Variation in Individuals' Responses to Violence Against Civilians

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Why do people affected by wartime violence sometimes support armed actors that target civilians? More broadly, how do they respond to civilian targeting? Answering these questions is crucial for understanding civilian attitudes toward armed groups and transitional justice. I draw on research from moral and political psychology concerning dyadic morality, motivated reasoning, and moral disengagement to argue that people's responses to civilian targeting are shaped by moral considerations, identity, and self-interest. Individuals characterize some forms of violence against civilians as less unethical; they are more willing to support perpetrators who violate less strict norms, have less agency, or have less clear causal ties to the victims. Further, their preferences over conflict actors shape their reactions to civilians targeting; such preferences are affected by violence, governance, and ideology. However, given the strong norm against civilian targeting, people must justify the violence committed by their preferred side in order to continue supporting the perpetrators. I test this argument in the case of Colombia, relying on two original online survey experiments, analysis of pre-existing survey data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project, interviews with civil society leaders, and archival research. In doing so, I find evidence that people are more likely to support perpetrators who engage in forms of civilian targeting they perceive as less unethical, even when both forms of violence pose an equivalent level of physical threat. They also respond less negatively to civilian targeting when the perpetrators provide them effective governance or promote an ideology similar to their own. Further, people justify reduced punishment for violence committed by their preferred side by characterizing that side's abuse as less likely to be the responsibility of armed group leadership and as less harmful.





Levy, Gabriella (2023). Variation in Individuals' Responses to Violence Against Civilians. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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