Fever Pitch

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Sure, Houston is home to the Bush family, Halliburton and thousands of Humvee drivers, but calling us a city of warmongers would be a stretch.

Or maybe not.

According to the author of an eight-month survey conducted by the University of Texas, Houston suffers from an acute case of "war fever."

People with that affliction might be good citizens, says Dr. Alfred McAlister, but they have come to accept using tanks and guns to solve problems. "We found that in the U.S.A., these attitudes were strongest in the Houston area," says McAlister, a behavioral scientist at the UT School of Public Health in Houston. "People in Houston are generally more likely to accept justifications for war, like the idea that it is okay to make war to increase our economic security."

McAlister's research began a few months before the 9/11 terrorism attacks and has become even more relevant as Americans seek to explain how U.S. troops could have committed atrocities at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The survey attempted to gauge and explain attitudes toward war and torture through a set of 11 carefully worded questions sent to more than 1,000 participants.

For example, one question asked whether respondents agreed with this statement: "Terrorists do not deserve to be treated like human beings." Initially, 38 percent of those surveyed agreed; after 9/11, the number jumped to 58 percent.

Participants also provided their views on statements such as "Some collateral damage is an acceptable part of a military operation," and "If another nation threatens our military security, it is right to attack them before they attack us."

Taken together, the attitudes about the statements are meant to measure "moral disengagement," a term coined in the 1970s by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura. It refers to how otherwise peaceful societies can nevertheless justify violence and waging war. Some aspects of moral disengagement include dehumanizing foes, minimizing civilian casualties and arguing that atrocities are justified to prevent worse atrocities.

"I really hope our research will help people realize that there are dangerous ways of thinking that make people more likely to choose violence than they need to be," McAlister says. "And they really need to understand how they work."

Apparently, the greatest need for a crash course is in Houston, where the population ranks 20 percent higher on McAlister's scale of moral disengagement than in the rest of the United States.

A big part of Houston's mind-set, McAlister says, are Anglo males who seem overwhelmingly convinced that going to war to protect "our economic security" is a good idea. Before 9/11, half of all white males nationally agreed with that view -- two-thirds of Houston's white males agreed. After 9/11, those sentiments for that group climbed to 75 percent in Houston.

Those who attribute Houston's hard-line attitudes to the Wild West heritage of the Lone Star State are mistaken. McAlister's results from statewide surveys show Texas attitudes are on a par with those of the nation overall. What's not surprising, Austin's susceptibility to war fever was low -- only about a fourth that of Houston's.

"Age and education level appears to play a part in it," McAlister said. Young, well-educated people -- common in a university town -- are usually less bellicose, he explained. But some of the difference is simply a mystery.

In a few years, Houston's susceptibility to war fever might ebb. Internationally, Mexico measures the lowest for war fever, McAlister found. Continued Mexican immigration here might tip the balance toward peace.

McAlister offers a version of his survey questionnaire on the Web site www.peacetest.org. The site has already sparked controversy, especially after e-mails were sent to Houston medical students encouraging them to try the test.

One student took exception to the term "war fever," which McAlister gleaned from a statement made by Secretary of State Colin Powell shortly before the Iraq war. The student reposted the invitation on his blog, writing after the term, "this is an obvious attempt to label those who won't fellate terrorists as mentally sick."

A military brat who grew up in Fort Worth, McAlister concedes he's biased against using military force as anything but a last resort. But he says any political motivations attributed to his research depend entirely on one's perspective.

"If I was a Pakistani social psychologist, studying the moral disengagement that bin Laden and his followers preach about how to dehumanize us," he says, the terrorists "would see me as aiding the enemy against them."

Political implications aside, researchers say the theories McAlister has employed to design and interpret his survey are not controversial, at least not in the world of academia. "I have not run across any serious critiques of the approach anywhere," says sociology professor Lester Kurtz, an authority on peace studies at UT-Austin. "My guess is it would be more likely to be controversial to the general public -- which you would hope, because the whole reason we do this stuff is to make people think and debate."

McAlister declines to discuss his own views on the war in Iraq, but he believes war fever is still running dangerously high in the United States. He fears an immoderate response if another terrorist attack occurs.

"We've got a mild case of moral disengagement," he says, "enough that something is happening. But the thing is, we're 200 million people in the richest country in the world. So if we've got a mild case of war fever, if we catch a cold, you know what I mean, somebody else is gonna get hurt."

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