McALISTER ET AL.Sept. 11 and Moral Disengagement
MECHANISMS OF MORAL DISENGAGEMENT
IN SUPPORT OF MILITARY FORCE:
THE IMPACT OF SEPT. 11
ALFRED L. McALISTER
University of Texas
STEVEN V. OWEN
University of Texas
The present study examined the relation between disengagement of moral
self–sanctions and support of military force. The modes of moral disengagement in-
cluded moral sanctioning of lethal means, disavowal of personal responsibility for
detrimental effects accompanying military campaigns, minimization of civilian ca-
sualties, and attribution of blame and dehumanization of one’s foes. The respon-
dents were drawn nationally through a random digit dialing interview system.
Partway during this nationwide study the country experienced the terrorist attack
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Sept. 11 terrorist strikes raised
the level of moral disengagement for the use of military force compared to the
pre–strike level. The higher the moral disengagement the stronger the public sup
port for immediate retaliatory strikes against suspected terrorist sanctuaries abroad
and for aerial bombardment of Iraq. Moral disengagement completely mediated
Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2006, pp. 141-165
Alfred L. McAlister, School of Public Health, University of Texas Health Science Center
at Houston, Albert Bandura, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Steven V.
Owen, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
The research reported in this article was supported by Grant SR21HD40067–03 from
the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. We thank Ted Morri
son and David Ramsey for the preparation of the graphs. Information on the specifics of
the AMOS programming, and ancillary analyses are available upon request.Correspon
dence concerning this article should be addressed to Alfred L. McAlister, University of
Texas at Houston, School of Public Health, P.O. Box 20186, Houston, Texas 77225, or to
Albert Bandura, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Jordan Hall, Building
420, Stanford, CA 94305–2130. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or
the effect of the terrorist attack. Moreover, moral disengagement completely medi
ated the effect of sociodemographic factors on support of military force against
terrorist sanctuaries and partially mediated the effect on military force against Iraq.
In the development of moral agency, individuals construct standards of
right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. In the
ongoing exercise of moral agency individuals judge their conduct
against their personal standards and situational circumstances and react
to it with affective self–sanctions (Bandura, 1991; 1986). They do things
that give them satisfaction and a sense of self–worth, and refrain from
behaving in ways that violate their moral standards because such con
duct will bring self–condemnation. It is through the ongoing exercise of
evaluative self–sanctions that moral conduct is motivated and
Development of self–regulatory capabilities does not create an immu-
table internal moral control system. The self–regulatory mechanisms
governing moral conduct do not operate unless they are activated and
there are many psychosocial maneuvers by which moral self–sanctions
can be selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct (Bandura, 1999).
Selective disengagement of moral control permits different types of con-
duct with the same moral standards. Figure 1 shows the points at which
the disengagement of moral control can occur. The figure is a schematic
designation of the loci at which the different mechanisms of moral
disengagement operate not a sequential process model.
At the behavior locus, people transform lethal means into benevolent
and moral ones through moral justification, advantageous comparison,
and sanitizing language. At the agency locus, they are relieved of a sense
of personal accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibil
ity. At the outcome locus, the injurious effects of lethal means are disre
garded, minimized, or disputed. At the recipient locus, foes are dehu
manized and blamed for bringing the suffering on themselves.
The present article examines the selective disengagement of moral
agency in support of military force. Combat activities pose grave moral
predicaments because they not only require killing combatants but inev
itably take a heavy toll of civilian casualties. Therefore, when a nation
goes to war it must create conditions that enable soldiers to inflict death,
destruction and suffering without exacting a heavy personal toll of
chronic stress, guilt and anguish. This can be achieved by suspending
moral self–sanctions through the various mechanism of moral
Moral justification plays a key role in sanctifying violent means
(Kramer, 1990; Rapoport & Alexander, 1982; Reich, 1990). In this pro
142 McALISTER ET AL.
cess, destructive conduct is made personally and socially acceptable by
portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes. Advanta-
geous comparison, in which one’s injurious conduct is contrasted with
more flagrant inhumanities, is another way of sanctifying destructive
conduct. This mechanism relies heavily on moral justification by the
utilitarian standard that one’s injurious actions will prevent more
human suffering than they cause.
Activities can also take on a markedly different character depending
on what they are called. Sanitizing euphemistic language provides a
convenient means for masking lethal activities or even conferring a re
spectable status upon them (Bollinger, 1982; Lutz, 1987; Smith, 2002).
For example, in military euphemisms, bombing missions are character
ized as “servicing the target,” in the likeness of a public utility, the civil
ians the bombs kill are sanitized as “collateral damage,” and combat
deaths are KIAS. People behave much more aggressively when assault
ing a person is given a sanitized label than when it is called aggression
(Diener, Dineen, Endresen, Beaman, & Fraser, 1975).
Moral and utilitarian justification serve a dual function. Investing le
thal means with moral and humanitarian purposes enlists moral en
gagement in the military mission. To the extent that those who have to
do the fighting are convinced of the morality of the cause, they are re
lieved of self–censure for inflicting human destruction and suffering. In
deed, effective moral justification not only eliminates self–censure but
can engage self–approval in the service of destructive exploits. Combat
FIGURE 1. Mechanism through which moral self-sanctions are selectively
activated and disengaged from detrimental behavior at different loci
in the self-regulatory process (Bandura, 1986).
