War on Terrorism
Apocalyptic America

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


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


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 master plan."

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 terrorism."

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.


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."


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.


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 contradictory ways.

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 danger.

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.

Super Power Syndrome

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