SUPERPOWER SYNDROME: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World

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Is there a cure for 'superpower syndrome'?

For decades, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has been analyzing the mental dynamics of world conflict and crisis. Now, he's put the White House on the couch, and Bush loyalists won't like his diagnosis

Saturday, February 21, 2004 - Page F6

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CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has never been a favourite read of military officials. Over the past four decades, his staunch opposition to nuclear weapons and his disturbing finds regarding war and extremist mentalities have often cut too close for comfort.

His new book on foreign policy, Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, isn't going to win him any friends in the Pentagon, either.

Written during six inspired months in early 2003, the 77-year-old psychiatrist and author's dense yet accessible work offers a unique psychological framework for understanding events in what he sees as a dangerous time in world history -- the large letters that dominate the book's dark cover might be equally appropriate to a warning sign near the edge of a cliff.

"I'm trying to get underneath the behaviour and look at the motivations and impulses behind it," Dr. Lifton said at his home in Cambridge, Mass., a short distance from Harvard, where he is currently a visiting professor. "Both the Islamists' and our own radicalism."

Dr. Lifton's road to such questions actually began decades ago in the military, through two years of treating traumatized pilots during the Korea War and later in Japan. The harrowed men were a dramatic representation of the incalculable danger groups and individuals posed to each other. Then just out of medical school, the native Brooklynite became fascinated by the problem of extremism and its potential for cataclysmic violence.

"The military saved me from conventional life," he said. "But I don't think I've ever showed them the proper gratitude."

What's really going to get Dr. Lifton booted off the Defence Department's holiday-card list is the way he scrutinizes the current administration. In essence, he puts George W. Bush and his hawkish advisers on the psychiatrist's couch, and diagnoses a unique blend of Christian and military fundamentalism that Dr. Lifton considers a threat to peace.

The administration's reaction to the terrorists' challenge is the crux of what Dr. Lifton calls "superpower syndrome," a psychological treadmill spurned on by vulnerability and perpetuated through violence that has left the United States destabilized and terrorism poorly countered. "I'm creating a structure with a medical metaphor to explain overall and consistent behaviour," he explained.

Dr. Lifton has serious credentials to back up his observations. He has spent his entire career examining humanity's darkest corners, using his psychological training to analyze past catastrophes and genocidal acts. His work differs from other psycho-historical studies by focusing on groups instead of individuals and also by extensive interviewing of the people involved.

One of his first books was Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, the first broad, systematic study of the psychological and social impact of nuclear destruction, which was awarded the National Book Award in 1969. In 1986, he published a breakthrough study about the perpetrators of atrocities, a field almost non-existent at the time. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide examined the appeal of nazism to educated professionals, and the psychological motivations of doctors who oversaw the systematic killing and experimentation at concentration camps.

After writing about Hiroshima, Dr. Lifton became a lifelong anti-nuclear crusader, both as a scholar and an activist. He later became one of the founding members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

In the 1990s, Dr. Lifton became increasingly concerned about the danger of religious zealots and cults such as Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, the group that released sarin gas into the Tokyo subways in 1995, killing 11 commuters and injuring hundreds of others. His 1999 book, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorist, now seems regrettably prescient.

"After 9/11, I immediately thought of the work I'd done that had a connection," Dr. Lifton said. "What I'd learned from the Nazis to the threat of nuclear weapons, and certainly what I'd learned in Japan. In my mind, it all had an immediate relevance and I was concerned with sorting it out."

He describes the World Trade Center attack as a symptom of an "apocalyptic imagination" evident not only in al-Qaeda but in much of the 20th century's "epidemic of violence aimed at the massive destruction in the service of various visions of purification and renewal."

Dr. Lifton posits the Islamists' belief in God-sponsored killing in the historical context of other extremists with apocalyptic ideas of world purification, a notion found even within the Nazis' secular racial cleansing.

While Dr. Lifton certainly does not equate the U.S. administration's fervour with the terrorists' morally dubious fundamentalism, he does contend that it has its own apocalyptic symptoms -- for example, a simplistic good/evil worldview, and a strong sense of righteousness and mission. While terrorists are convinced of the religious necessity of destroying infidels to redeem the world, the current administration is equally convinced of its ability to change the world to its own ideal.

"[This administration] is special in its radical approach to the world," he said, "a dimension that is exaggerated and very extreme."

To be clinical, Dr. Lifton traces superpower syndrome to America's abrupt and public injury on Sept. 11, 2001, a devastating attack on the sense of power and potency that is essential to its conception of itself. During the following months, the administration formed reactionary, poorly designed responses that would paradoxically make the world more unsafe and the danger of terrorism even greater.

For example, he said, instead of planning a unified battle against a world problem, the Bush government ignored the concerns of other countries and the United Nations and squandered the goodwill that the United States had acquired after the attacks, polarizing the issue with its unyielding sense of mission.

"There had to be some response, but a restrained and international response," said Dr. Lifton, who supported the Afghanistan war but opposed the administration's attack on Iraq. "Instead, the administration immediately polarized the work with our own apocalyptic orientation. They created an 'Us versus Them' dynamic, instead of identifying 9/11 as terrorism by a small group of determined zealots."

And by defining their campaign as a "War on Terrorism," the administration added it to a list of past "wars" (on poverty or drugs) that were categorically unable to be won.

The attack was also a catalyst that gave the administration the courage -- what it might consider a mandate -- to attempt to reshape the Middle East to its own political and economic ideals, the most obvious example being the invasion of Iraq. This cosmic sense of entitlement, according to Dr. Lifton, could hem the United States into an endless cycle of military intervention and violence.

Worst of all, considering that the core of the United States's power lies with its nuclear arsenal (about 10,000 warheads), the struggle has made terrorist groups and weaker countries even more determined to arm themselves in kind.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is one of the only nuclear-age presidents who has not instinctively recoiled from the prospect of using these weapons. He and his advisers have pushed for scientists to develop lower-yield nuclear weapons that could be used in modern conflicts. With both sides committed to violence in order to purify the world, Dr. Lifton said, the responses are likely to become more and more destructive as time goes on.

Yet Superpower is not just a dour diagnosis: In the final chapter, "Stepping out of the Syndrome," Dr. Lifton asserts: "We can do better. America is capable of wiser, more measured approaches, more humane applications of our considerable power and influence in the world." He hopes that his diagnosis might make people more aware of the problem, and he also hopes it would be a foundation upon which other foreign policy or political writers can base their observations.

"Right after 9/11, it was hard to get across the message of American extremism," he said. "This year, the message is much more listened to."

But is there a risk of nihilism in psychologizing complex social and political questions -- of translating heinous moral flaws into mere constructs of emotion and chemistry? Dr. Lifton emphasized that he is not offering absolution.

"It's not designed to replace politics or ethics," he said, "but to look at the kinds of historical and social situations that result in destructive behaviour. It's looking at the causes while at the same time taking a stand against them."

Christopher Dreher has written about books and culture for Salon, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

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