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 143
ants work hard to become proficient in warfare and may take pride in
their military achievements.
Moral justifications can be used in the service of just causes or wrong
ful ones. Evaluation of moral justifications involves judgments of how
well the military interventions meet the standards for a justifiable war
and how they are implemented militarily. The justness of the cause is not
the object of the present study. This project focuses on moral justifica
tions as a means for enlisting moral engagement in the use of military
force and to allay moral self–sanctions in those who have to execute the
Moral control operates most strongly when people acknowledge that
they are contributors to injurious outcomes. Two disengagement mech
anisms operate through disavowal of personal agency in the harm one
causes. This is achieved by diffusion and displacementof responsibility.
In displacement of responsibility, people view their actions as stemming
from the dictates of authorities rather than being personally responsible
for them (Kelman & Hamilton, 1989; Milgram, 1974). Because they do
not see themselves as the actual agent of their actions they are spared
The exercise of moral control is also weakened when personal agency is
obscured by diffusing responsibility for detrimental behavior (Bandura,
Underwood, & Fromson, 1975; Zimbardo, 2004). Kelman (1973) desig-
nates several ways of diffusing personal accountability. Personal agency
is obscured by group decision making so that no one really feels person-
ally responsible; by division of labor that fractionates a destructive enter-
prise into seemingly harmless subtasks when viewed in isolation; and by
collective action that affords anonymity and minimization of personal
contributions to harm caused collectively. Under these self–exonerative
social arrangements, people do not view themselves as the actual agent of
their actions and thus do not consider themselves personably accountable
for what they do collectively or under chains of command.
Disregarding, minimizing, distorting, or disputing the harmful effects
of one’s actions is another way of weakening moral self–sanctions. As
long as harmful outcomes go unnoticed, are minimized, or disputed
there is little reason for self–sanctions to be activated. In studies of obedi
ent aggression, people are less compliant to the injurious commands of
authorities as the victims’ suffering becomes more evident or when its
infliction is personalized (Milgram, 1974). Even a high sense of personal
responsibility for the harmful effects of one’s actions is a weak restrainer
of injurious conduct when aggressors do not see the harm they inflict on
others (Tilker, 1970).
The final set of disengagement practices operates on the recipients of
detrimental acts. To perceive another in terms of common humanity ac
144 McALISTER ET AL.
tivates empathetic emotional reactions to the plight of others through
perceived similarity and a sense of social obligation (Bandura, 1992;
McHugo, Smith, & Lanzetta, 1988). Self–censure for harmful conduct
can be disengaged by stripping people of human qualities or attributing
bestial qualities to them (Bandura et al., 1975; Haritos–Fatouros, 2002).
For example, during wartime, nations cast their enemies in the most de
humanized, demonic, and bestial images to make it easier to kill them
(Ivie, 1980; Keen, 1986). Humanization serves as a restraining influence.
People refuse to behave cruelly, even under authoritarian pressure,
toward humanized others (Bandura, 2004; Bandura et al., 1975).
Blaming adversaries for bringing the suffering on themselves is still
another expedient that can serve self–exonerative purposes (Ferguson &
Rule, 1983; Suedfeld & Epstein, 1973). People view themselves as fault
less victims driven to injurious conduct by offensive provocation. Vio
lent conduct then becomes a justifiable defensive reaction to belligerent
actions. Victims get blamed for bringing suffering on themselves.
Self–exoneration is also achievable by viewing one’s harmful conductas
forced by compelling circumstances rather than as a personal decision.
By fixing the blame on others or on compelling circumstances one’s own
injurious actions are not only excusable but one can even feel
self–righteous in the process.
Rapid radical shifts in lethal conduct through moral justification are
most strikingly revealed in military pursuits. The conversion of social-
ized people into combatants dedicated to killing foes is achieved not by
altering their personality structures, aggressive drives, or moral stan-
dards. Rather, it is accomplished by restructuring the morality of lethal
means so they can be free from self–censure.
Military campaigns require ongoing public support for the use of mili
tary force in international disputes. The present study sought to clarify
the role of moral disengagement in the public’s support of the use of mil
itary force. Randomly selected national and regional samples of partici
pants were assessed for their level and pattern of moral disengagement
regarding the use of military force in international conflicts and their
sanction of military action against Iraq. Partway through this nation
wide study the nation experienced the aerial demolition of the World
Trade Center and part of the Pentagon by the Al Qaeda network. Follow
ing this terrorist attack subsequent participants were also tested for level
of moral disengagement and rated their support of military action
against suspected terrorist sanctuaries as well as Iraq. It was predicted
that the terrorist attack, which posed a grave national threat, would
increase the level of moral disengagement for military campaigns.
