Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2009

Just Deserts in Iraq: American Vengeance for 9/11

Linda J. Skitka, Peter Liberman

October 2008

Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies


In January 2002 national survey data, we find a strong relationship between Americans’ desire to avenge 9/11 and their bellicosity toward Iraq, even after controlling for the perceived terrorist threat, leftright ideology, and approval of U.S. political leaders. This effect could have been due to suspicions of Iraqi complicity in 9/11 stemming from prior enemy images of Iraq, or to the effects of anger and desires for revenge on out-group antipathy, displaced blame, and optimistic assessment of war risks. We test the outgroup antipathy hypothesis and find evidence that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim antipathy partially mediated vengefulness’s effect on bellicosity. Vengeance, in turn, was boosted by retributiveness (proxied by rightwing authoritarianism) and patriotism. While perceptions of the Iraqi threat probably assumed greater importance over the course of the following year, additional survey data shows that even as war approached, most supporters acknowledged it would satisfy a desire for revenge.