BOWLING GREEN - Americans were quick to label the events of last Sept. 11 “evil,” but for many the word had a deeper meaning than generic badness.
It meant the devil made the terrorists do it.
A new study by researchers at Bowling Green State University has shown that a personal devil was a big part of how people perceived and responded to what happened on Sept. 11. And, those who explained the attacks by blaming the devil, the study found, also were more likely to want revenge and retaliation against the perpetrators.
“The Devil Made Them Do it: Desecration and Demonization and the 9/11 Attacks,” which was conducted by BGSU's Spirituality and Psychology Research Team, surveyed 259 Bowling Green students last November and December and another 57 students at New York City's Fordham University, a small Jesuit school, in April and May.
Dr. Annette Mahoney, associate professor of psychology at BGSU and the study's principal investigator, said that since Sept. 11, Americans have become comfortable with using the word “evil” to describe the attacks without realizing its spiritual ramifications.
The study, she said, shows how evil is connected to the transcendent realm. “It's not just something bad. It's something that people perceive in spiritual terms ... that the devil is involved.”
Participants in the study were asked eight questions about whether the terrorists had intentionally done the work of the devil or if the devil had manipulated the terrorists. Both groups reported moderate to high levels of what researchers called “demonization.”
For example, 60 percent of the BGSU students and 56 percent of the Fordham students said they believed the terrorists had confused God's work with the devil's work. Sixty-four percent of the BGSU respondents and 49 percent of the Fordham participants agreed that the devil was at work in the terrorists' actions.
Students who tended to demonize the terrorists also were more likely to agree with statements like “No punishment is too extreme for these people,” “These people should be tracked down and assassinated,” and “These people should suffer for all of eternity.” In addition, such students reported having more symptoms of post-traumatic distress after Sept. 11, but also had experienced greater spiritual and psychological growth.
The study also asked 14 questions about whether the participants saw the terrorist attacks as a “desecration,” meaning they violated an aspect of life seen as sacred or connected to God. Eighty-three percent of the Ohio students and 70 percent of the New York students saw Sept. 11 as an immoral act against something they valued. Fifty-seven percent of the Bowling Green students and 49 percent of the Fordham students saw it as an offense against themselves and against God.
Those who considered the acts a desecration reported higher levels of post-traumatic symptoms and depression after the attacks, but they also experienced personal psychological and spiritual growth and tended to support the U.S. government's response to the attacks.
Although Dr. Mahoney was surprised at the high rates of responses by college students to statements that the devil was behind the attacks, she said the more important finding was how spiritual beliefs motivated the participants to re-evaulate their lives and protect themselves from people they perceived as being operatives of the devil.
“In some respects, it's not that surprising that a lot of people perceive the devil in those events because it's a way of giving voice to the events and their transcendent nature. It does fit with a lot of people's beliefs about theology, which is that there is an evil force and the devil represents that force.”
Seventy-one percent of the BGSU students and 48 percent of the Fordham students said they believed in the devil. The majority in both groups also described themselves as moderately or very religious and as moderately to very spiritual.
Those who were more religious also tended to demonize the terrorists and see their actions as a desecration of something sacred. However, even the Fordham participants, most of whom rated themselves as moderately religious or liberal, showed fairly high rates of demonization, Dr. Mahoney said.
Only about 4 percent of students in the study were Jewish, Muslim, or another religion besides Christian, but Dr. Mahoney said religious affiliation has not been shown to be a useful measure in such studies because there is so much denominational diversity within the major religions.
Students were asked about the role of forgiveness in their response to the terrorist attacks, but many respondents skipped over the item, apparently thinking it was a sample question. Researchers decided not to apply that factor.
Researchers hope this fall to survey the BGSU group again to determine whether, with time, forgiveness has increased and feelings of retaliation have decreased. “It's possible people have worked through it and processed more deeply and come to a different resolution than people who are less prone to consider the spiritual elements of the whole situation,” Dr. Mahoney said.
The idea to study demonization actually was raised before Sept. 11 in discussions between Dr. Mahoney and Dr. Ken Pargament, BGSU professor of psychology and founder of the Spirituality and Psychology Research Team. When the terrorist attacks occurred, both agreed they were a natural focal point for the study.
Dr. Mahoney, who presented the study's findings last month before the American Psychological Association, said she thinks it is important to understand how Americans are making sense of Sept. 11 from a personal spiritual perspective because of the power of spiritual beliefs to influence those who hold them.
“The theological dimension of the tragedy could be being missed in terms of our public dialogue about the whole thing. I think people talk about it politically, socially, psychologically, but I haven't heard that much about the impact on people spiritually.”