We also measured a variety of sociodemographic factors as potential
contributors to both moral disengagement and support of military force,
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 145
and thus required control in estimating the unique contribution of moral
disengagement. These factors included gender, level of education, in
come, age, ethnicity, and regional milieu. Previous research has shown
that males are higher moral disengagers than females (Bandura,
Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 1996). Moreover, moral disengage
ment is more likely to foster ruminative affectivity conducive to aggres
sion in males than in females (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara,
Pastorelli, & Regalia, 2001).
Many people rely on television for information about international
conflicts and possible solutions to them. The higher the dependence on
televised broadcasts, the stronger is their impact (Ball–Rokeach &
DeFleur, 1976). The more highly educated are likely to have greater ac
cess to a multiplicity of voices in sociopolitical networks, the print me
dia, and participatory debates on the Internet unfettered by institutional
controls. Deeper understanding of international strife may increase
wariness toward moral pretensions and suspect moral appeals. It was,
therefore, predicted that people at higher levels of education and eco-
nomic status would be less susceptible to cognitive and social
machinations conducive to moral disengagement.
Military campaigns relying on a volunteer army will be fought by pre-
dominantly young combatants, many of whom are of minority ethnic
and less advantaged status. It was hypothesized thatolder members will
more readily give moral sanction to the use of military force because
they will not be the combatants, whereas, the younger members who
have to fight the battles would be more reluctant moral disengagers.
In many culturally oriented analyses, regions are used as proxies for
the inhabitants’ psychological orientation (Bandura, 2002). For example,
inhabitants in the South are said to be especially prone to justify aggres
sion in terms of a code of honor (Cohen & Nisbett, 1994). However, terri
torial ascriptions may mask notable diversity in moral disengagement
within regional groupings. Different regions of Texas provided a basis
for examining how regional subcultures may affect propensities for
moral disengagement. It was predicted the residents in the more liber
ally oriented university region of Austin, Texas, would display a lower
level of moral disengagement and support of military interventions than
their counterparts residing in the other regions.
Thecategorical sociodemographic factors are, in large part, proxies for
self–referent determinants and processes resulting from the distinctive
experiences accompanying one’s age, gender, education, income level,
ethnicity, and residential milieu. The moral self system that has evolved
from these multiple formative experiences is one such developmental
outcome. We, therefore, hypothesized that the propensity for moral dis
146 McALISTER ET AL.
engagement would partly mediate the relation of sociodemographic
factors of support for military force.
Figure 2 presents the posited structural model. For reasons given ear
lier, it was hypothesized that both the terrorist attack and
sociodemographic factors are linked to support of military force
through the mediating influence of disengagement of moral self–sanc
tions, and that the mediated path of influence would be stronger than
the direct path. Moral disengagement would, in turn, be accompanied
by support for the use of military force.
A total of 1,499 participants, drawn nationally, regionally, and locally
were studied. The assessment was conducted by trained interviewers
using a random digit dialing interviewingsystem at the Office of Survey
Research in the College of Communication at the University of Texas in
Austin. The samples were randomly selected from identified working
telephone exchanges and systematically generated telephone numbers
(four–digit randomization), deleting numbers listed in a database of
business directories. Within each household, an adult who was 18 or
older with the most recent birthday was selected as the respondent. Up
to five callbacks at varying times of day were made to unanswered
phones and unavailable respondents. The response rate for
participation in the study was 59%.
Approximately 25% of the total sample was selected from each of the
four populations—national sample, Houston metropolitan area, Austin
area dominated by University of Texas and State government offices,
and the remaining Texas region. Of the participants, 46% were male and
54 % were female. They varied in age from 18 to 90 years with a mean age
of 42 years. The ethnic composition was 72% White, 15% Hispanic, 9%
African American, 2% Asian, and 2% other ethnic groups. The educa
tional levels were 9% below high school, 29% high school graduates,
24% some college education, 24% college graduates and 15% with post
graduate education. Due to differences in sample size in the models
tested, these characteristics vary slightly in the analyses.
Seventy–five percent of the participants were assessed prior to the ter
rorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and the rest of the
participants were assessed after a three day pause following the terrorist
attack. The two samples were tested for possible differences in
sociodemographic characteristics. Only two small differences emerged
in this set of comparisons. The pre Sept. 11 sample was 2 years older (44
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 147
vs. 42) than in the post sample. There was also a minor regional differ-
ence with a 7% larger national post Sept. 11 sample. The similarity on the
other sociodemographic characteristics and the trivial effect sizes of .008
for region and .002 for age attest to the comparability of the samples
before and after the terrorist attack.
Based on the conceptual structure of moral disengagement and tests of
its predictiveness in other morally–relevant domains (Bandura et al;
1996; 2001; Osofsky, Bandura & Zimbardo, 2005), the various mecha
nisms of moral disengagement were measured with 10 items. The fol
lowing numbers identify the content of the items. They included moral
justification for use of military force when:
(1) a nation’s economic security is threatened,
(2) as preemptive military strikes against nations that threaten one’s
148 McALISTER ET AL.
FIGURE 2. Posited structural model of the paths of influence through which
sociodemographic factors, modes of moral disengagement, and the Sept. 11
terrorist attack affect support of the use of military force.
