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American Apocalypse

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War and Reality

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Robert Jay Lifton
Robert Jay Lifton is the author of Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World and Home...

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This Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb against a large city. Since that day, creative artists of every variety have made incisive, satiric or powerful statements about nuclear threat. What these artistic statements share, however, with rare exceptions, is an avoidance of the specific subject of Hiroshima.

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. 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"), conventional military combat, justification for "pre-emptive" attack 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, or of Aum Shinrikyo's guru. For instance, former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, a close associate of Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon, spoke of the war against terrorism as a Fourth World War (the Third being the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union). 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 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.

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 "pre-emptively" 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 world's greatest military power replaces the complexities of the world with its own imagined stripped-down, us-versus-them version of it, our distorted national self becomes the world.

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." What results is a vicious circle that engenders what we seek to destroy: Our excessive response to Islamist attacks creates more terrorists and more terrorist attacks, which in turn leads 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 and act in concert with the Islamist apocalyptic.

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