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In the Wake of 9/11Review - In the Wake of 9/11
The Psychology of Terror
by Thomas A. Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg
American Psychological Association, 2002
Review by Isabel Gois
Feb 11th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 7)

My advice about this book is: Read It Now. At a time when military action against Iraq looms large on the horizon, and ‘war on terrorism’ appears to inflame all sorts of fast and simple-minded opinions on whom the ‘real bad guys’ are, this book stands out for its lucid and clear-headed analysis of the emotions stirred up by the 9/11 attacks, both from the point of view of those who planned and perpetrated these attacks and those who (directly or indirectly) suffered them. More boldly, the authors put forward their own view of how to build constructive solutions to conflicts in which violent protest easily gathers sympathizers (namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), while arguing for ways in which the appeal of terrorist action can be greatly diminished and possibly even eliminated – all the while without any need for military campaigns of arguable effectiveness. It also suggests and advises mental health practitioners and social workers on concrete measures to deal with the psychological effects likely to follow the attacks, and how each one of us (whether American or more generally, a citizen of the Western World) can deal with this brutal reminder of life’s fragility (see especially chapters 5 and 6). In others words, this is a timely book that speaks to all – politicians, researchers, businessmen and layman – who are looking for more than a knee-jerk reflection on the events surrounding 9/11.

A project this ambitious will no doubt command disagreement from some of its readers, if not for all of its claims then certainly for a few of them. The authors’ analysis of the reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon is based on what they call Terror Management Theory (TMT), a broad psychological model which explains prejudice and ethnic conflict as the result of human beings’ need for ‘death-denying cultural constructions’. Less obscurely, TMT posits that our uniquely human awareness of our own mortality opens the possibility of ‘overwhelming terror’ that we then try to circumvent via the construction and maintenance of a system of beliefs (i.e., culture) that assures each of us a place of enduring value in a world of assured meaning. It’s clear enough, however, that the diversity of existing cultures means that not all belief systems can be ‘right’ and, consequently, the mere existence of different cultures threatens to undermine the validity of one’s own illusions of immortality. Most of us deal with this threat by trying to convince others to adopt our beliefs, by clinging harder to our views and derogating theirs or, in more extreme cases, by excluding those who are different and even exterminating them. The authors draw empirical support for the claims of TMT from a significant number of studies showing that reminders of death produce increased defence of one’s own cultural allegiances with a concomitant greater affection for those who uphold similar beliefs and greater hostility to different others (see in particular chapters 3 and 4). It is precisely under the umbrella of this theoretical framework that the authors understand Americans’ proximal and distal reactions to the 9/11 attacks, and dig at the underpinnings of the hatred that is directed by some Islamic fundamentalist groups against Western civilization and the United States in particular. With regard to this later aspect, the idea is that the only-too-understandable need of the Arab world to hold on to its own cultural defensive shield against existential fears is being exaggerated by a host of historical, political and economic factors that work together to convey the impression to some in the Islamic world that nothing short of elimination can diminish the threat posed by the Western worldview.

As I’ve said before, it is very likely that some readers will take issue with at least a few of the tenets espoused by TMT. Not only do the authors affiliate themselves with a trend not-so-popular-these-days for broad theories of motives affecting social behaviour (typically, researchers complain that such theories are very hard to evaluate empirically), their suggested measures to help solve existing ethnic conflicts and counter the intolerance and fundamentalism of certain groups (for let us not forget that fundamentalist thinking also plagues certain factions of contemporary Christianity and Orthodox Judaism) might seem somewhat naïve or impossibly appeasing. Apart from recommending attentive reading of the book, it should be said on behalf of the authors that they themselves ask for their analysis to be supplemented by foreign policy experts, historians, psychologists of all makes and any other relevant branch of academia. What’s more, the clarity of exposition, the careful structure of the argumentation and the rigour of analysis, to my mind, make this book a prime example of the sort of integrated approach we need to events like the 9/11 and how academic (in this case, social) psychology can educate our views and policies.

 

© 2003 Isabel Gois

 

Isabel Gois is a PhD student at King’s College London working on Consciousness. Her research interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She has articles published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.   


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