(3) when diplomacy and negotiations drag on without resolving
(4) advantageous comparison that it is right to use military force be
cause it prevents more suffering than it causes.
Euphemistic language and minimization of inflicted harm included
(5) “collateral” damage is an acceptable part of military action, and
(6) reports of “collateral” damage resulting from military campaigns
are usually exaggerated.
Diffusion and displacement of responsibility included items that
(7) a given member of a group should not be held accountable for
military decisions made collectively, and that:
(8) soldiers should not be held responsible for the effects of follow-
ing orders in military campaigns.
In dehumanization, the characterizations stated that
(9) terrorists do not deserve to be treated like human beings, and
(10) enemy rulers and their followers are no better than animals.
For each item, the participants rated their responses on a 5–point Likert
scale, ranging from strongly agree (+2), through unsure (0), to strongly
disagree (–2). The positive values represent espousal of the various
modes of moral disengagement; the negative values represent dis
avowal of them. The bipolar format provided participants with a full
scope of choices ranging from strong advocacy, through neutrality, to
strong disavowal of modes of moral disengagement.
SUPPORT FOR MILITARY FORCE
Participants’ support for military force was measured separately for the
two international conflicts. Participants rated on a 5–point Likert scale
ranging from –2 (strongly disagree) , through unsure (0), to +2 (strongly
agree) the strength of their endorsement of immediate military strikes
against suspected terrorist sanctuaries, and recorded whether they sup
ported aerial bombardment of Iraq (+1), opposed it (–1), or were unsure
(0). In the case of Iraq, which already involved ongoing aerial surveillance
and periodic bombardment of communication and missile facilities, sup
port of military force was measured before and after Sept. 11. Support for
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 149
immediate strikes against suspected terrorist sanctuaries was measured
only after Sept. 11, when it became a relevant national issue.
For reasons given earlier, gender was selected as one of the relevant
sociodemographic factors. Age was a continuous variable ranging from
18 to 90 years of age. Level of education was classified in categories of
0–4 years, 5–8 years, 9–11 years of elementary school education, high
school graduate, some college education, college graduate, and post
graduate education. Income level was measured in terms of four grada
tions of thousands (K): <20K, 20–40K, 40–70K, and >75K.
Ethnic status was recorded as White, Hispanic, African American, Asian,
or other ethnic groups. However, because the separate minorities consti
tuted relatively small samples, ethnic status was recorded into a binary
variable of White non–Hispanic, labeled White, and the minority samples,
labeled Other. The regional variations included participants drawn nation-
wide and from the Houston metropolitan region, the Austin region, and
Texas at large. In preliminary analysis, Austin differed significantly in
moral disengagement and support for military force from the other re-
gions, which did not differ from each other. Therefore, Region was coded as
a binary variable representing Austin and the other regions combined.
We used structural equation modeling (SEM) to test the posited struc
tural model. SEM was chosen because it allows for both an evaluation of
a nested confirmatory factor analysis and model testing of the hypothe
sized theoretical structure of the predicted relations. This method allows
evaluation of the complete theoretical model. The SEM software used
for the analyses was AMOS 5.0 (Arbuckle, 2003). The statistical ap
proach was full information maximum likelihood.
FACTOR STRUCTURE OF MORAL DISENGAGEMENT
The confirmatory factor analysis corroborated the hypothesized
four–factor structure of moral disengagement, that is, moral justifica
tion, minimization of detrimental effects, disavowal of responsibility,
Several goodness of fit indicators were computed. We selected two of
the more sensitive measures of close fit, the root mean square error of ap
150 McALISTER ET AL.
proximation (RMSEA), and the Comparative Fit Index (CFI). The
RMSEA calculates an amount of error per estimated parameter, so
smaller values are better. An RMSEA value of .05 or smaller is a good
model, while values up to .08 suggest an adequate model (Browne &
Cudek, 1993). The CFI represents the percent by which the proposed
model improves over the worst possible model. For the CFI, a value of
.95 or higher is preferred (Hu & Bentler, 1999). Both of the tests of close
fit, CFI = .97 and RMSEA = .039 are well within the required criteria. We
also included the χ
test, although with its dependence on sample size, it
often produces a significant value with large samples when there is a
good fit on more sensitive indices. As expected with our large samples,
(29) = 126.34, p .01.
The moderate intercorrelations among the four factors suggest that a
higher–order structure is possible, with a single latent variable responsi
ble for the four subfactors. Because the four–factor structure is nested
within a second–order structure, a second model representing a single
superordinate construct was tested. The difference test may be used to
evaluate whether one model is preferred over the other. This test
showed that the two models differ,
(2) = 13.05, p < .01, with the
four–factor model favored. In short, the four factors of moral disengage-
ment showed acceptable measurement properties and thus lend confi-
dence to the interpretation of the full SEM.
ROLE OF MORAL DISENGAGEMENT, SOCIODEMOGRAPHIC
FACTORS, AND TERRORIST ATTACK ON SUPPORT OF
MILITARY FORCE AGAINST IRAQ
After Sept. 11, support for aerial bombardment of Iraq increased from
70% to 81%. As shown in Figure 3, the terrorist attack was also accompa
nied by increases in all four modes of moral disengagement.
