The Moral Accounting of Terrorism: Competing Interpretations of September 11, 2001

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Drawing on comparative case studies, the research elucidates competing constructions of justice, responsibility, and victimhood articulated in response to September 11, 2001 on three digital discourse fora in Brazil, France, and the United States. The research extracts the moral metaphors through which Brazilian, French, and American participants judge the terrorist acts. It contrasts the underlying moral accounting schemes employed to legitimize or delegitimize the use of terrorism on 9/11. Two contrasting standpoints on political violence and associated moral underpinnings are elucidated: the morality of retribution and the morality of absolute goodness (Lakoff 2002). One ideological faction uses the morality of retribution to hold the US accountable for inciting the terrorists to act. For these individuals, political violence can be seen as a form of action that upholds a binary framing of moral order in which all moral debts must be paid. By contrast, opposing camps employ the morality of absolute goodness to condemn the terrorists by arguing that terrorist violence is inherently unjustifiable, as it necessarily results in human suffering.