymaking. That we cannot justify terrorism does not mean we can ignore the reasons some people become terrorists and so many more applaud them. The power of terrorist leaders, built on a shifting foundation of real and imagined grievances, comes at the expense of their own disciples and their innocent victims. At the same time, Western power comes at the expense of those whose resources we have taken, economies we have controlled, values we have ignored. Domination of peoples by super-powers and super-terrorists alike must be decried.

    Third, although we respect the views of committed pacifists, we believe that military action for self-defense or defense of human rights is sometimes justified. However, because war routinely causes far too many casualties, it must follow, not replace, less horrific measures. Strengthening international political and legal processes requires all nations to accept international jurisdiction. Refusal to do so - as the US does when its own actions are challenged - invalidates any claim that war is justified. Moreover, for war to be just, the likelihood of achieving its aims must be substantial. It cannot merely extend conflict while bringing to innocents brutality, death, and hardship.

    Fourth, we need to challenge simplistic appeals to patriotism. Allegiance to nation can be as dangerous as allegiance to totalistic religion. We doubt that God, if he or she exists, favors any state that uses indiscriminate violence to impose its will on others, or approves of leaders who endanger their citizens for either celestial salutation or earthly grandeur. Our own primary allegiances are to our neighbors close to home and to the world community at large. National boundaries neither mandate nor limit our concern.

Principles lead to critique. Thus, we object to both exhortations to war and unsustainable peace agreements that lack historical, contextual, and personal knowledge of the circumstances leading to conflict. For example, most US citizens are oblivious to the CIA-sponsored coup that deposed Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile in the early 1970s. With US assistance, General Augusto Pinochet took over the government, imposed state terror, and proceeded to kill thousands of dissidents. Yet President George Bush wondered at a recent press conference why people hate America. Although Chile and too many similar examples cannot justify terrorism against uninvolved US civilians, they must be understood by anyone trying to transform US relations with aggrieved peoples throughout the world. Those who have suffered at US hands should receive not only compensation for past actions but also a clear indication that decision makers are committed to just policies in the future.

Similarly, in the part of the world inextricably tied to Al Qaeda's battle to rid Muslim countries of US influence, history's complexity defies the easy tit-for-tat of isolated facts subject to shifting out-of-context interpretations. For example, supporters of Israel remember that the Mufti of Jerusalem, H'aj Amin-El-Husseini, colluded with Eichmann and Hitler to exterminate Hungarian Jewry towards the end of World War II; that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished at Nazi hands, Israel accepted the partition of Palestine into two states, a 1948 United Nations recommendation rejected by Arab countries that attacked Israel; that Palestinian authorities rejected former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer to return close to 97% of the occupied territories. Yet supporters of Palestine recall that the arrival of Jews escaping European pogroms a century ago began the continuing displacement of Arabs, often by force, and created a Jewish State in which Arabs remain second-class citizens; that for more than three decades Israel's rule over occupied territories has imposed on uninvolved civilians mass punishments and other hardships; that even under liberal Israeli governments Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza expanded while too many Palestinians remained in refugee camps. As we see it, in keeping with the principles we outlined above and regardless of the exchange of accusations and memories, Israel must take responsibility for displacing, oppressing, and too often killing Palestinians; the Jewish people's historically tenuous position throughout the world does not justify oppression in return. Yet Palestinians who kill uninvolved Israeli civilians are terrorists, not freedom fighters, and Arab governments and Palestinian leaders must take responsibility for their own part in fuelling the conflict.

We know that what we have to say will have little impact on decision makers. The muddled effort to get bin Laden, to "end terror," and - perhaps not a coincidence - to make the Middle East safe for Western resource and security interests will continue. The shifting goals remain unclear, the methods potentially disastrous for all. Yet we choose to join with others seeking to find a way between doing nothing and doing too much. The more serious danger now is that we will go too far, not that we won't go far enough.

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Psychology's Role

In September 2001, the American Psychological Association's Board of Directors created a Subcommittee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism "to help government agencies and Congress combat terrorism and deal with the psychological causes and consequences of the attacks" (Carpenter, 2001). In October, the Subcommittee issued a report outlining its approach to current events. Unfortunately, by narrowly describing the range of issues relevant to psychology and avoiding significant discussion of unavoidable values and politics, the APA's mainstream approach does little to advance the search for either safety or justice.

We have no objection to the APA's primary concern: responding to terrorism's impact by mobilizing psychologists experienced in treating trauma, grief, stress, and anxiety. Clinically trained psychologists have much to offer those who suffer from serious mental health difficulties caused by the September attacks. Yet surely that is not enough. Surely there is more that psychology organizations can suggest beyond a media campaign to "encourage people to enroll in stress management training and support programs in their communities," to be "followed up with local workshops and support groups." Ironically, the APA calls upon "the tremendous pro bono spirit of psychologists" to expand psychology's own turf: to "help position psychology as a key national resource, perhaps as significant as the repositioning that occurred after W. W. II."

The APA report's discussion about how to address the threat of terrorism notes psychology's traditional contribution to public policy, particularly during wartime. It calls on research psychologists to help end terrorism by reviewing existing research data and generating new data useful to "mission critical governmental departments such as Defense, State, the FBI, etc." The report adds that "we now have requests for assistance from two of these agencies."

Missing from the report is any request that psychologists apply their tools and expertise to assess United States actions that make terrorism more likely. No sympathy is expressed for the legitimate grievances of those who support attacks on the US. We can understand the temptation to choose sides and opt for protecting our own. Yet we can't help but notice the ease with which mainstream psychology's supposedly objective data-driven stance is shoved aside to advance the narrowly-defined war on terrorism. Also missing is any mention of the war in Afghanistan. Lacking a broader view of psychology's ability to address relevant issues, responses restricted to helping individuals function better - reflecting mainstream psychology's determinedly individualistic approach to human problems - and to helping governmental authorities avoid serious policy reevaluation are unlikely to lead to fundamental solutions.

Other professional organizations have done better. For example, Psychologists for Social Responsibility's reminder to President Bush that "The cure for terrorism must include social justice" should be kept in mind by all who seek to resolve the current crisis.


Bound by history and family, identity and community, we all may be forced by events to take sides in a battle between West and East. We would do so reluctantly, pained by the realization that the survival of those we love might depend on the destruction of thousands or millions whose lives our own governments and their own tyrannical regimes have made far more desperate. This prospect appalls us. So does the knowledge that so many civilians have already died in Afghanistan, in the US, and in the Middle East.

Will we strive to push the psychologically feasible toward the philosophically desirable? Will we pull back from the abyss before finding the ultimate commonality, one born not of peace and justice but of mutual destruction? We have no choice. Any alternative will assuredly pulverize the remains of what is still human and still humane.


Carpenter, Siri. (November 1, 2001). Behavioral science gears up to combat terrorism. APA Monitor.

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Dennis Fox and Isaac Prilleltensky co-edited Critical Psychology: An Introduction (Sage, 1997) and co-founded RadPsyNet: The Radical Psychology Network. Fox is Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Prilleltensky is Professor of Psychology at Victoria University, in Melbourne, Australia.

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