Table 1 summarizes the direct and indirect effects of sociodemo
graphic factors, the terrorist attack, and the different modes of moral dis
engagement on support of military force. The indirect effects represent
the mediating influence of moral disengagement. All sociodemographic
factors were single indicators, as was the terrorist attack and support for
the bombardment of Iraq.
As shown in Table 1, the sociodemographic factors accounted for
some of the variance in the different modes of moral disengagement.
Males, the less educated, and those from the non–Austin region dis
played higher levels of moral disengagement across all four modes.
Whites and those at higher income levels were more prone to morally
justify the use of military force and to minimize civilian casualties than
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 151
did their minority counterparts and those at lower income levels. Older
participants were also prone to minimize civilian casualties.
Figure 4 presents the significant coefficients for the posited model. For
schematic simplicity the direct and indirect sociodemographic effects,
which are summarized in Table, 1, are not presented graphically. The six
sociodemographic factors would produce a profusion of paths among
the different variables.
As can be seen in Table 1 and Figure 4, moral justification,
minimization of consequences, and dehumanization all had sizable di
rect effects on support of military force against Iraq. However, non–re
sponsibility for military operations was unrelated to backing military
action against Iraq. Moral disengagement partially mediated the rela
tion of sociodemographic factors to support of the military campaign.
The indirect effects of sociodemographic factors operating through
moral disengagement were as large or larger than the direct effects. This
is especially true for the regional effect which was entirely mediated
through level of moral disengagement. The significant impact of the ter-
rorist attack on support of military action against Iraq was also entirely
mediated through the increases in moral disengagement (Table 1).
The RMSEA = .068 and the CFI = .99, indicate a close fit between the
posited model and the empirical data. Given the large sample, the chi
square is predictably significant, χ
(84) = 935.89, p < .001. The full model
accounted for R
= .26, p < .001 of the variance in support of military
force, with moral disengagement contributing the major share. The R
.21, p < .001 when the contribution of the terrorist attack and the
sociodemographic factors are removed.
ROLE OF MORAL DISENGAGEMENT AND
SOCIODEMOGRAPHIC FACTORS IN SUPPORT OF MILITARY
FORCE AGAINST TERRORISTS
Of the participants, 48% supported immediate bombardment of sus
pected terrorist sanctuaries. Table 2 summarizes the effects of
sociodemographic factors and the different modes of moral disengage
ment on support of counterstrikes against suspected terrorists. Because
backing for military force against terrorist camps was measured after the
Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the sample size for this model is n = 453.
Region contributed to all modes of moral disengagement, with the
non–Austin regions being more prone to suspend moral sanctions for
military intervention. Males and White members were more prone to
moral justification and minimization of civilian casualties. In contrast,
minority members were less supportive of moral justifications and less
disinclined to minimize civilian casualties than their white counterparts.
152 McALISTER ET AL.
The lower educated were more prone toward moral justification,
non–responsibility, and dehumanization. However, moral disen
gagement did not vary as a function of age and income.
Figure 5 shows the contribution of the different modes of moral disen
gagement to backing counterstrikes against suspected terrorists. For
schematic simplicity the specific sociodemographic contributors, which
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 153
MJ DH MC NR
Meal Level of Moral Disengagement
FIGURE 3. Mean level of moral disengagement before and after the Sept. 11
terrorist strike. MJ = moral justification; DH = dehumanization; MC =
minimization of consequences; NR = nonresponsibility.
TABLE 1. Impact of Sociodemographic Factors, the Terrorist Attack, and Moral Disengagement on Support of Military Force against Iraq
(Standardized Path Coefficients)
Moral Justification Minimizing Consequences Non–Responsibility Dehumanization
Variables Direct Direct Direct Direct Direct Indirect
.14*** .17*** .14***
.10*** .24*** –.08**
.14*** .19*** .03
–.23*** –.10** –.23***
.04*** .13*** –.02
.00 .13*** –.02
Sept. 11 Terrorist Attack
.15*** .11*** .08**
. The link between sociodemographic variables and the different modes of moral disengagement includes only direct effects, because no mediators are involved. The
impact of the sociodemographic variables on support of military force was posited to be mediated by moral disengagement. The indirect effects represent the mediating in
fluence of moral disengagement. *
< .05, **
< .01, ***
are presented in Table 1, are not presented graphically. As in the case of
military action against Iraq, all three modes of moral disengage
ment—moral disengagement, non–responsibility for military opera
tions, and minimization of civilian casualties were sizeable contributors
to support aerial counterstrikes against the terrorist sanctuaries.
The goodness of fit indicators showed an acceptable fit to the empiri
cal data. The more sensitive fit indices of RMSE = .079, the CFI = .97, and
the standardized measurement loadings are within ranges that suggest
an adequate explanatory model. However, the less sensitive chi–square
(77) = 292.96, p < .01, was significant.
