On Emotional Responses to Violence

First, it is perfectly understandable that people react with great emotions at times of violence, most especially when innocent people are the victims.

Second, however, some emotional responses are offensive and out of bounds, such as those by World Net Daily commentator (and Fox News Contributor), Erik Rush, who tweeted the following yesterday:

Third, if this response can crop up in the US, after two bombs, three deaths, and scores of injuries, what do we think that 422 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen with between 276-268 civilians killed (alongside 200-330 “unknown” killed and 1,969-3,238 militants) might do in terms of emotional responses?  And would not repeated emotional responses likely lead to even more dramatic actions than foolishly and hatefully hitting Twitter?  (BTW, the Tweet has been deleted

Beyond the obvious calculus about cycles of violence, Rush’s Islamophobia is both striking and yet, unfortunately, utterly unsurprising.

(To be honest, given the date, I have to think that the better money is on domestic anti-government types, but time will tell).

(Source for drone stats)

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Terrorism, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. john personna says:

    Someone should write a software to measure the real-time crazy level at twitter.

    (A third party crazy filter would also be a pretty good product.)

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Let me first emphasize that I don’t disagree with you, Steven. I do have a question. What is the objective measure for “offensive and out of bounds”?

    Isn’t the inherent problem with freedom of speech the Spiderman Rule?

  3. matt bernius says:

    Given the makeup of most hospitals, I hope a-holes like Rush remember that there probably a not-so-insignificant number of Muslims and people of Arab descent who were helping to save people’s lives and ease their pain in the immediate aftermath of this event.

  4. @Dave Schuler: Well, I suppose that ultimately, “offensive and out of bounds” is in the eye of beholder when it comes to a free speech regime. I, personally, think it is offensive to immediately blame an entire class of persons for a violent act, and to call for their extermination.

    The only sanction that I would call down on Rush would be public opprobrium, however. I would also caution anyone who takes him seriously as a commentator to perhaps rethink that position.

  5. Scott says:

    I don’t have much problem with the short term emotional response but longer term response is where the real damage is. Our national response to 9/11 was over the top. Our national response to Newtown has calls to place guards in every school which is also absolutely silly. Our long term emotional response to events is very juvenile.

  6. @Scott: Indeed.

    Of course, that, too, fits my broader point: we aren’t the only ones who have long-term, disproportionate reactions. Such is typical human behavior.

  7. rudderpedals says:

    I just don’t see the equivalence between unguided blasts laid in among crowds of spectators at a marathon finish line and targeted assaults aimed at soldiers.

  8. @rudderpedals:

    First, I am not stating that there is a direct equivalence between the Boston marathon bombs and drone attacks.

    Second, however, I am saying that dead innocents are dead innocents, and the emotional responses are quite strong and can motivate any number of actions,

    The bottom line would be: drones have (as have other types of weapons) killed a large number of civilians. You don’t that that helps create more militants?

  9. Foster Boondoggle says:

    “422 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen with between 276-268 civilians killed”

    But they’re brown and they speak a funny language, so their opinions don’t matter and they probably deserved it.

  10. gVOR08 says:


    Our national response to Newtown has calls to place guards in every school which is also absolutely silly.

    I agree with your point, but I would not characterize that as “our national response”. That was the NRA’s response, designed to deflect attention from the ready availability of guns and the culpability of the NRA.

  11. Gustopher says:

    People like Erik Rush are why I hope this was domestic terrorism.

    If it wasn’t, we’re going to be bombing a whole lot of innocent people in some third world country, hoping to get the five bad guys.

    We are a strong country, but we don’t act like it. We are easily goaded with a pinprick into an overwhelming response pointed in some vague direction chosen by the terrorists. And, on those rare occasions where we show some restraint, we have Republicans screaming for blood. Benghazi! Benghazi!

  12. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Why bother going to Eric Rush? A couple of commenters right here at OTB were instantly blaming the Tea Party.

  13. @Jenos Idanian #13:


    1. I would concur that that would be a wrong thing to do.

    2. Even so, I went to Rush since he has a national platform that OTB commenters don’t.

    3. Indeed, I did not see those comments in any event.

    Really, I am not sure what your point is.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes of course I see that an assault of any kind could incite emotions locally, whether airplanes or drones or seal teams dropping in or bombs at crowded gatherings. I start with a presumption that the people over there are no less intelligent than we are and clearly see the cause & effect relationship between their militant actions and the bombs that rain down from the sky. Emotions make a difference at the margins but it’s misleading to assume the other side is governed by unrestrained emotion.

