MOYERS: I often tell students that being a journalist comes with a license to explain things you don't understand. And right now, there are many things I can't comprehend at all. The bombing in Bali. The sniper in the Washington suburbs. The possibility of war in Iraq. So tonight, I've invited someone who has spent his life trying to understand the horror and violence that is an undeniable part of human experience.
Robert Jay Lifton is a Visiting Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. And over his long career, he's studied-- among many other things--the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb, Nazi doctors, and the cult that released poison gas in the Toyko subway. He is, in short, one of the world's foremost thinkers on why we humans do such awful things to each other. I'm glad to look to him for some answers on the madness of our time. Welcome to NOW.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Thank you.
MOYERS: What a moment. Our government in Washington has amassed a huge armada in the Middle East even as Washington residents can't walk safely around the streets of the nation's capital. How do you explain such dissonance, such circumstances?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes.
In a way, it's not dissonance, because I think the amassing of the armada that you had described, the plan to invade Iraq, has to do with an American intolerance of any vulnerability and a sense to annihilate whatever is perceived as threatening us.
That's a very dangerous kind of impulse, and now it's bound up with a sense of being the only super power, and therefore omnipotent in what we can do in the world.
But the sniper outside of Washington is a reminder, a kind of metaphor, that we can't control events, that all kinds of difficult and destructive behavior is always going to occur, and that we are vulnerable, and that to think we can destroy all vulnerability is an illusion.
MOYERS: There are people out there, as we learned on 9/11, who are trying to kill us.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Indeed. And 9/11 was not only a horrendous event but it was a crime against humanity by Nuremburg standards.
We have...everything then depends upon how we respond to that event. And our impulses toward responding militarily toward trying to annihilate all terrorists because they seem to threaten us as opposed to taking necessary action against terrorism but doing it with restraint and looking at terrorism as a large problem far beyond the military.
MOYERS: What do you mean, restraint? What's the practical alternative to what we've been doing the last year?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, I think the practical alternative to what we've been doing in relation to terrorism is to act in concert with other countries, with other groups.
From the very beginning right after September 11th, all of the European powers, the United Nations, were all behind us and said, let's work together. Terrorism is a world problem not just an American problem.
MOYERS: LE MONDE, the French newspaper, had a huge headline that said, we are all Americans now.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Absolutely. That's the last time anybody said that, unfortunately, because we have tended to go it alone, and we have seen our response as necessarily expressing absolute American power. And that is really dangerous.
MOYERS: But we do have absolute American power. We can move at will in the world even though we may not be able to move safely on the streets of Washington.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That situation of our absolute power in the world has very dangerous psychological reverberations for us and for the world.
MOYERS: How so?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: We develop what I call the super power syndrome. And what I mean by that is that we connect ourselves with the idea of being more than ordinarily powerful, super power, it's more than natural, and it has to do with a sense of omnipotence in the world.
MOYERS: When we talked a year ago, soon after 9/11, you said that your greatest fear was that this massive act of violence against the World Trade Center would lead to a cycle of violence. Do you see that happening now
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That's exactly what happened. And I claim no wisdom about it, because it seemed quite evident. But yes, we've gotten into a cycle of violence so that we've responded very violently to the terrorism first by the war in Afghanistan and now the threatened war on Iraq.
And this creates a kind of back and forth pattern of violence in which we respond with extreme violence, and our violence has an apocalyptic quality. It's not exactly the same as Bin Laden by no means, but we also have this idea of destroying through this war on terrorism every last terrorist as though we could in some way purify the world from terrorism and win the victory. That can't happen.
MOYERS: But what does a people do when we know there are people out there who ought to be...you want to kill or be killed, determined to kill or be killed?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You do.... If people have already killed our citizens, of course we want to in some way find them and bring them to justice. That's what we stand for and should stand for.
But we want to do that ideally with most of the world working with us, doing it as a world problem. And that means that we do it in concert with other countries rather than see it as a particular American grievance which we have the right to respond to in any way we see fit.
MOYERS: What do you think is in the mind of the Islamic terrorist as they look at us? You've studied the psychology of people who do wicked things for much of your life, or violent things. What do you think is going through their mind as they look at America right now?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: They can convince themselves through their radical ideology or theology that their killing Americans is an act of extreme virtue. And the logic goes that Americans are a danger to the world, Americans put soldiers in various sacred places, and Americans in some ways...
MOYERS: Sacred Islamic places like the soil of Saudi Arabia and Palestine, places like that.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That's right.