The model accounts for R
= .26, p < .001 of the variance in support of
military force against suspect terrorist sanctuaries. Here, too, moral
disengagement accounts for most of this variance, with the R
= .22, p <
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 155
FIGURE 4. Structural Equation Modeling of the pattern of influences through
which sociodemographic factors, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and the different
modes of moral disengagement contribute to support of military force against
Iraq. The solid paths represent coefficients significant beyond the p < .05 level;
the dash paths are the nonsignificant coefficients.
.001 when the contribution of the sociodemographic factors is re
In the findings of the present study, disengagement of moral sanctions
for lethal means accounts uniquely for a significant share of the variance
in support of the use of military force against Iraq and suspected terror
ist sanctuaries. Most of the departures from the posited model lend fur
ther support to the influential role of moral disengagement rather than
lessen it. Both the terrorist strike and the sociodemographic factors were
expected to have significant direct effects on support of military action.
Rather, moral disengagement completely mediated the effect of the ter
rorist attack. And, it also completely mediated the relation of socio
cognitive factors to support of the military campaign against terrorists
and partially mediated the relation for the military campaign against
Iraq. The replication of the significant moral disengagement path across
samples before and after the terrorist attack, different modes of moral
disengagement, and for military campaigns against different foes attests
to the generality of the theory.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was
accompanied by significant rise in moral disengagement for military ac-
tion. Both the searing nature of this disastrous event and the close prox-
imity of assessment lend credence to the view that the terrorist strike,
rather than some other occurrence, was the major contributor to the re-
duction in moral restraint. It was an overwhelming event that thor-
oughly dominated the public consciousness for a long time. The assess
ment of moral disengagement was conducted in close temporal
proximity to the attack. Whatever other events may have occurred paled
by comparison with the enormity of the suicidal terrorism.
Among the various disinhibiting mechanisms, the reconstrual of violent
means as moral actions was one of the widely used to disengage moral
agency at the behavior locus. Sanctifying violent means by appeal to reli
gious moral imperative has been, of course, the primary vehicle for disen
gaging moral sanctions in large–scale holy terror across time and religious
doctrines. Pope Urban launched the Crusades with the following impas
sioned moral proclamation: “I address those present, I proclaim it to those
absent, Christ commands it. For all those going thither, there will be remis
sion of sins if they come to the end of this fettered life.” He then dehuman
izes and beastializes the Muslim enemies: “What a disgrace if a race so de
spicable, degenerate, and enslaved by demons, should overcome a people
endowed with faith in Almighty God and resplendent in the name of
156 McALISTER ET AL.
TABLE 2. Impact of Sociodemographic Factors and Moral Disengagement on Support of Military Force against Terrorists’ Sanctuaries
(Standardized Path Coefficients)
Moral Justification Minimizing Consequences Non–Responsibility Dehumanization
Variables Direct Direct Direct Direct Direct Indirect
.18*** .22*** .16** .13* .02 .15**
.14* .36*** .03 .04 .02 .14*
.22*** .21** .01 .15 –.09 .16**
–.22*** –.08 –.15* –.23*** –.01 –.16**
.08 .04 .03 .03 .00 .04
.00 .12 –.02 .02 –.08 .04
. The link between sociodemographic variables and the different modes of moral disengagement includes only direct effects, because no mediators are involved. The
impact of the sociodemographic variables on support of strikes against terrorists was posited to be mediated by moral disengagement. The indirect effects represent the medi
ating influence of moral disengagement. *
< .05, **
< .01, ***
Christ! Let those who once fought against brothers and relatives now right
fully fight against the barbarians under the guidance of the Lord.”
Islamic extremists mount their jihad, by construing it as self–defense
against tyrannical, decadentinfidels who despoil and seek to enslave the
Muslim world (Borger, 2001; Ludlow, 2001). Bin Laden ennobled his
global terrorism as serving a holy imperative. “We will continue this
course because it is part of our religion and because Allah, praise and
glory be to him, ordered us to carry out jihad so that the word of Allah
may remain exalted to the heights.” In the jihad they are carrying out Al
lah’s will as a “religious duty.” The prime agency for the holy terror is
displaced to Allah. By attribution of blame, terrorist strikes are con
158 McALISTER ET AL.
FIGURE 5. Structural Equation Modeling of the contribution of the different
modes of moral disengagement to support of military force against suspected
strued as morally justifiable defensive reactions to humiliation and
atrocities perpetrated by atheistic enemies, “We are only defending our
selves. This is defensive Jihad.” By advantageous comparison with the
nuclear bombing of Japan, and the toll of the economic sanctions on Iraqi
children, the Jihad takes on an altruistic appearance: “When people at
the ends of the earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands,
young and old, it was not considered a war crime, it is something that
has justification. Millions of children in Iraq is something that has justifi
cation.” Bin Laden beastializes the American enemy as ”lowly people"
perpetrating acts that “the most ravenous of animals would not descend
to.” Terrorism is sanitized as “The winds of faith have come” to eradi
cate the “debauched” oppressors. His followers see themselves as holy
warriors who gain a blessed eternal life through their martyrdom.
