Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death. … —JAMES BALDWIN, The Fire Next Time
Our longing to transcend death inflames violence toward each other.
“One culture is always a potential menace to another,” Becker observed, “because it is a living example that life can go on heroically within a value framework totally alien to one’s own.”
It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterize them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are.
[President] Bush served Americans’ terror management needs far better than his opponent, Senator John Kerry, in the 2004 presidential election. In a control condition in which we reminded participants of intense pain, Americans rated Senator Kerry more favourably than President Bush. But after a reminder of death, Bush was more favourably evaluated than Kerry. Six weeks before the election, control participants reported that they would be voting for Senator Kerry by a 4-to-1 margin. But other participants, after thinking about death, favoured President Bush by an almost 3-to-1 margin.
George Bernard Shaw observed that “when the angel of death sounds his trumpet, the pretences of civilization are blown from men’s heads into the mud like hats in a gust of wind.”
In a 2006 experiment, American conservatives reminded of their mortality or the events of 9/ 11 were more supportive of pre-emptive nuclear and chemical attacks on countries that posed no immediate threat to the United States.