-- 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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Christopher Dreher has written about books and
culture for Salon, the Washington Post and the