War on Terrorism
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
A SUPERPOWER'S "WAR ON TERRORISM"
Everyone knows about the more than 3,000 people killed l on September
11, 2001, about the painful struggles of family members and other
survivors, and about the overall economic and social disruption
that followed. Less commented upon has been the American experience
of humiliation. These attacks were carried out against the world's
only superpower, in broad daylight, in front of television cameras,
by a handful of barely armed terrorists who belonged to a small
organization without even a claim to nationhood.
A superpower dominates and rules. Above
all, it is never to be humiliated. In important ways, then, the
"war on terrorism" represents an impulse to undo violently
A SUPERPOWER'S "WAR ON TERRORISM"
Everyone knows about the more than 3,000
people killed l on September 11, 2001, about the painful struggles
of family members and other survivors, and about the overall economic
and social disruption that followed. Less commented upon has been
the American experience of humiliation. These attacks were carried
out against the world's only superpower, in broad daylight, in
front of television cameras, by a handful of barely armed terrorists
who belonged to a small organization without even a claim to nationhood.
A superpower dominates and rules. Above
all, it is never to be humiliated. In important ways, then, the
"war on terrorism" represents an impulse to undo violently
precisely the humiliation of that day. To be sure, the acts of
9/11 had a warlike aspect. They were committed by men convinced
that they were at war with us. In post-Nuremberg terms they could
undoubtedly be considered a "crime against humanity."
The use of some kind of force against their perpetrators was inevitable
and appropriate. The humiliation caused, together with American
world ambitions, however, precluded dealing with the attacks as
what they were-terrorism by a small group of determined zealots,
not war. A more focused, restrained, internationalized response
to al-Qaeda could have been far more effective without being a
stimulus to expanded terrorism.
Unfortunately, our response was inseparable
from our superpower status and the syndrome that went with it.
Any nation attacked in that way would have felt itself humiliated.
But given our national sense of being overwhelmingly powerful
and unchallengeable, to have our major institutions violently
penetrated was an intolerable, even inconceivable breach of superpower
invulnerability, a contradiction that specifically fed our humiliation.
We know from history that collective humiliation
can be a goad to various kinds of aggressive behavior-as has been
true of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It was also true of the Nazis.
Nazi doctors told me of indelible scenes, which they either witnessed
as young children or were told about by their fathers, of German
soldiers returning home defeated after World War I. These beaten
men, many of them wounded, engendered feelings of pathos, loss,
and embarrassment, all amidst national misery and threatened revolution.
Such scenes, associated with strong feelings of humiliation, were
seized upon by the Nazis to the point where one could say that
Hitler rose to power on the promise of avenging them.
With both al-Qaeda and the Nazis, humiliation,
through manipulation but also powerful self-conviction, was transformed
into exaggerated expressions of violence. Such psychological transformation
from weakness and shame to collective pride and a sense of life-power,
as well as power over others, can release enormous amounts of
aggressive energy-a dangerous potential that has been present
from the beginning of the American "war" on terrorism.
War itself is an absolute, its unpredictable
violence always containing apocalyptic possibilities. In this
case, by militarizing the problem of terrorism, our leaders have
dangerously obfuscated its political, social, and historical dimensions.
Terrorism has instead been raised to the absolute level of war
itself. And although American leaders speak of this as being a
"different kind of war," there has been a drumbeat of
ordinary war rhetoric and a clarion call to total victory and
to the crushing defeat of our terrorist enemies. When President
Bush declared that "this conflict was begun on the timing
and terms of others [but] will end in a way, and at an hour, of
our choosing," he was mlsleading in suggesting not just a
clear beginning to al-Qaeda's assaults but a decisive end in the
"battle" against terrorism. In that same speech, given
at a memorial service just three days after 9/11 at the National
Cathedral in Washington, he also asserted, "Our responsibility
to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the
world of evil." Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, not
a man given to irony, commented that "the president was casting
his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's
At no time did Bush see his task as mounting
a coordinated international operation against terrorism, for which
he could have enlisted most of the governments of the world. Rather,
upon hearing of the second plane crashing into the second tower,
he remembers thinking: "They had declared war on us, and
I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war."
