[from the December 22, 2003 issue]
The apocalyptic imagination has spawned a new kind of violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We can, in fact, speak of a worldwide epidemic of violence aimed at massive destruction in the service of various visions of purification and renewal. In particular, we are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing warmaking and military power. Both sides are energized by versions of intense idealism; both see themselves as embarked on a mission of combating evil in order to redeem and renew the world; and both are ready to release untold levels of violence to achieve that purpose.
The war on Iraq–a country with longstanding aspirations toward weapons of mass destruction but with no evident stockpiles of them and no apparent connection to the assaults of September 11–was a manifestation of that American visionary projection.
The religious fanaticism of Osama bin Laden and other Islamist zealots has, by now, a certain familiarity to us as to others elsewhere, for their violent demands for spiritual purification are aimed as much at fellow Muslims as at American “infidels.” Their fierce attacks on the defilement that they believe they see everywhere in contemporary life resemble those of past movements and sects from all parts of the world; such sects, with end-of-the-world prophecies and programmatic violence in the service of bringing those prophecies about, flourished in Europe from the eleventh through the sixteenth centuries. Similar sects like the fanatical Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin gas into the Tokyo subways in 1995, have existed, even proliferated, in our own time.
The American apocalyptic entity is less familiar to us.
More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement–of special dispensation to pursue its aims. That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms. That is, a superpower–the world’s only superpower–is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.
The murderous events of 9/11 hardened that sense of entitlement as nothing else could have. Superpower syndrome did not require 9/11, but the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon rendered us an aggrieved superpower, a giant violated and made vulnerable, which no superpower can permit.
Indeed, at the core of superpower syndrome lies a powerful fear of vulnerability.
Unfortunately, our response was inseparable from our superpower status and the syndrome that goes with it.
War itself is an absolute, its violence unpredictable and 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 is 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 misleading both in suggesting a clear beginning in Al Qaeda’s acts and a decisive end in the “battle” against terrorism.
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.
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 and Reality
The amorphousness of the war on terrorism is 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 by means of false accusations, emphasis on the evil things Saddam Hussein had done (for instance, the use of poison gas on his Kurdish minority) and the belligerent atmosphere of the overall war on terrorism, the Administration succeeded in convincing more than half of all Americans that Saddam was a major 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.
Behind such planning and manipulation can lie dreams and fantasies hardly less apocalyptic or world-purifying than those of Al Qaeda’s leaders, or of Aum Shinrikyo’s guru.
That kind of apocalyptic impulse in warmaking has hardly proved conducive to a shared international approach. Indeed, in its essence, it precludes genuine sharing. While Bush has frequently said that he prefers to have allies in taking on terrorism and terrorist states worldwide, he has also made it clear that he does 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 OK with me. We are America.” 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.
Despite the constant invocation by the Bush Administration 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.”
The American military apocalyptic can then be said to partner and act in concert with the Islamist apocalyptic.
Off the Treadmill
We can do better. America is capable of wiser, more measured approaches, more humane applications of our considerable power and influence in the world. These may not be as far away as they now seem, and can be brought closer by bringing our imaginations to bear on them. Change must be political, of course, but certain psychological contours seem necessary to it.
We need to take a new and different lesson from Lord Acton’s nineteenth-century assertion: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton was not quite right. The corruption begins not with the acquisition of power but with the quest for and claim to absolute power. Ever susceptible to the seductive promise that twenty-first-century technology can achieve world control, the superpower (or would-be superpower) can best resist that temptation by recognizing the corruption that follows upon its illusion.
To renounce the claim to total power would bring relief not only to everyone else but, soon enough, to the leaders and followers of the superpower itself. For to live out superpower syndrome is to place oneself on a treadmill that eventually has to break down. In its efforts to rule the world and to determine history, the superpower is, in fact, working against itself, subjecting itself to constant failure.
Stepping off the superpower treadmill would also enable us to cease being a nation ruled by fear. Renouncing omnipotence would make our leaders themselves less fearful of weakness, and diminish their inclination to instill fear in their people as a means of enlisting them for illusory military efforts at world hegemony. Without the need for invulnerability, everyone would have much less to be afraid of.
Robert Jay Lifton is the author of Death in Life and The Nazi Doctors. This essay was adapted from Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World, just out from Nation Books.