  15. @rudderpedals:

    but it’s misleading to assume the other side is governed by unrestrained emotion.

    I was not suggesting this was the case.

    I am suggesting that, at the margins, individuals can react quite strongly to emotions. It doesn’t take everyone to react that way, but only a few.

    Perhaps I am missing your point? Or perhaps I am not making mine,

  16. Rusty Shackleford says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The bottom line would be: drones have (as have other types of weapons) killed a large number of civilians. You don’t that that helps create more militants?

    I don’t recall the exact quote, but Daniel Larison once
    wrote a blog post referencing the fact that hard liners assume that they are the only
    hard liners, and no other country has their own hard liners. The whole macho Being-super-tough-solves- every-problem thing falls apart if the other guys have hard liners too.

  17. @rudderpedals: BTW, I take issue with this characterization, which may be part of the problem: ” targeted assaults aimed at soldiers.”

    Our drone strikes are not “targeted assaults aimed at soldiers” insofar as the militants in question are not segregated away from the civilian population off on some battlefield. They are living amidst the civilians. And they are not even properly defined as “soldiers.”

  18. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am saying that dead innocents are dead innocents, and the emotional responses are quite strong and can motivate any number of actions

    In fact, I can see how the US’s “Well we weren’t even trying to hit your family, but they were in the way of our target and we could give fuck all” attitude would be even more enraging than deliberately targeting civilians. People often are angered more by indifference than outright hostility.

  19. matt bernius says:

    It should also be noted that unfortunately, reactions like Rush or stunts like Alex Jones & co pulled, are as much about personal brand building as they are honest emotional reactions.

    The fact is that these people — and other’s like Michael Moore — are largely operating in an “any publicity is good publicity mode.” Any push back they receive makes them a martyr (provided, of course, that they don’t say something that their core audience disagrees with).

    And, at least for me, it’s that aspect of this type of “shock commentary” that makes it so much more cynical.

    As a slight aside, it’s worth it to track down the Howard Stern show from 9/11 to experience pretty much the opposite. It was an example of when he — and the rest of the show’s cast — largely dropped their acts and actually responded to the ongoing event as real people.

  20. matt bernius says:

    @Stormy Dragon & @Steven L. Taylor:

    Sort of to this point, apparently a lot of folks on twitter in the Middle East were frustrated about how US twitter users were reacting to this bombing. The ME Twitter users were posting reminders that this sort of violence/terror via bombing is happening regularly in their regions without anywhere near this level of attention.

    To that, one ME twitter user responded with this bit of wisdom:
    Farhad (@Yahktoe)
    To everybody talking about how many people died in Iraq today: the key is to be outraged by all of it. ALL OF IT. Let’s not wedge ourselves.

  21. @matt bernius: Indeed.

  22. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m probably reading too much into the initial post.

  23. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The actors behind the 3 known bombing attempts out of Yemen (shoe, underwear, printer toner cartridges) seem to me to be valid targets, “just enemies” if you will. Militants works but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on what to call them. Soldiers or militants or combatants, or whether they’re taken by drone or grenade; these seem distinctions without differences from the target’s perspective.

  24. @rudderpedals: These distinctions actually matter a great deal.

    There is s profound difference between a soldier (which means a uniform) on a battlefield actively engaged in fighting taking a drone strike and the guy in house next to me (which is not on the battlefield in the usual sense of the word) taking a drone strike.

    Indeed, if I am understanding you properly, you underscore the reason so many shrug off the drone war and its implications because, after all, only “soldiers on the battlefield” are being targeted.

  25. @matt bernius: On the one hand, I agree that a lot of this is cynical publicity-seeking. On the other, I have heard enough talk like to this to know that some people do, in fact, think this way.

  26. wr says:

    @matt bernius: “The fact is that these people — and other’s like Michael Moore — are largely operating in an “any publicity is good publicity mode.” ”

    Excuse me, I realize that to some it’s religious dogma that BOTH SIDES DO IT, but until and unless you can find a single example of Michael Moore calling for genocide, I’d ask you to refrain from sliming the man. The fact that you find him icky does not make him the moral equivalent of this toad.

  27. matt bernius says:

    I’m specifically thinking of his “2 + 2 =” tweets from yesterday (which stated that he believed this to be the work of a right wing nut). Which, btw, fits Moore’s general pattern of immediately pushing his own political views in the unfolding/immediate aftermath of these sorts of events.

    The fact that you find him icky does not make him the moral equivalent of this toad.