Upon hearing of the plane crashing into the Pentagon, he told
Vice President Cheney, "We're at war." Woodward thus
calls his account of the president's first hundred days following
9/11 Bush at War. Bush would later recall, "I had to show
the American people the resolve of a commander in chief that was
going to do whatever it took to win." With world leaders,
he felt he had to "look them in the eye and say, 'You're
either with us or you're against us."' Long before the invasion
of Iraq -indeed, even before the invasion of Afghanistan - Bush
had come to identify himself, and be identified by others, as
a "wartime president."
War-making can quickly become associated
with "war fever," the mobilization of public excitement
to the point of a collective experience of transcendence. War
then becomes heroic, even mythic, a task that must be carried
out for the defense of one's own nation, to realize its special
destiny and the immortality of its people. In this case, the growth
of war fever came in several stages: it began with Bush's personal
declaration of war immediately after September 11, had a modest
rise with the successful invasion of Afghanistan, and then a wave
of ultrapatriotic excesses-triumphalism, and the labeling of critics
as disloyal or treasonous-at the time of the invasion of Iraq.
War fever tends always to be subject to disillusionment. Its underside
is death anxiety, in this case related less to combat than to
fears of new terrorist attacks at home or against Americans abroad-and
later to growing casualties in occupied Iraq.
The scope of George Bush's war was suggested
within days of 9/11 when the director of the CIA made a presentation
called "Worldwide Attack Matrix" to the president and
his inner circle, which described active or planned operations
of various kinds in eighty countries, or what Woodward called
"a secret global war on terror." Early on, the president
had the view that "this war will be fought on many fronts"
and that "we're going to rout out terror wherever it may
exist." Although under consideration long before 9/11, the
invasion of Iraq could be seen as a direct continuation of this
unlimited war-all the more so because of a prevailing tone among
the president and his advisers, who were described as eager "to
emerge from the sea of words and to pull the trigger."
The war on terrorism became apocalyptic,
then, exactly because it was militarized and yet amorphous, without
limits of time or place, and because it has no clear end. It therefore
enters the realm of the infinite. Implied in its approach is that
every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down
until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and
in that way the world will be rid of evil. Bush keeps his own
personal "scorecard" for the war in the form of photographs,
brief biographies, and personality sketches of those judged to
be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed
out if killed or captured. The scorecard, he told Woodward, is
always at hand in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.
Targeted as well are those who "harbor
[the terrorists], feed them, house them," who are "just
as guilty" and "will be held to account." That
"Bush doctrine" was at one point extended by a Defense
Department official, who spoke of "ending states who sponsor
Any group or nation designated as terrorist
or terrorist-supporting could thus be targeted by the war on terrorism.
The looseness of that "war" was made clear when, on
the day after 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld raised the question of invading
Iraq. It turned out that a plan to do just that had been contemplated
ever since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and Rumsfeld, in advocating
"going against terrorism more broadly than just al-Qaeda,"
was raising the possibility that America should seize the opportunity
offered by 9/11 to mount such an attack. There was much subsequent
discussion about whether Iraq, being the more "target-rich"
adversary, was superior to Afghanistan as the war's first enemy.
There was certainly an assumption that "the US would have
to go after Saddam at some time if the war on terrorism was to
be taken seriously." There were references, at first vague
and later insistent, to alleged connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda,
but it did not seem to matter so much that these connections could
never be established.
WAR AND REALITY
The amorphousness of the war on terrorism
was such that a country like Iraq, with a murderous dictator who
had surely engaged in acts of terrorism in the past, could on
that basis be treated as if it had major responsibility for 9/11.
