How Images Can Completely Flip Public Opinion

It’s been pointed out by many wise people that terrorists don’t actually have to take over the country (they can’t anyway, of course) to damage it immensely. If they “hate us for our freedom,” as George W. Bush so absurdly claimed, all they have to do is scare us into giving at least some of it up. And the beheadings of two American journalists appear to have done exactly that.

While the Snowden revelations led to a lot of American soul-searching when it came to just how much of our civil liberties we want to yield in the name of protecting ourselves from terrorism, the soul-searching has largely come to an end, according to a new poll.

The Pew Research Center poll shows 50 percent of Americans say the government has not gone far enough to protect the country, while 35 percent are more concerned about the government going too far to restrict civil liberties. That’s the most pro-security posture Americans have had on this question since 2009 and one of the highest on record since Sept. 11, 2001.

In contrast, 10 months ago, in the midst of several big Snowden leaks, significantly more Americans favored the civil liberties emphasis (47 percent) over taking additional steps to secure the homeland (35 percent).

What changed? Not the fact that two journalists were killed. More than 150 journalists have been killed during the Syrian civil war over the last few years and another 150 in Iraq since the Gulf War began, barely registering a blip on the cultural or political radar. No, what happened was that two journalists were killed in a particularly gruesome way and the video was put online. ISIS was clearly trying to deliberately provoke our fear and our revulsion and they have succeeded about as completely as one could possibly imagine. They have provoked the president to launch a vague, undefined, open-ended quasi-war and once again given the American people a reason to look the other way while the government continues to shred the Bill of Rights. Yep, we are really that simple and easy to manipulate emotionally.

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  • eric

    The truly sad thing is that these images really have nothing to do with state security. If they changed people’s opinion on hawkish or doveish foreign policy, that would at least make some sort of sense. But somehow, people see a picture of a violent uprising halfway around the world and say “mmmm….gotta get the NSA to read more South Carolinian emails…”

  • timothycarter

    Likewise, everyone knew months ago what Rice did to his fiance in the elevator. But when they saw the video of what they already knew, that led to his firing. In one case, it led to people doing what they should have done earlier, in another, it is leading us to do what we were right to be wary of doing before. In neither case does the call to action seem to be based on reason.

  • dhall

    Giving up civil liberties and rights in the name of security seems to have been an issue in the US since its founding, judging by Ben Franklin’s famous quote about it. Very smart man. But more than 200 years later, we still haven’t listened to him.

  • laurentweppe

    But somehow, people see a picture of a violent uprising halfway around the world and say “mmmm….gotta get the NSA to read more South Carolinian emails…”

    Indeed: the confusion is the greatest problem: there’s nothing incoherent in being at the same time appealed by Snowden’s revelations And disgusted by the ISIS adherence to limpieza the sangre and systematic murder of everyone not bending the knee. One can at the same time favor greater western involvement in the region against ISIS And demands that western powers do not sugarcoat their deeds with pretty lies.

    This all or nothing attitude –you’re either favorable to the shredding of the rule of law in western countries, Or you’re a cowardly Chamberlain-lite– that the neocons love so much has been debunked as dishonest attempts by tiny radical groups to use emotional blackmail in order to smother dissent against their tenets and by now people should have stopped playing along.

  • felidae

    Oh, by the way, our friends over in Saudi Arabia beheaded 26 people last month–they just don’t put the video on the web

  • Trebuchet

    @5: And almost certainly provided the lion’s share of ISIL’s funding and fighters.

  • Diego Garcia

    Ed, you are giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

  • Drewzilla

    Diego Garcia @ 7:

    Seriously? Seriously?! That’s what you take away from Ed’s post? Jesus fucking Christ, stop cowering in fear from an enemy who will almost certainly never touch you and take a stand against bad people in both America and in the Middle East. It’s seriously not that hard. Beheadings are bad. Unilateral surveillance of a population/restriction of civil freedoms is bad. Those two things don’t stand at opposite ends of the good/bad meter. They exist on the same side. Fucking grow up.

  • Ichthyic

    Yep, we are really that simple and easy to manipulate emotionally.

    oh, it’s not just the US, OZ jumped in with both feet as soon as the dust settled from Obama’s announcement of his “plan”.

    they are already shipping warplanes to the area,

    If it wasn’t election time in NZ, I’m sure the right wing National government here would already be sounding out how they can get involved. They’re saving that for next month, I’m sure.

    gullible, ignorant, fearful, people are still the norm, the average.

    It’s slightly more sane here than it was in the States, but the right wing is fast and furiously trying to wreck that little bit of sanity.

  • eric

    OT but I am now having page navigation problems, and I think it’s a problem with one or more of the ads. I’m using Explorer. What happens is this: an ad pops up on the left-hand side of the page, shifting everything to the right until I click on the ad to close it. That’s no problem…the problem is, sometimes when they pop up, the navigation bars on the right and bottom of the page disappear, and they don’t come back, which makes it impossible to navigate the screen any more. I have to close the tab altogether and re-open a new one to get the navigation bars back.

  • colnago80

    Re eric @ #10

    Happens sometimes with Firefox too.

  • dingojack

    Ed – the pop-up is for Verizon (I can’t get information on the IP addy – right-clicking just takes me to a page telling about other Flash player products).

    Eric – clearing the ad, then refreshing works for me. (Windows 8.1)


  • dingojack
  • freehand

    I have little patience with people who know certain facts, yet respond so powerfully and irrationally to video clips. Children die by the millions every day, yet show one little girl’s rescue over some hours on national news, and everybody’s in tears. Killing journalists by beating or shooting provokes a hearty “Meh” from most people but a gory video or two has them hysterically calling for violence as a proxy for security. Are people really terrified by this? More innocents will die, and the US will become even less secure than it was after 8 years of Dubya.


    Sigh. In the meanwhile, the whole planet is on the fast train to Hell and High Water, the greatest threat to humanity in at least 60,000 years, and most folks don’t seem to give a damn. We’re really all just chimps in Dockers, aren’t we? I’ll be in my garden if anyone needs me.

  • laurentweppe

    I have little patience with people who know certain facts, yet respond so powerfully and irrationally to video clips […] Are people really terrified by this?

    Yes they are: our brains have trouble emotionally grasping abstract data, which is why storytellers: novelists, griots, movie makers, and yes -even if I know that half the readership it would rather tear off their own jaw rather than aknowledge it- priests, are so vital for human societies: their tales’ role is to make sure that abstract notions are connected to our limbic system so we don’t become apathetic and indifferent to our fellow humans suffering.