Moral Outrage, 9/11, and Love

The roiling ocean of anger and moral outrage by Yuriy Khimanin from Unsplash

Fear and 9/11

This Sunday is September 11. Fifteen years ago on that day, when two planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth one fell into a field in Pennsylvania, thousands of people died, and our world was changed. We experienced vulnerability in a way we never had before.  Now we tolerate long lines at airports and profile people with brown skin in the hope that we will be safe.

The threat of terrorism frightens us, although the number of terrorist attacks in the United States has gone down significantly from 1970. Even if you count school, church, and mall shootings, we are more likely to die from choking or from fire than from a terrorist’s bullet or bomb. Yet how many of us are careful when we eat or keep our fire extinguishers charged?

The roiling ocean of anger and moral outrage by Yuriy Khimanin from UnsplashIn his article “‘Fear Factors’ in an Age of Terrorism,” David Ropeik does a good job of explaining why we fear threats like bombings and shootings so intensely. One reason is the dread and horror associated with terrorism. Another is that incidents like 9/11 and mass shooting are rare, even if the news media make them seem common. Since most of us never experience a terrorist attack, we thankfully have no way to get used them.

Regardless of why, our fear of terrorism is intense, so we want someone to take charge and keep us safe. We search for a guarantee of survival, but there is no guarantee. No matter how many guards surround us or guns we carry, the future is uncertain, and ultimately, we are powerless against death.

Shock, Fear, and Outrage

This uncertainty and powerlessness spark anger and moral outrage. We expect the world to be orderly, for the good to be rewarded and the bad punished. If that’s not how it goes, then someone’s at fault. If we can’t find a person to blame, we get mad at God or governments. We label as evil men, ethnic groups, and even entire religions.

Of course, anger and outrage are not the only emotions we experience when we feel attacked. To try and assess what a core group of us did feel on that long ago September day, a group of German researchers analyzed the messages people sent over text pagers. Jeffrey Kluger published an article, “Charting the Emotions of 9/11 – Minute by Minute,” that outlines what the researchers discovered.

Over the course of the day people expressed shock, anxiety, fear, and sadness. By the next morning, however, the expression of these emotions had decreased. On the other hand, angry texts increased nearly 10%, cresting in moral outrage and a call for vengeance. Kluger noted that while anger can give us a sense of control, thus moderating our anxiety, it also requires an outlet, and that need for an outlet can get us in trouble. Our search for vengeance on 9/11, for instance, has caused pain and suffering throughout the world for the last 15 years.

Seeking a Culprit

When we feel insecure, we get angry, and when we get angry, we look for a culprit. Wanting the threat to go away, feeling the need to win, we look for someone to humiliate, overwhelm, and destroy. After the Twin Towers collapsed, we chose the entire country of Afghanistan. Without waiting to calm down or think rationally, we started an intractable war that has been a disaster for most of us.

As Yoda says to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

We continue to suffer because of our anger on 9/11, whether that anger was secondary to fear or sadness or to an assault on our values that underlies moral outrage.

Anger and Moral Outrage

Batson, et al, authors of a study of anger and moral outrage, discovered that what we think is moral outrage may instead be self-centered anger about wrongs done to us or those we care about. They found that when we feel empathy for someone, we get angry when he’s hurt. When we don’t feel empathy, we don’t get as angry. Thus the authors conclude that there’s no such thing as moral outrage. [1]

I question the authors’ assumption that moral outrage is only moral if it’s unrelated to the depth of our empathy, but I accept their conclusion that anger depends on the love, sympathy, and compassion we feel toward the injured individual.

Take the example of that dentist, Walter Palmer, who shot Cecil the lion. Were you angry at him? Was it just because a whole country knew and loved Cecil, or because felt a connection with wild animals, or because you abhor hunting? Do you lack sympathy and compassion for rich dentists? Perhaps you hold firm beliefs about the “proper” way to hunt, so you are outraged at Palmer’s behavior? Maybe you aren’t angry at Palmer at all. Maybe you empathize not with Cecil, but with the dentist, and you feel outraged at the furious response that caused the man to shut down his dental practice.

Anger and Regret

We get upset about assaults to people and things we care about. Ultimately, we are emotional beings. We respond instinctively, with our mid-brain firing immediately and our frontal cortex trying to catch up. Sometimes, we only realize what we’ve done after the dust has settled, the angry Facebook post has been sent, the bomb has been dropped. Regret is a common human emotion, and anger can lead to regret.

Even when we take revenge on someone, we don’t universally feel regret afterwards. That’s because of the hatred Yoda was talking about. For instance, many of us respond to the homeless and people with severe addictions as if they were less than human. For individuals who cannot empathize with such out-groups, the sight of a homeless man sleeping in a doorway elicits, not compassion or tenderness, but disgust. Such a person doesn’t care about the man’s injuries. In fact, he might appreciate knowing that the inhuman object of his disgust got what was coming to her.

This is what happened after 9/11. Middle Easterners, Muslims, became the hated enemy. We may not have felt disgust, although it’s possible we did, but we certainly felt outrage.

The Purpose of Outrage

Some people have suggested that anger has a purpose, that outrage has value. After all, without anger, we wouldn’t protest injustice. Without outrage, we wouldn’t attempt to right wrongs. These emotions give us the necessary energy to face our opponents, to accept being jailed, to risk dying for a cause.