There was no evidence at all that it did. But in the belligerent
atmosphere of the overall war on terrorism, by means of false
accusations and emphasis on the evil things Saddam Hussein had
done (for instance, the use of poison gas on his Kurdish minority),
the administration succeeded in convincing more than half of all
Americans that Saddam was a key player in 9/11.
The war on terrorism, then, took amorphous
impulses toward combating terror and used them as a pretext for
realizing a prior mission aimed at American global hegemony. The
attack on Iraq reflected the reach not only of the "war on
terrorism" but of deceptions and manipulations of reality
that have accompanied it. In this context, the word "war"
came to combine metaphor (as in the "war on poverty"
or "war on drugs"), justification for "preemptive"
(preventive) attack, conventional military combat, and assertion
of superpower domination.
Behind such planning and manipulation
can lie dreams and fantasies hardly less apocalyptic or world-purifying
than those of al-Qaeda's leaders ... For instance, former CIA
Director James Woolsey, a close associate of Donald Rumsfeld and
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, spoke of the war against
terrorism as a Fourth World War (the Third being the Cold War
between the United States and the USSR). In addressing a group
of college students, he declared, "This Fourth World War,
I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars
I or II did for us. Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of
the Cold War."
That kind of apocalyptic impulse in war-making
has hardly proved conducive to a shared international approach.
Indeed, in its essence, it precludes genuine sharing. While Bush
has said frequently that he preferred to have allies in taking
on terrorism and terrorist states worldwide, he has also made
it clear that he did not want other countries to have any policy-making
power on this issue. In one revealing statement, he declared,
"At some point, we may be the only ones left. That's okay
with me. We are Americans." In such declarations, he has
all but claimed that Americans are the globe's anointed ones and
that the sacred mission of purifying the earth is ours alone.
The amorphousness of the war on terrorism
carries with it a paranoid edge, the suspicion that terrorists
and their supporters are everywhere and must be preemptively attacked
lest they emerge and attack us. Since such a war is limitless
and infinite-extending from the farthest reaches of Indonesia
or Afghanistan to Hamburg, Germany, or New York City, and from
immediate combat to battles that continue into the unending future-it
inevitably becomes associated with a degree of megalomania as
well. As the planet's greatest military power replaces the complex
world with its own imagined stripped-down us-versus-them version
of it, our distorted national self becomes the world.
Despite the Bush administration's constant
invocation of the theme of "security," the war on terrorism
has created the very opposite-a sense of fear and insecurity among
Americans, which is then mobilized in support of further aggressive
plans in the extension of the larger "war." What results
is a vicious circle that engenders what we seek to destroy: our
excessive response to Islamist attacks creating ever more terrorists
and, sooner or later, more terrorist attacks, which will in turn
lead to an escalation of the war on terrorism, and so on. The
projected "victory" becomes a form of aggressive longing,
of sustained illusion, of an unending "Fourth World War"
and a mythic cleansing- of terrorists, of evil, of our own fear.
The American military apocalyptic can then be said to partner
with and act in concert with the Islamist apocalyptic.
America is "anointed" ... We have our wrong tendencies
toward an apocalyptic which make us susceptible to the contagion
of apocalyptic violence and quick to respond to such violence
in kind. Relevant here is George Bush's polarization of the world
into good and evil, his concept of the "axis of evil"
to describe three nations considered antagonistic, and his stated
goal of ridding the world of evil.
In the mindset of the president and many
of those around him, our actions in the world, however bellicose
and unilateral, are assumed to be part of a sacred design, of
"God's master plan" (in Bob Woodward's paraphrase).
The most dire measures are justified because they have been taken
to carry out a divine project of combating evil. This Christian
fundamentalist mindset blends with and 3, intensifies our military
fundamentalism. Together they have given rise to a contemporary
American version of apocalyptic violence. The events of 9/11 did
not create this combination but did enlarge it exponentially.
