Apocalyptic Violence
Century of Excess

excerpted from the book

Super Power Syndrome

America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World

by Robert J. Lifton

Thunder's Mouth Press / Nation Books, 2003. paper

... "superpower syndrome." ... a national mindset-put forward strongly by a tight-knit leadership group-that takes on a sense of omnipotence, of unique standing in the world that grants it the right to hold sway over all other nations. The American superpower status derives from our emergence from World War II as uniquely powerful in every respect, still more so as the only superpower left standing at the end of the Cold War in the early l990s.

More than merely dominate, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement, of special dispensation to pursue its aims. That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms. That is, a superpower-the world's only superpower-is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.

The murderous events of 9/11 hardened that sense of entitlement as nothing else could have. Superpower syndrome did not require 9/11, but the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon rendered us an aggrieved superpower, a giant violated and made vulnerable, which no superpower can permit. Indeed, at the core of superpower syndrome lies a powerful fear of vulnerability. A superpower's victimization brings on both a sense of humiliation and an angry determination to restore, or even extend, the boundaries of a superpower-dominated world. Integral to superpower syndrome are its menacing nuclear stockpiles and their world-destroying capacity.

Throughout the decades of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both lived with a godlike nuclear capacity to obliterate the cosmos, along with a fear of being annihilated by the enemy power. Now America alone possesses that world-destroying capacity, and post-Soviet Russia no longer looms as a nuclear or superpower adversary. We have yet to grasp the full impact of this exclusive capacity to blow up anyone or everything, but its reverberations are never absent in any part of the world.



Think of apocalyptic violence as a form of ultimate idealism, a quest for spiritual utopia. The word apocalypse derives from the Greek term for "revelation" or "uncovering." In Judaism and Christianity, the apocalyptic revelation came from God and concerned a powerful event. In Christianity especially, the event came to be understood as the end of the world itself, or as a prophecy of that end. What gives these visions their allure is that such an end, involving untold vistas of destruction, only foretold a new beginning. All-consuming violence in obliterating a hopelessly corrupt world was, in fact, required for the hopeful and lofty rebirth that was to follow.

Apocalyptic imagery exists in all the major religions. Since it is most specifically a part of Jewish and Christian doctrine, students of religion have rightly warned against invoking Western assumptions when interpreting Islam.

But Islam contains its own versions of the apocalyptic, as in fact do secular projections of world destruction and recreation found in extreme ideological movements like Communism and Fascism. Such imagery is part of a universal mythology of death and rebirth. As the student of world mythology Joseph Campbell put it, "Death-and rebirth, rebirth through ritual . . . is an extremely ancient [idea] in the history of culture." Spiritual rebirth is a goal so desirable that the annihilation of everything else on its behalf may feel justified. A recent statement by an Islamist zealot offers an indication of how far one might go on behalf of perfect spiritual renewal: "We believe in the principle of establishing Sharia [the Islamic moral and criminal code] even if this means the death of all mankind."


Examples of apocalyptic violence are everywhere in the world, though not always recognized as such when they come from our part of it. For instance, we think of Timothy McVeigh as a lone fanatic who in 1995 blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, because he was enraged at his government. Such a characterization, however, neglects the apocalyptic dimensions of his act. He felt himself to be one of many believers dedicated to bringing a new world into being. His fervent hope was that in destroying a government building he would set off a chain reaction. Others, inspired by him, would do the same throughout the country, starting a vastly destructive "revolutionary" process that would lead to the rebirth of our country as a purified white Aryan nation.

He saw himself as part of a vast secular crusade that had already begun, for he was devoted to what may be the most apocalyptically murderous volume ever written, a novel by the American neo-Nazi leader William Pierce called The Turner Diaries. (Assigning it to students for a class of mine felt like assigning them Hitler's Mein Kampf updated with nuclear weapons. McVeigh carried this novel with him everywhere, gave it to people as a gift, sold it at gun shows, and was said to have slept with it under his pillow. The novel's protagonist, Earl Turner, is part of a successful revolution of "white patriots" against the American government, which has come under the evil influence of Jews and blacks and is taking guns away from whites in order to subject them to defiled races. The revolutionaries not only succeed in taking over the government but then employ nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to systematically annihilate all Jews and all nonwhites throughout the world.

Turner becomes a great revolutionary "martyr" by crashing a plane armed with a nuclear weapon into the Pentagon, a fantasy of Pierce's that eerily anticipated the 9/11 attack. It has frequently been pointed out that McVeigh found in The Turner Diaries instructions for making and using the fertilizer bomb he would employ to such murderous effect in Oklahoma City. More instructive for him, however, was Turner's apocalyptic, if fictional, martyrdom and the novel's overall vision of world destruction in the service of the political/spiritual perfection of a "New Era."