And Americans are seen as the biggest barrier to some kind of Islamic goal or Islamic paradise. Therefore if you can destroy Americans or kill them it is an act of virtue.
And that's why I find myself saying that one has to be aware of any claim to absolute virtue, because it's absolute virtue that you call forth to kill large numbers of people. It may be impossible to do that without that claim.
MOYERS: What do you make of the rhetoric coming out of Washington these days from President Bush? He is talking about international collaboration through the UN, but saying that if that doesn't happen then the United States will have to do what is in its own interests.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, he has, in terms of his projected war on Iraq, he has started and sustained a rhetoric of what I call war fever. War fever means drum beating for war, and that creates very intense transcendent emotions, even ecstatic emotions.
But at the same time, as you say, he has gone to the United Nations and especially in recent days he has backtracked a little bit and has indicated, even though he has spoken belligerently, has indicated that he would like to work together with the United Nations and with other countries.
MOYERS: But the President seems to have really been stunned a year ago to discover just how vulnerable America is. And many people seem to have been stunned by that revelation through the devastation of 9/11. Now we seem to think that the danger is part of our everyday life.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You know, I think Americans have had several stages of response to 9/11. And the first stage is exactly what you just said: it was the sense of being shocked and stunned by the fact that we could be victimized in this way and that we were so vulnerable.
It's that sudden recognition and shock of vulnerability that really threw the whole country. And then there was a second stage which occurred very quickly, the Anthrax fears, which were a really visceral fear of bodily involvement. And then over time, over the course of that year, there occurred a sense of, this is going to be chronic. It will never go away.
But now there's a fourth stage, and that's the other side of the American ambivalence. The doubts, the uncertainties about the present policy and specifically about whether it's making us any safer. I don't think people feel any safer, and they're saying so.
But our administration isn't in a sense acknowledging that. It's fighting against any aspect of vulnerability, lashing out and seeking to wipe out or annihilate the sources of that vulnerability.
And I think that's wrong, and I think it's misleading, and it has the opposite effect because in this dynamic of violence all through the world, it creates more violence and it in a way makes more attractive the terrorist cause.
MOYERS: I was struck that you told one of my colleagues that you thought President Bush was now seeing all these events, seeing the world, seeing his own life through the eyes of a survivor. Talk to me about that.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: That's right. I mean, from September 11th all Americans became survivors. We were attacked, and of course, some people were very closely involved in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, but the whole country experienced that shock of new vulnerability.
As President, George Bush felt that very keenly and his was the responsibility of leading this country as a survivor. As a survivor, I think, George Bush found meaning in life. Survivors always do seek meaning in that surviving, in order to find meaning in the rest of their lives. And he found it.
But his way of surviving was to take on a crusade, and they even called it that until they found out it wasn't a very great term. But, some sort of crusade against terrorism through which George Bush seemed to find a new meaning in life.
If you absolute-ize that crusade...
MOYERS: Absolute-ize? If you...?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: If you absolute-ize, or you make it.... If you make the crusades so absolute that it sees nothing else in the world or very little else except that war on terrorism then you reach the kind of situation we're in now.
Even by declaring it a war on terrorism, I think it was misleading. You can't fight terrorism as a war in which you have soldiers and you annihilate the enemy and you win a victory and you're declared the winner. It doesn't work that way. It's more sporadic, unpredictable. So you have to get at its roots.
MOYERS: And life has to go on while you're fighting that campaign against terrorism, right? You can't just act as if that's the only thing in our lives.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, there's that also.
So much has been neglected while Bush and others have been preoccupied with the war on terrorism.
MOYERS: Are the Islamist terrorists in control of our gross national psychology right now?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I don't think the Islamist terrorists are in control of our gross national psychology, but they're involved in it more than perhaps they should be.
We are obsessed with them and perhaps we in a sense invest in them a certain kind of all powerful or omnipotent quality of a kind that we ourselves also embrace.
One has to see them as fallible also and has having vulnerabilities. I don't think that they're all powerful. It is inevitable, though, that their act would enter the American psyche very importantly. And there's no avoiding that.
MOYERS: What do you do every day to live with and under this cloud of dread, this death that infiltrates our psyche whether it's the sniper in Washington or the explosion in Bali or the coming war with Iraq? What do you do to get through the day?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You know, I think we all...we have a double life. On the one hand we know that we can be annihilated and everybody around us by terrorism, by the incredible weaponry that this world now has.
And yet in another part of our mind we simply go through our routine. And we do what we do in life, and we try to do it as well as we can.