    You’re reading in the idea that I find them morally equivalent. That wasn’t what I wrote. I was simply suggesting that both are operating in (among other things) an “any publicity is good publicity” mode.

    I don’t find Moore’s comments as repugnant as Rush’s. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore the fact is that Moore chose to immediately fit the events into his own fixed, provocative narrative. And if you don’t think that decision — to tweet something that was going to get picked up by the media and piss a lot of people off — is just as much about Michael Moore maintaining his own brand as what Rush was writing, then you really have partisan blinders on.

  28. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The analogy breaks down though because there’s no need to confront your next door neighbor with a drone strike. He doesn’t live on the lawless frontiers of a failed state .

  29. @rudderpedals: You both miss and make my point,

    You miss the fact that from the perspective of the Pakistani living in the border region, the next door neighbor is the next door neighbor. And to have the next door neighbor blown up (and maybe have collateral damage, including other deaths, as the result of the attacks is not a happy, normal thing. It is bomb going off next door.

    You make my point insofar as you can only view this through the prism of US-centrism as well as the assumption that since over there is Bad Guy land, blowing things up is automatically ok because, well, only Bad Guys live (and die) in Bad Guy land.

  30. wr says:

    @matt bernius: To me, the line is the call for genocide. I realize that people on both sides are hurling around silly accusations that the other side did this. This guy, however, called for the extermination of several billion people.

    If I were running a news organization I would make sure that I never had anything more to do with this scumbag. “They’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” Our first amendment protects his right to say that, but our decency as Americans should mean that no one ever listens to another word he says.

  31. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Insulting caricatures are beneath you. Everything is nuanced.

    Sparsely populated, lawless frontiers of failed states (historical battlefields too). They are what they are.

  32. @rudderpedals: so, your argument is that if one lives on the frontier of a developing state that it is okay if you and your village is bombed and there is, therefore moral culpability on the part of the bombers?

    And, further, that such conditions are ultimately no different than a battlefield?

  33. ( That should read “no moral culpability.”)

  34. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven Taylor: No, my argument was that the marathon bombing can’t be equated to the targeted killings.

  35. @rudderpedals: Again, I am not arguing for a direct equation of the two,.

    Still, you are ignoring the fact that drone strikes and other “targeted” attacks result in the death of innocent bystanders and you are so doing by declaring places where people have lived for centuries to be a “battlefield” because people the US government doesn’t like happen to be present.

    You are also dismissing the degree to which such deaths could help motivate the creation of more militants, which was part of my point.

  36. rudderpedals says:

    (I feel the need to put some meat on this)
    The most important distinction is that the drone attack targets are selected with discernment whereas the marathon bomber – if it wasn’t a mob hit on the storefront – had no particular target, just maximum casualties.

  37. rudderpedals says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I don’t have all the information. I assume there’s a good faith reason that out of the spectrum of available counter terror options from do nothing to arrest to assassination, assassination was chosen. If I had my druthers we’d arrest these people and bring them here for trial like any other criminal.

  38. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Well, Mr. Rush has been punished for his speaking out. He was called out by a member of Team Kimberlin, and then — purely as a wild coincidence, I’m sure — was SWATted.

    I’m sure he learned his lessson.

  39. @rudderpedals: All I can assume at this point is that you are ignoring the numbers I posted. Even if we assume that every single one of the militants hits were, in fact, deserving of death, you still have to account for the roughly 260 civilians killed and the other roughly 300 unclassified persons.

    (Not to mention the effects on a population of civilians to have thousands of drone attacks take place where they live. These are not small issues that can dismissed by tossing around terms like “lawless” as if they covers the problem).

  40. @Jenos Idanian #13: I didn’t ask for Rush to be punished, nor do I support making false 911 calls.

  41. matt bernius says:

    That makes sense. My threshold is a bit lower. Each his own.

    But, to your larger point, I would hope that the bookers at Fox/etc would take this type of talk into consideration and not have him back. Or at the very least that the hosts might acknowledge that he’s said stuff like this (instead of discussing how “libs and leftists are the ones who really say the hateful things”).

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Well, Mr. Rush has been punished for his speaking out.

    He didn’t deserve a SWATing — no one does. But calling what he did “speaking out” versus being an a-hole, and then pointing to the SWATing is a great example of exactly the martyring complex that keeps people like Rush posting inflamatory crap like this in order to keep his personal media brand profitable.

    In some respects — though again, I neither condone or thing he deserves the SWATing — in the long term that makes him more marketable to the audiences he wishes to reach.