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Hidden Shame


The motives of the Bush administration for invading Iraq in 2003 are still a mystery. All of the reasons offered, mostly claiming that Iraq may have been a danger to the United States, have been proved false. One possible explanation is that the government was embarrassed that 9/11 occurred on their watch and sought to hide humiliation by anger and violence.

Support for the idea that humiliation can lead to violence is found in a recent (2010) study of familicide: One spouse kills the other spouse and their children. Neil Websdale gathered 211 cases from all over the world. Most of the cases occurred in the last 30 or so years. The earlier cases are based mostly on press reports, but the later ones also involve much more data, coming from a wide variety of sources, such as police investigation reports and even interviews with persons who knew the family. As a result, the descriptions of the killer and his/her relationships are extremely detailed.

Websdale finds impressive support for the idea that hidden humiliation can cause violence in all of the detailed cases, a substantial majority of the 211 killers. All of these cases strongly suggest that the killer was deeply ashamed.

However, Websdale’s study also comes up with a surprise. We might assume that if a humiliated person kills, it would be in a fit of rage. That was true of the majority of the cases. However, Websdale found that a significant minority showed no anger at all. He calls this group “civic respectable” killers.

In a typical example, the family wage earner was deeply humiliated by the loss of his/her job. But he or she pretended to go to work every day while plotting the killing. It is possible that the Bush administration fits the civic-respectable pattern. After 9/11 the administration would have been plotting revenge on the killers and those that sponsored them. Failing to find a true target, they settled for Iraq.

This pattern may also hold on a much larger scale, perhaps most wars.

War-makers like Hitler seem to fit the rage pattern, but some wars don’t originate in that way. World War I, for example, looks more like the civic-respectable pattern. After the humiliating loss of the Franco-Prussian War (1871), French governments did not speak openly about the loss of French honor. Instead, for the next 43 years, they plotted war against Germany in silence. The media, however, was not silent; it was dominated by opinions on the necessity of revenge against Germany.

Perhaps we need to start examining the emotional causes of violence more closely, especially the role of hidden shame.

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