Based on the aftermath of 9/11, how does Terror Management Theory (TMT) explain war, hatred, and prejudice?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Terror management theory (TMT), proffered by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynsk, strives to explain human social behavior in light of the conflicting knowledge that all mankind must die but also has an overpowering desire to live. The theory argues that this understood conflict creates terror unique to humans and that mankind's response to that terror is also unique, the response simply being culture, what we value within culture and how we behave. In other words, cultural values provide life with more meaning, making life mean something beyond the moment created at birth and ended at death. Since through cultural values life can be understood beyond the birth through death moment, cultural values create a "symbolic mortality." It's easy to see how cultural values like religion provide "literal mortality" through the concept of the afterlife, but even other values like "national identity, posterity, cultural perspectives on sex, and human superiority over animals" represent immortality because they make life more meaningful beyond the moment of life and assume that these values will continue to exist even once a specific life is over ("Terror Management Theory"). But more importantly, TMT also proposes that allying one's self with cultural values helps feel fortified against death, thus serving in a sense to alleviate one's fear of death. In other words, if society feels a threat, people tend to support religion or other cultural values as a means of alleviating the terror associated with that threat through the belief that they are fortified against death. Simply put, "People will support religion when they are threatened not because it help them alleviating their anxiety but rather because they advertise their adherence to their own group's social norms in a situation where allies are potentially useful" (Baumard, "Is Terror Management Theory Dying?").

Since TMT acknowledges that one form of human behavior is to ally ourselves with our cultural values as a reaction against threats, it makes perfect sense that through TMT we would also consider things like war, hatred, and prejudice as cultural values to ally ourselves with. As it has also been pointed out, after 9/11, the number of Americans who bought American house flags increased from a yearly average of 2 million to 25 and 35 million, showing us that these individuals aligned themselves with the cultural value of patriotism as a means of responding to their terror of death (Baumard). But, after a terrorist attack or other severe threat, especially one in which the culprits can be identified by a specific race or other cultural group, the feelings of both prejudice and hatred would go hand in hand with patriotism. Therefore, for those individuals that felt prejudicially hating or outright rejecting another certain religion or culture would protect them from the terror of death, those individuals would also consider hatred and prejudice to be cultural values alongside more positive values like patriotism. The same can be said of war. War is often fought for defensive purposes, and it is often entered into with the assumption, or at least the strong hope, that the defenders will prevail against the offenders, like the free Western Christian nations will prevail against the terrorists. Hence, after a threat like 9/11, one might align one's self with the idea that war is right and should be fought, having the understanding in mind that winning the war will preserve lives. Even as a soldier doomed to die, TMT can be applied because the soldier fights for the greater good of saving more lives, making the soldier's life mean something beyond his/her own life, showing us that the willingness to fight is a defense mechanism against the ultimate terror of death.