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American Apocalypse

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Off the Treadmill

About the Author

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.

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.

As a start, we do not have to partition the world into two contending apocalyptic forces. We are capable instead of reclaiming our moral compass, of finding further balance in our national behavior. So intensely have we embraced superpower syndrome that emerging from it is not an easy task. Yet in doing so we would relieve ourselves of a burden of our own creation--the burden of insistent illusion. For there is no greater weight than that which one takes on when pursuing total power.

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. It becomes a Sisyphus with bombs, able to set off explosions but unable to cope with its own burden, unable to roll its heavy stone to the top of the hill in Hades. Perhaps the crucial step in ridding ourselves of the syndrome is recognizing that history cannot be controlled, fluidly or otherwise.

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.

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