Perhaps I do the same. I have perhaps more exposure to these draconian events because I'm concerned about them professionally and also as an activist in trying to combat them.
At the same time, I try to round out my life with love in my family and my children and grandchildren, my wife. And to live a life that's free of these events, but doesn't deny them.
MOYERS: Free but never unmindful of them.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: No. Never unmindful of them.
MOYERS: When I interviewed you a year ago, we ended that conversation, when I said, what should one do today? What should we do in the aftermath in 9/11? And I remember what you said. You said, become political. Get involved in something that matters. Do you remember that?
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I do, and I would repeat it now in a different way. Whatever we do, we can relate to this. You know, if we're students, or teachers, or if we're writers, or if we're workers of some kind. We can relate what we do in life to what's happening in the world, and we can take a stand that's informed by our own experience in what we do.
So I don't think we should just forget about our ordinary routine; I think we should bring in our knowledge and experience in opposing war making and violence.
MOYERS: Thank you very much, Robert J. Lifton.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Thank you.
WORKS BY ROBERT JAY LIFTON
- AMERICA AND THE ASIAN REVOLUTIONS. 1970
- BOUNDARIES : PSYCHOLOGICAL MAN IN REVOLUTION. 1969
- THE BROKEN CONNECTION : ON DEATH AND THE CONTINUITY OF LIFE. 1979
- DEATH IN LIFE; SURVIVORS OF HIROSHIMA. 1967
- DESTROYING THE WORLD TO SAVE IT : AUM SHINRIKYO, APOCALYPTIC VIOLENCE, AND THE THE NEW GLOBAL TERRORISM. 1999
- THE FUTURE OF IMMORTALITY AND OTHER ESSAYS FOR A NUCLEAR AGE. 1987
- THE GENOCIDAL MENTALITY : NAZI HOLOCAUST AND NUCLEAR THREAT. 1990
- HIROSHIMA IN AMERICA: A HALF CENTURY OF DENIAL. 1996
- HISTORY AND HUMAN SURVIVAL; ESSAYS ON THE YOUNG AND OLD, SURVIVORS AND THE DEAD, PEACE AND WAR, AND ON CONTEMPORARY PSYCHOHISTORY. 1970
- HOME FROM THE WAR: VIETNAM VETERANS: NEITHER VICTIMS NOR EXECUTIONERS. 1973
- INDEFENSIBLE WEAPONS: THE POLITICAL AND MORAL CASE AGAINST NUCLEARISM. 1982
- THE LIFE OF THE SELF: TOWARD A NEW PSYCHOLOGY. 1976
- LIVING AND DYING. 1974
- THE NAZI DOCTORS : MEDICAL KILLING AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GENOCIDE. 1986
- THE PROTEAN SELF : HUMAN RESILIENCE IN AN AGE OF FRAGMENTATION. 1993
- REVOLUTIONARY IMMORTALITY : MAO TSE-TUNG AND THE CHINESE CULTURAL REVOLUTION. 1968
- SIX LIVES, SIX DEATHS : PORTRAITS FROM MODERN JAPAN. 1979
- THOUGHT REFORM AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TOTALISM : A STUDY OF "BRAINWASHING" IN CHINA. 1961
- WHO OWNS DEATH? : CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, THE AMERICAN CONSCIENCE, AND THE END OF EXECUTIONS. 2000
MORE INFORMATION ON ROBERT JAY LIFTON
In this 1963 NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS article, Robert Jay Lifton reviews CHILDREN OF THE A-BOMB by Arata Osada and probes the psychology of those children who witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Lifton outlines the eight psychological themes that distinguishes a cult from a mere political, religious, or social grouping.
Evil, the Self, and Survival: A Conversation with Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.
In this "Conversation with History" from the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, Robert J. Lifton explains his intellectual journey from his childhood home of Brooklyn to his groundbreaking studies in the scientific field of psychohistory. Discussion themes vary from death and the continuity of life; psychic numbing; the survivor motif; the socialization to evil; doubling; and terrorism, as these concepts interact and explain the more devastating events of the 20th century.
Robert Jay Lifton, Ph. D. Biography
This biography of Robert Jay Lifton provides a quick sketch of his life and intellectual interests and contains a select bibliography of his works.
Victims of Hiroshima
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton responses to Paul Goodman's review of his book, DEATH IN LIFE: VICTIMS OF HIROSHIMA. Within his rebuttal, Lifton provides insight into many of his central concepts of this book, including "the communal reinforcement of guilt," and "psychic numbing." Paul Goodman responds at the end of the article.