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
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."
THE McVEIGH AP0CALYPSE
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
ANTAGONISTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
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
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.
HIROSHIMA AND GOD'S PURPOSE
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