This project applies a cultural theory of “legal cynicism” developed in urban American neighborhoods to the international, racialized context of the Iraq War. It combines statistical, testimonial, and historical evidence to argue that the causes and consequences of state and anti-state violence are integrally linked to the cultural frames of the U.S.-led Coalition, insurgent militias, and Iraqi civilians. Violence in Iraqi districts is caused not just by structural conditions and overt attitudes but by state-produced cultural beliefs about the illegitimacy of a state’s rule, its unresponsiveness to citizens’ needs, and its ineffectiveness at providing security. From those beliefs, citizens develop feelings of anomic lawlessness that can be described as a cultural frame of legal cynicism—which research shows is a primary cause of homicide in urban American communities. We extend this theory to show that legally cynical framings were a driving force in the U.S.-led invasion (the U.S. falsified evidence, circumvented international laws on conflicts, and racially reorganized the Iraqi state), that legally cynical beliefs among Iraqis were a foreseeable outcome of the invasion and occupation, and that such legal cynicism was mediated by the U.S.-led mass displacement and segregation of Arab Sunni and Shia groups.

Predictably, the legally cynical, racialized frame alignment among Iraqis caused further anti-state violence. State-produced beliefs among Iraqis about the illegitimacy, ineffectiveness, and unresponsiveness of the U.S./Coalition forces and the new Iraqi state to their needs, alongside the state-produced racial disparities in feelings of defeat and disenfranchisement among the Sunni, were the key causes of persistent levels of Sunni insurgency and terrorism against the U.S./Coalition and Iraqi governments. They were also the forerunners of the predictable return of racialized violence to Iraq in 2013: the rise of the Islamic State.

Related Publications


Crimes of Terror, Counter-Terrorism, and the Unanticipated Consequences of a Militarized Incapacitation Strategy in Iraq (with John Hagan)

The Theory of Legal Cynicism and Sunni Insurgency in Post-invasion Iraq (with John Hagan and Anna Hanson)

Neighborhood Sectarian Displacement and the Battle for Baghdad: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Fear and Crimes Against Humanity in Iraq (with John Hagan, Anna Hanson, and Patricia Parker)

A Separate Peace: Explaining War, Crime, Violence, and Security During and After the Surge in Iraq (with John Hagan and Anna Hanson)

Winning Battles, Losing Wars, and the Synergy Thesis in Iraq (with John Hagan and Anna Hanson)

Atrocity Victimization and the Costs of Economic Conflict Crimes in the Battle for Baghdad and Iraq (with John Hagan and Daniel Rothenberg)