Similarly apocalyptic visions underlie much of the terrorism in the Middle East. Palestinian Hamas suicide bombers, for instance, have had an immediate political goal: interrupting any suggestion of the peace process, which they strongly oppose. But the group's larger vision is of a holy war in which the Jews of Israel are the designated victims. Hamas's charter declares that "Allah is [our] goal, the Prophet its model, the Quran its Constitution, jihad its path, and death for the cause of Allah its most sublime belief." It speaks of a world-ending mystical process of purification in which even rocks and trees "will cry O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him!"

Parallel currents run through Israeli terrorism. Yigal Amir, who murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, was no less intent than any Hamas militant upon interrupting the peace process, though mainly because in his mind it threatened to delay the appearance of the Messiah. He belonged to a version of Jewish messianism in which "the Messiah's coming requires Jewish possession of all biblical lands promised to our ancestors." Amir also did not experience himself as alone. For instance, he held in esteem Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who, in February 1994, walked into a mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs ( a holy site shared by Muslims and Jews) with an automatic weapon and gunned down twenty-nine Palestinians at morning prayer. Like Goldstein (and in a sense like McVeigh), Amir considered himself "an agent of the Redemption," obligated to "change history and return the messianic process to its course." Amir was acting upon a long-antiquated Talmudic precept of din rodef-revived by a number of like-minded rabbis-the duty of a Jew to kill another Jew designated as a traitor because he has given away Jewish land or imperiled the lives of Jews.

In Amir's expression of Jewish apocalypticism through assassination, there was a deep conviction that "at the End of Days, the 'believers,' the Sons of Light, will defeat the heretics, the Sons of Darkness." Amir's act was an expression of the biblical politics that energize Jewish extremists, including many in the movement to settle the occupied Palestinian lands on the West Bank.

So we encounter in the Middle East contending forces, each viewing itself as on a sacred mission of murder in order to renew the world. While these apocalyptic groups are not in the majority, they can manage to dominate events by acting more or less in concert, responding to each other's acts with murderous passion, stimulating one another to set a tone of continuous confrontation and killing. In this vicious circle, feelings of grief and loss on both sides are transformed again and again into vengeful rage, which sooner or later take hold in ordinary people not otherwise committed either to holy war or to biblical politics. These feelings are profoundly intensified by the passionate survivor memories of both groups: Jews in connection with the Holocaust, and Palestinians in connection with earlier European imperialism and with more recent losses of land and homes through wars with the Israelis.

This kind of dance of death involving antagonistic apocalyptic groups continues to take place not only in the Middle East but throughout the world, including on the Indian subcontinent, where Hindu and Islamic fundamentalists are "partners" in terror and killing; in the United States; and in other places where Islamist religious zealots and militaristic American anti-terrorist zealots "partner" in their own dance. Such contending groups everywhere almost seem to seek each other out, making use of any ensuing confrontations to reenergize their own apocalyptic impulses. While such interaction has certainly existed in the past, contemporary global information technology enhances and speeds up the process. More than that, the weaponry now exists that could transform the world-destructive dreams of such partners into a dreadful reality.

... the Allies' World War policy of "strategic" or "area" bombing: the leveling of first German and then Japanese cities in attacks specifically aimed at civilian populations. This American and British policy was by no means simply an imitation of Nazi tactics, as is sometimes claimed. The Nazis had indeed bombed civilians in Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, and Coventry, but these attacks were on a more limited scale. The British and American military had prepared well prior to World War II to wage an air war specifically aimed at "the enemy civil population, and, in particular ... the industrial workers." But the British, in initiating the bombings, and the Americans in later joining and expanding them, justified the enterprise with the sense that they were combating an unparalleled evil. In that way, Nazi war-making and mass killing brought about a response that was itself violent in the extreme and a form of global salvation through the flames of destruction.

Americans offered a similar justification for the even more extreme devastation caused by their policy of "saturation bombing"-the massive, carefully planned firebombings of virtually all of Japan's highly flammable cities. By that time, a military strategy of attacks on civilian populations had become almost routine. To be sure, civilians had been targeted in modern warfare since at least the time of the American Civil War, but the firestorms that engulfed cities like Dresden and Tokyo and killed many of thousands of civilians in single days could be said to have rendered such policies apocalyptic. The Tokyo raid on the night of 9/10 killed more people, at least initially, than the atomic bombings of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Leon Blum, the French Socialist leader, once said that he was certain the Allies would triumph over the Nazis but feared that, in doing so, we would become like them. The sad truth is that in the realm of strategic bombing we went further than they did. We were all too susceptible to escalating twentieth-century technological slaughter in the name of world redemption.

