The New York Times reported on increasingly heated political protests:
Public displays of political anger have been a staple of the American scene for the last eight months or so, but in recent days a handful directed at members of Congress have gone a bit further than noisy, sign-carrying assembly to window-smashing, spitting, threatening faxes and phone calls, even a cut propane line on a barbecue grill. At the end of last week, Democratic and Republican leaders, while denouncing any violence or threat of it, reached the point of trading accusations over who was most responsible.
Psychologists commented that, though people may talk about extreme measures, few are likely to actually turn to violence. Sociologists weigh in:
Kathleen Blee, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said the same was true even for groups that consider violence a central tenet. “In the white power groups I study, people can have all kind of crazy racist ideas, spend their evenings reading Hitler online, all of it,” she said, “but many of them never do anything at all about it.”
Protest groups that turn from loud to aggressive tend to draw on at least two other elements, researchers say. The first is what sociologists call a “moral shock” — a specific, blatant moral betrayal that, when most potent, evokes personal insults suffered by individual members, said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.”
This shock may derive from an image: the horrific posters of tortured animals published by animal rights groups, or of aborted fetuses by anti-abortions organizations, which speak for themselves. It can also reside in a “narrative fragment,” like the Rodney King beating, which triggered a riot all on its own.
Perhaps the best available candidate for such an outrage today is the Wall Street bailout, Dr. Polletta said. “The message there is rich people being rewarded for bad behavior,” she said. “That’s going to hit home, especially if you’ve lost a job, or know someone who has.”
The second element is a specific target clearly associated with the outrage. A law to change. A politician to remove. A company to shut down. “If the target is too big, too vague — say, the health care bill, which means many things — well, then the anger can be hard to sustain,” Dr. Polletta said. “It gets exhausting.”
Given the shifting political terrain, the diversity of views in the antigovernment groups, and their potential political impact, experts say they expect that very few are ready to take the more radical step.
“Once you take that step to act violently, it’s very difficult to turn back,” Dr. Blee said. “It puts the group, and the person, on a very different path.”