American apocalypticism is fed by the
rhetoric of a president whose conversion to evangelical Christianity-
administered by Billy Graham, America's leading evangelist-saved
him from alcoholic self-destruction. Graham's son, Franklin, remains
close to administration leaders, and has a tendency to be a bit
more extreme than his father. When he recently called Islam "a
very evil and wicked religion," the White House quickly dissociated
itself from that view and he was forced to apologize, but he may
well have been saying something widely believed by Christian fundamentalists,
including some in the administration. (During the first Gulf War,
when asked by Commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf to stop encouraging
American troops to distribute Arabic-language New Testaments in
Saudi Arabia, violating Saudi law and an American promise, Franklin
Graham's answer was, "I'm also under orders, and that's from
the king of kings and the lord of lords. ") The "predominant
creed " of the Bush White House, "where attendance at
Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either,"
has been "the culture of modern evangencalism.
Bush's own religious convictions have
been associated with dogmatic views and with tendencies toward
personal and political fundamentalism. Certainly his administration
has been friendly to Christian fundamentalism, which has provided
much of his political base, and has embraced many of its passionately
held social and political views: an antiabortion stand so extreme,
for instance, that it has interfered with international aid programs,
and sexual repression and homophobia so great as to block open
scientific discussion of AIDS.
Among cabinet members, his attorney general,
John Ashcroft, has views that approach the theocratic, declaring
on one occasion, "We have no king but Jesus," a conviction
not fully separable from his statements that those who raise critical
questions about the war on terrorism "only aid terrorists."
"I'M IN THE LORD'S HANDS"
When the president spoke of 9/11 as "a
great opportunity," he meant, among other things, an opportunity
to take on evil and destroy it, and by making the war on terrorism
a war on evil, he gave his spiritual energies, by his own testimony,
a new focus. Before that, even being president had not seemed
to fully engage him. But according to Woodward, in the wake of
the attacks Bush became "consumed" by his "war,"
intent upon conveying to the American people that it was his purpose
and "the nation's purpose," or, in his own words: "This
is what my presidency is all about." To capture his new-found
sense of mission, he came to use phrases like "I'm in the
Lord's hands" and "There is a reason why I'm here.
Bush's intense religiosity undoubtedly
further affects the psychology of his overall behavior. He characterizes
himself as a person who wants everything to be clear and definite,
who does not like to "nuance" things, or to deal with
"lawyerly" arguments. Woodward describes him as a man
who "wanted action, solutions," whose leadership style
"bordered on the hurried," and he was told by Bush himself:
"I know it is hard for you to believe, but I have not doubted
what we are doing.... There is no doubt in my mind we're doing
the right thing. Not one doubt."
Much of this is surely a long-held character
trait and can be attributed to his psychological style or temperament:
a tendency toward insisting on quick certainty as a means of suppressing,
indeed annihilating, doubt. That tendency can be accompanied by
a version of Texas macho that takes the form of the aggressive
taunting of enemies (as in his recent "bring them on"
challenge to Iraqi guerrillas who attack US soldiers), a stance
he is said to assume particularly when under anxiety or strain.
But both of these patterns may well be part of something more-of
an overall religious worldview, within which he totalizes issues
of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. If one
is carrying out a sacred task, then everything one does is part
of a greater truth, part of a larger struggle for good and against
evil. At one point Bush declared to Woodward, "I will seize
the opportunity to achieve big goals." Such goals can approach
the apocalyptic and lay claim to the ownership of truth. Bush's
religious totalism may thus blend with temperamental inclinations
toward doubt-precluding certainty and anxiety-relieving aggressiveness.
Could it be that not just the Islamists
but our leaders, too, have goals that transcend the political,
goals inspired by Christianity and buttressed by secular visions
of American world control, and include a mystical belief in spreading
our version of democracy and open markets- all of which is seen
as ultimately a design of the Almighty, within which America can
realize its spiritual calling? Bush recently may have given expression
to his sense of receiving instructions from the Almighty in realizing
that calling. At a small Middle Eastern summit meeting, he was
quoted by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the Israeli
newspaper Haaretz as having said: "God told me to strike
at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike
at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem
in the Middle East." George W. Bush has not himself created
this mentality; it has strong American historical roots. But he
and others around him exemplify and magnify our own marriage of
zealotry and weaponry.