At issue also was a form of apocalyptic contagion. More than a matter of mere technology, we were drawn into the murderous apocalyptic energies of the time. The Nazis did much to unleash these energies, but once we began to express them our own destructive power soon became second to none. Our sense of the evil we encountered was so extreme that we could all too readily do anything, including annihilate all of a nation's major cities and kill hundreds of thousands of people, to combat it and bring about historical renewal.

Such apocalyptic contagion is all too evident in our present confrontation with Islamists: in response to one's enemy's pursuit of absolute purification, one seeks to purify absolutely in turn; in the name of destroying evil, each side seeks to destroy not only the other but enough of the world to achieve mystical rebirth.


Apocalyptic air warfare in World War II culminated in the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The policy of saturation bombing had been so established that it could readily encompass even what was known to be (if not fully understood as) a revolutionary new weapon. In this way our use of the weapon derived from our struggle against Nazi evil. Indeed, the impetus for embarking on the atomic bomb project-for mobilizing vast economic and scientific resources, including a distinguished group of emigre physicists-came from the all too-plausible fear that German scientists, much more advanced in nuclear physics than we were, would produce the weapon first for the Nazis, who would then use it against us. Significantly, though, once we had the weapon, our leaders decided to make use of it months after the Germans had surrendered, after the Nazis were no more, and after we knew that they had not been able to produce the atomic bomb in any case-and then, of course, we dropped two of them on a different enemy.

Given the extreme racial antagonisms Americans and Japanese felt and expressed toward one another during World War II, we may assume that it was easier to use the weapon on a nonwhite people than it would have been on Europeans. But considering what we had already done to Europeans in our saturation bombing campaign, along with our unlimited sense of entitlement in pursuing our struggle against evil, I do not doubt that we would have been capable of employing atomic weapons on the Germans as well.

Most historians, pointing to Japan's desperate state in early August 1945 and its series of surrender overtures, have concluded that use of the bomb was in no sense necessary. There were many factors that nonetheless went into the decision to use it-including technological and bureaucratic momentum, domestic political considerations, the doctrine of unconditional surrender we had proclaimed, and the possibility that we would be combating the Soviet Union, our then-ally, in a postwar world. But from the beginning the stated American reason, which certainly had its importance for decision-makers, was that of ending the war quickly and of "saving lives."

Atrocity-producing situations-and anything involving nuclear weapons qualifies as such-take on many forms, but in all of them there is a collective psychological momentum, a shared psychological energy pressing toward cruelty and killing. The most terrible example of this was the experience of Vice President Harry Truman. On April 12, 1945, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, he became president and suddenly found himself facing a decision about using a new weapon of unprecedented destructive power of which he had known nothing. Truman stepped into an already existing nuclear environment, dominated by procedures and mindsets strongly pressing toward the bomb's use. Only exceptional people can resist atrocity-producing situations. There has been speculation about whether even Roosevelt, had he been alive, would have had sufficient strength and wisdom to call forth such resistance. It would have required an ethical and historical imagination capable of transcending the intense pressures of the immediate wartime atmosphere, a capacity to extricate oneself from the shared embrace of a new dimension of power in the struggle against evil. In the case of Truman, detailed records suggest that he never permitted himself to imagine a possible alternative to the bomb's use.

It is fair to say that simply building and possessing nuclear weapons creates the potential for an atrocity-producing situation: any assumption of a dangerous threat to American security could initiate a strong technological and psychological momentum toward use. This is likely to be true of any nuclear-weapons-possessing nation or group, and one can never assume that a wise statesman will appear to prevent an apocalyptic act. For nuclear weapons are inherently apocalyptic, and with them America took over a form of the ownership of death, believing it could now be operated in the service of good. That ownership was demonstrated, awesomely and tragically, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by means of a revolutionary equation: one plane, one bomb, one city. This was an apotheosis of apocalyptic warfare.

In apocalyptic visions of the past there had been the assumption that it was God who was witnessing the increasing defilement of the world, His patience that was exhausted, He who decided to invoke His power over death and destroy the world and all of its people, in order to re-create it in His image. With nuclear weapons, we human beings staked our claim to that godlike prerogative. Such power both deeply attracts us and, not surprisingly, leaves us profoundly uncomfortable.

We have the need, so to speak, to return the power to God. So we readily assume that our own new, godlike capacity, lodged in the weapons, is an aspect of God's will. If, formerly, only God could do it, and now we too can do it, have already done it, and are prepared under the right circumstances to do it again, then God must want us to do it. The inherently apocalyptic dimension of these weapons causes us to associate them with a deified purpose, whether we directly enunciate it or not. In using the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, therefore, we could view ourselves as carrying out God's purpose of defeating evil.

Super Power Syndrome

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