The minimization of civilian casualties was also found to be an impor
tant contributor to support of military force. Moral sanctions are dimin
ished if destructive effects are sufficiently minimized or obscured. With
the advent of satellite transmission, battles are now fought over “collat-
eral damage” in the airways to shape public perceptions of military cam-
paigns and debates about them. For example, drawing on the experi-
ences of Vietnam, the U.S. military banned cameras and journalists from
battlefield areas in the Middle East to minimize disturbing images. The
Arab satellite network, Al Jazeera, on the other hand, airs graphic
real–time images of death and destruction round–the–clock
(El–Nawawy & Iskandar, 2002). In the Iraq war, reporters were again al-
lowed to accompany combat forces to present a different perspective
from the one broadcast by Al Jazeera. Satellite television has thus be-
come a strategic tool in the social management of moral disengagement
at the locus of the human consequences of lethal means (Bandura, 2004).
Absolving soldiers of responsibility for the detrimental effects of mili
tary operations was unrelated to support of military campaigns. Dis
placement and diffusion of responsibility does, of course, figure impor
tantly as a moral neutralizing device for the people who have to devise
military campaigns and have to fight the battles (Bandura, 2004; Kelman
& Hamilton, 1989). However, since the general public is not doing the
fighting, this means of moral disengagement may be less relevant to
their advocacy of warfare. But more important, in hierarchically orga
nized systems with a strict chain of command, displacement and diffu
sion of responsibility are built into the policy and operational structure
of military forces, thus providing sociostructural exemptions from
accountability at lower ranks.
Dehumanization of foes makes it easier to kill them without remorse
(Ivie, 1980; Keen, 1986). The most striking difference in moral disengage
ment following the terrorist attack was a change from disavowal of de
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 159
humanization to bestialization of the enemy. The unique contribution of
this mode of disengagement was weaker prior to the terrorist attack but
more than twice as strong in support of a military campaign against the
sanctuaries harboring the terrorists. The most likely explanation for this
reversal and increase in mediating function was the heightened sense of
personal vulnerability instilled by the enormity of the terrorist violence
on one’s homeland. This finding is all the more striking because dehu
manization was measured in terms of a beastly nature. The less extreme
forms of dehumanization, which are currently in vogue, tend to charac
terize terrorists and enemy rulers as inherently evil devoid of any moral
sense rather than as beastly creatures.
The various sociodemographic factors were related to proneness to
moral disengagement for the use of military means. Disengagement was
stronger for males, the lesser educated, those of White ethnicity, and res
idents outside the Austin region. That males are more facile moral
disengagers than females is in accord with a similar gender difference
evident even at an early age with regard to transgressive conduct
(Bandura et al., 1996, 2001). The differential gender proneness for moral
disengagement may arise, in large part, from the gendered socialization
of aggression. For males, aggressive styles of behavior are more exten-
sively modeled, socially condoned, and invested with functional value
(Bandura, 1973; Bussey & Bandura, 1999). This makes it easier for males
to sanctify violent means.
Individuals of lower education were more inclined toward disengage-
ment of moral sanctions than the more highly educated. The public is ex-
posed daily to televised newcasts with political pundits and talk shows
featuring prominent officials with carefully crafted justifications for the
courses of action they favor. As previously noted, this medium is in
creasingly used as a vehicle for legitimizing military means to resolve in
ternational conflicts. Those of lower education rely more heavily on tele
vision for the information about international conflicts and remedies for
them. In experimental research (McAlister, 2001), persuasive communi
cations favoring suspensions of moral restraints in military campaigns
raised espousal of moral disengagement practices, whereas communi
cations promoting engagement of moral agency fostered disavowal of
Interestingly, there was a notable difference in the direction of the rela
tion between some of the sociodemographic factors and support of mili
tary force against the two foes. The wealthier, more highly educated,
and older Whites were more supportive of military action against Iraq,
but not for immediate counterstrikes against likely terrorist sanctuaries.
Administration policy makers and many influential media pundits
championed military action against Iraq as a humanitarian mission that
160 McALISTER ET AL.
would free long–suffering Iraqis from brutal tyrannical rule. In this sce
nario, the military intervention would establish a model of secular de
mocracy to be used to liberalize the autocratic regimes in the Mideast
and pacify the region. Some prominent liberal intellectuals, dubbed
“humanitarian hawks,” also became advocates of military intervention,
citing Bosnia as evidence that military power can be used for humanitar
ian ends (Packer, 2002). The terrorists presented a new type of global en
emy that is decentralized, mobile, operating surreptitiously worldwide
through loosely connected affiliates, and cannot be eradicated by oust
ing a leader. The more highly educated and well–to–do participants in
the study were wary of precipitous unilateral military action against
such a dispersed, shadowy enemy.