GOD AND HISTORY
That zealotry can readily enter into the
kind of apocalyptic purpose expressed in the National Security
Strategy of the United States, released by the Bush administration
in September 2002, which called for military power unrivaled throughout
the world and options of preventive and unilateral war-making
where considered necessary. With such militarization of apocalyptic
impulses, American policymakers move beyond mere religious dogma
and into the kind of grandiosity and megalomania we have discussed.
There are, after all, no limits to God's project. Since God's
master plan is all-inclusive, the United States can continue to
target not only the two remaining "members" of the "axis
of evil" (Iran and North Korea) but any country our leaders
designate as evil or dangerous. We are justified in this drive
to control history and eliminate evil because ultimately it's
God's plan, not ours.
One must consider as well the large reservoir
of fundamentalist thought throughout America, as epitomized by
two leaders of the movement, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Falwell blamed the attacks of 9/11 on such evil forces in American
society as pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the American
Civil Liberties Union, all of whom caused God to "lift the
curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what
we deserve." These two "American mullahs," as National
Public Radio reporter Scott Simon called them, gravely and righteously
warned of still greater disasters to come. Allying themselves
with God's unlimited power to punish and destroy, they were more
or less licking their theological chops in describing vistas of
ever-greater devastation that could lead to the yearned-for "end
time": to God's destruction of the world preceding the return
of Jesus. Within this worldview, apocalyptic violence can be accepted,
even welcomed, as a means of cosmic purification. Millions of
Americans hold aspects of such a worldview, including some in
positions of political leadership, though often in confused and
A similar worldview was held by seventeenth-century
Puritans, who considered the suffering and dying they experienced
in their wars with the Indians as God's punishment for religious
backsliding in their own second generation, and his judgment on
their sins. The historian of American violence Richard Slotkin
has described these events as a "holy war" intended
to realize "the concept of New England as the new Israel,
the new abiding place of a newly chosen race." For the individual
Puritan, violent conquest of the Indians meant "conquering
the forces of sin within the body politic or in his own mind."
This "regeneration through violence" was based on an
apocalyptic vision of the "new Israel," but included
as well powerful forms of individual revitalization-of new energy
and purpose-that were both psychological and religious.
Falwell and Robertson have engaged in
no such violence. But one must ask whether fundamentalists within
the Bush administration, who are engaging in violence, do not
at some psychological level envision the war on terrorism as a
vehicle for our own salvation, for a new American regeneration
through violence, for not only destroying evil worldwide but cleansing
ourselves of our own sins and revitalizing our spiritual energies
through our predominant military power.
Woodward ends his book on Bush on a mystical
note. He describes a scene in which twenty-five men from different
Special Forces and CIA teams gather at a desolate site in
Afghanistan, where they have arranged
a pile of rocks as a tombstone over a buried piece of the demolished
World Trade Center. One of the men leads a prayer as others kneel,
consecrating the spot as a memorial to the dead of September 11.,
and then declares: "We will export death and violence to
the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation."
Woodward presents the scene as depicting the determination of
an aggrieved nation to strike back. But it also suggests a sequence
leading from memorialization to self-defense to apocalyptic militarism.
Such fundamentalist and apocalyptic tendencies
by no means determine all of American policy, which can alternate
with inclinations toward pragmatic restraint. But impulses toward
regeneration through apocalyptic violence are an ever-present
The Bush administration should by no means
be seen as a mirror image of bin Laden or Islamism. Rather it
is part of an ongoing dynamic in which the American apocalyptic
interacts, almost to the point of collusion, with the Islamist
apocalyptic, each intensifying the other in an escalating process
that has in it the potential seeds of world destruction.