Expert Voices

Is Syria's Assad Evil? Why the Answer Matters (Op-Ed)

Syria Civil War Satellite Photos
This satellite image shows some of the destruction in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. On Sept. 9, 2012, Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district (top) is completely intact. By Dec. 15, 2012, however, large areas of the district (outlined in red) have suffered extensive damage, one large multistory tower (red arrows) has been destroyed, and another (yellow arrows) has partially collapsed. Roadblocks and debris in the street suggest heavy fighting. (Image credit: Imagery copyright 2013 DigitalGlobe; Analysis by AAAS)

Maggie Campbell is a doctoral researcher in social psychology at Clark University, where she works with assistant professor Johanna Ray Vollhardt. Campbell contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

From childhood, many people have been culturally ingrained with the idea that they must fight vigorously against evil. People embrace and often celebrate this message — whether cheering at seeing Dorothy melt the Wicked Witch or superheroes eradicating villains.

This notion is deeply difficult to challenge and can color people's opinions on policy issues. Recent research suggests that a person's belief in evil plays a factor in how they view violent conflict and could offer another reason why the question of whether or not to bomb Syria is so contentious.

Despite Syria's recent agreement to give up its chemical weapons, the public debate continues over what actions, if any, the United States should take in this conflict. Even those who think the United States should intervene militarily differ in their reasoning: Is it to punish President Bashar al-Assad for the inhumane use of chemical weapons? To protect Syrian civilians? Or do Americans need to intervene to show the strength of the United States and reduce the instability in the Middle East that may threaten their own nation?

For many people, these are not easy questions with simple answers. Opinions on the conflict tend to be quite varied, even within political parties and ideological groups. So what else, aside from political ideology, might explain when and why people support or oppose intervention? The prevalent rhetoric of labeling Assad as "evil" points to one important component that may factor into people's opinions.

Research by Clark University social psychologist Johanna Ray Vollhardt and myself, recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that the extent to which a person believes that some people, or social groups, are completely evil relates to that individual's opinions on violence.

In four surveys conducted among Americans (between 18 and 87 years old) across the country, Vollhardt and I found that those who believed that there are evil people were also consistently more likely to support violent action against those perceived as enemies. For example, people believing in evil tended to be more supportive of the death penalty for suspected terrorists, killing enemies without trial, and harsh interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay. Additionally, those who believed more strongly that some people are evil were more in favor of the United States possessing nuclear weapons.

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In contrast, those who believed less firmly that there are evil people and groups were more likely to support the creation of a U.S. Department of Peace as well as American aid to the victims of the U.S. sieges in Fallujah, Iraq.

Importantly, our analysis allowed us to rule out that this effect was merely driven by political ideology, religious identification and a number of other influential demographic and psychological factors. Instead, the reason for this effect is an underlying belief that violence is the only way to deal with evil and is morally acceptable — a notion referred to as "redemptive violence."  When people believe that they are on the side of "good," it becomes much easier to justify or even celebrate using violence as the only way to rid the world of "evil," even in cases where this may involve the loss of innocent lives.

While our research examines the relationship between a mindset that views certain people as solely evil and support for violent policies, other psychologists have found in experiments that labeling a person as evil can actually cause more punitive responses. So, based on our research we cannot say with certainty that the continued labeling of Assad as "evil" will necessarily increase support for military strikes in Syria, but it seems likely that it would have an effect — especially when these military strikes are framed as "punishing Assad."

In the Syrian context, many who label Assad as evil are likely doing so with the well-intentioned motive of getting others to understand and react to the atrocities that have been inflicted on so many innocent Syrian people. Someone could argue that not labeling those who commit atrocities as evil may lead us to excuse or diminish vile acts and those perpetrating them, and make us naïve to the dangers in our world.

For example, many people have expressed disappointment or even revulsion at the chemical weapons agreement that was reached with Syria — saying that it makes the United States appear weak, or that Assad is now "getting away" with the use of chemical weapons, and that the agreement will not hold.

Ignoring crimes against humanity is shameful, so any attempt at making the world pay attention is important. And people certainly sit up and take notice when we hear the word "evil." However, this term might also evoke strong opinions about how this evil must be confronted. Our research suggests that viewing certain people as evil may prevent us from considering diplomacy and other nonviolent interventions that will prevent further loss of innocent lives.

So, while this label of "evil" gets our attention, does it only leave us with the option of a violent response? As the nation discusses Syria — or any other potential violent conflict — people must recognize how powerful the notion of evil can be. That one word can make a big difference in our perspective.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Clark University