The dependence of the relation between sociodemographic factors
and support of military means on the mediating effect of moral disen
gagement also differed across foes. The sociodemographic effect de
pended entirely on level of moral disengagement for military force
against terrorists, but it operated both directly and mediationally for
bombardment of Iraq. A possible explanation for this difference is that
the construal of the military action against Iraq as a humanitarian inter-
vention brought personal predilections into play as well. Given the Gulf
War and the lengthy military containment, views regarding the control
of Iraq had a long time to crystallize along demographic and social struc-
tural lines. In contrast, the terrorist posed a new shadowy domestic
threat. Alternatively, the differential structural paths may be due to dif-
ferences in level of personal threat. Iraq, which was boxed in by no-fly
zones with continuous aerial surveillance by Allied warplanes and bom-
bardment of their defense and communication facilities, posed a more
remote threat. By contrast, the elusive Al Qaeda network presented a
continuous terroristic threat on one’s own soil reinforced periodically by
governmental warnings of possible new attacks. The warnings do not
specify the timing, location, or method of attack so everyone may feel
vulnerable. Under high personal threat proneness to moral
disengagement can override the influence of sociodemographic factors.
In analyses of the multicausation of behavior, sociodemographic fac
tors are typically assigned priority as the background distal determi
nants against which the unique contribution of other factors are evalu
ated. As previously noted, the categorical sociodemographic factors are
essentially proxies for personal attributes that are the product of experi
ences typically associated with gender, age, and the like. Obtained em
pirical relations often get interpreted at the categorical level in terms of
ascribed attributes rather than at the individual level of the actual attrib
utes of persons cast in the particular category. Not all individuals fit the
attribute typicality of the assigned group. Thus, for example, not all col
SEPT. 11 AND MORAL DISENGAGEMENT 161
lege graduates think alike or share the same beliefs on sociopolitical
matters. The findings of the present study underscore the need to evalu
ate the unique contribution of categorical sociocognitive factors when,
as in the present case, the influence of proneness to moral
disengagement is partialed from them.
Verification of the selective exercise of moral agency in the use of le
thal means requires converging evidence from diverse methodologies
(Bandura, 1999). The present study examined the role of moral disen
gagement in sanction of military means to a national threat under a
tragic occurrence of immense magnitude. The disinhibitory power of
moral disengagement practices is well established experimentally. Sys
tematic variation in moral justification, displacement and diffusion of
responsibility, sanitizing language, minimizing or obscuring injurious
effect, and dehumanization enable otherwise considerate people to
carry out injurious behavior (Bandura et al., 1975; Diener et al., 1975;
Milgram, 1974; Zimbardo, 1969). Conversely, enhancement of moral en-
gagement reduces preference for lethal means (McAlister, Ama,
Barroso, Peters, & Kelder, 2000). In developmental analyses, level of
moral disengagement predicts subsequent injurious conduct after con-
trolling for prior level of injuriousness and other possible psychosocial
contributors to such conduct (Bandura et al., 2001). Verification of rela-
tions between moral disengagement practices and inhumanities perpe-
trated under conditions of social strife and tyranny lend further support
to the contributory role of moral disengagement (Andrus, 1969;
Bandura, 1990, 2004; Ivie, 1980; Kelman & Hamilton, 1989; Rapoport &
Alexander, 1982; Reich, 1990). The findings of these diverse lines of
research lend support to the contribution of moral disengagement.
The terrorist attacks on U. S. consulates and military installations
abroad and the devastating strike on its homeland presented a grave na
tional threat with reverberating international consequences. There is no
absolute prohibition against the use of military force. A nation has a
right to self–defense to protect the welfare of its people from outside at
tacks. However, military means can vary in their form, scope, and inten
sity. Not all forms of military self–defense may be morally permissible
(Boyle, 2003). The use of military force also brings into play international
constraints and supports that pose further moral dilemmas (Byers,
The terrorist attacks called for national protective countermeasures
against further terrorist strikes. Terrorism and fighting it with military
means involves two–sided moral disengagement. The ways in which
the mechanisms of moral disengagement are enlisted by terrorists to ter
rorize populations is addressed in some detail elsewhere (Bandura,
1990, 2004). But lethal means must also be morally justified and moral
162 McALISTER ET AL.
self–sanctions disengaged by targeted nations to enable them to gain
public support for military force, and to mount military campaigns that
will necessarily inflict death and destruction (Bandura, 2004).
For reasons given earlier, even when military interventions meet the
moral standards for a justifiable war, a nation has to invest the military
campaign with moral purpose to mobilize public support, convince the
public that the intervention will prevent more harm than it causes, spare
its fighters disturbing images of the gory horrors of war, relieve them of
responsibility for the effects of military operations over which they do
not command control, depersonalize the foes, and portray them as
bringing the suffering on themselves.
The just war principles specify the conditions for the permissibility of
military self–defense (Boyle, 2003; Walster, 1992). These conditions in
clude necessity, proportionality, discrimination, humanity, justness of
cause and rightness of intention. Judged by these criteria, the military
force is used for a just cause and right intent rather than for vengeance,
or as a pretext for gaining control of resources or geopolitical advantage.
The counterstrikes against the terrorists are justified as the last resort af-
ter nonviolent means have been exhausted. The military campaign is
limited to the level of force needed to eradicate the threat. The
counterstrikes are conducted in ways that minimize civilian casualties.
A fruitful line for further research is to clarify how moral disengagement
affects the form, scope, and intensity of military countermeasures that a
public will support under different levels of national threat.
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