Dying for a cause is noble. We honor people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and the Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb who died at Selma. Facing up to violence and aggression is scary, but when we’re angry, we don’t care. In our anger and outrage, we minimize the risks to and emphasize the strengths of ourselves and our community.

Of course, the object of our anger and outrage will depend on who we identify with. After 9/11, some people felt outrage at those brown-skinned men, others at our incompetent government officials, and still others at our country for bombing innocent people in Afghanistan.

Anger requires empathy and identification; outrage requires compassion toward someone or something. Unfortunately, they also require an enemy. Justice may be involved. The rights of a disenfranchised group may be at stake. The survival or our very planet may hang in the balance. Yet when we get angry, when moral outrage fills us, we focus it on someone, or something, we can blame. [2]

The Emotions of 9/11

When the Twin Towers collapsed and thousands of innocent people died, we felt shock, desolation, grief, horror, and we felt anger at the affront to our values of fair play and concern for the innocent. Most of us we believe, for example, that even in war it is wrong to kill civilians. We don’t feel the same level of moral outrage when a soldier dies, even one for whom we might grieve. Yet when the other side’s soldiers die, we might even feel happy. During war time, we are taught to hate the enemy. In this way, we can destroy them without experiencing their pain.

What happens, though, if we think of everyone as siblings, as part of us, as worthy of care? Who is left to hate when we are one? How do we hate those we love? Can we really love even our enemies?

Think about how you feel toward Brock Turner and the judge who minimized the suffering of his rape victim. Think about Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump. What emotions do you feel toward them? What about Heather Bresch, the CEO of Mylan Pharmeceuticals who quadrupled the price of EpiPens compared with what they cost four years ago? How do you feel about her and her company?

That will depend. Do you empathize with the victims of rape or hate speech? Not everyone does. Some people identify with Brock, feeling sorry for his suffering, and they figure the victim was weak and deserved what she got. When you heard about the EpiPen price hike, did you imagine children dying from allergic reactions because they couldn’t afford treatment? If so, you probably felt outraged at Mylan Pharmeceutical’s action and didn’t feel compassionate toward Heather Bresch at all.

The Trouble with Anger

No matter who we’re angry at or why, this fiery emotion can get us in trouble. The sayings used by Twelve Step groups may seem cliched or superficial, yet they can be instructive. For instance, people in recovery talk about the HALTS, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired, and stressed. When we feel those things, we’re at risk of relapsing. Anger is a big relapse trigger. As Yoda tells us, it leads to suffering, and when we suffer, we want relief. To get relief, we may resort to addictive or destructive behavior.

Taking revenge is one ways we get relief, at least temporarily. If we’re self-righteous enough, we may feel relief for a long time, because we won’t question our right to exact revenge. Most of us, however, are likely to experience a twinge of regret, guilt, or shame for hurting someone else, even if the person “deserved” it. This puts us at risk of relapse, because shame and guilt are such painful emotions. Whether our problem is substance abuse, depression, overeating, or hypervigilance, anger and outrage make us miserable.

As Unitarian Universalists, we claim to “stand on the side of love.” The goal of the Standing of the Side of Love movement is “to harness love’s power to stop oppression.” This is lovely. I appreciate the sentiment and am even proud of some of the actions taken by my fellow Unitarian Universalists. Standing up for love, resisting injustice, is grand and wonderful and challenging. How do we do this without letting anger separate us from those we fight? Is it okay to rail against a corporation or a government because they don’t represent individual humans? What about the individuals who block our way, threaten our lives, shout obscenities?

Tempering Anger with Love

At times, I felt moved and awed by the protests of my fellow Unitarian Univesralists, by the voices raised in song and the arms that open to include any who are willing to step in. Even in the face of animosity, our mission as a people of faith, is to welcome the stranger, no matter who she is, and hold for her a sacred space.

Like the church members in Charleston, South Carolina who invited a murderous newcomer into their midst even thought he didn’t look like them and who were mostly able to forgive him for what he did, we Unitarian Universalists claim to love even our enemies. That means Donald Trump and Heather Bresch and Big Oil and the Tea Party.

Yet even we Unitarian Universalists are human. We will get angry at people who hurt us or those we care about. At the same time, our faith calls us to love even those hurtful people. Are we a beloved community or aren’t we? Are we called to heal those who have caused suffering, or only those who have suffered? If the latter, there won’t be very many people on our healing list.

At times, anger can be beneficial. Outrage can help us survive, as individuals and as a species. At other times, both emotions can destroy us.

Can we respond with love even in the face of anger, even we feel outraged at the injustices we witness? If so, our anger may support our recovery. If not, we may want to temper our anger before it sweeps us away.

In faith and fondness,


Photo Credits: Yuriy Khimanin from Unsplash

  1. Bateson, Daniel C, Christopher L. Kennedy, Lesley-Anne Nord, E.L. Stocks, D’yani A. Fleming, Christian M. Marzette, David A Lishner, Robin E. Hayes, Leah M. Kolchinisky, and Tricia Zerger, “Anger at Unfairness: Is It Moral Outrage?” European Journal of Social Psychology, Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 37, 1272–1285 (2007), Published online 1 May 2007 in Wiley InterScience, ( DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.434.
  2. For more about this, see: Stevens, Michael J., “Negative Emotions and Political Engagement,” from eds: Samuel Justice Sinclair and Daniel Antonius, _The Politcal Psychology of Terrorism Fears_, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.