Expert helping make sense of madness fueling terrorists

Los Angeles Times/November 4, 2001
By Paul Lieberman

New York -- "When I'm very much in demand," Robert Jay Lifton said, "you know that the world is in trouble."

It was a joke, of course, but not a joke, for he was standing before an audience of fellow psychiatrists and other therapists who had sought him out as the logical person, indeed, to help them understand what they were now living through.

"He has spent most of his life trying to fathom the unfathomable," explained Michael Singer, director of the NYU Psychoanalytic Institute, introducing the 75-year-old Lifton as the man to launch its recent lecture series, "Terror and Aftermath: Perspectives on the World Trade Center Tragedy."

Most everyone there knew the details of Lifton's long interest in atrocities and their survivors: How as a young psychiatrist, in the 1950s, he studied Chinese "thought reform," brainwashing to produce a "psychology of totalism." He went on to study survivors of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Vietnam veterans, Nazi doctors, and then the Japanese terrorist cult of Aum Shinrikyo, which in 1995 released deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system with the apocalyptic goal of "destroying the world to save it."

Now the New York therapists were hoping he could explain, "How could this have happened again?" And they were asking not as observers, Singer said, but "now unfortunately, as victims ourselves."

Lifton would, in the course of the evening, offer them insights on the apocalyptic dimension of Osama bin Laden's movement and the death anxiety that he sees as he surveys the country, a view into the minds of both perpetrators and targets.


Inventing 'psychohistory'

Decades ago, Lifton became part of a group that believed psychological insights could help them better understand historical figures and events. Their leader was Erik Erikson, the Danish painter- turned-analyst who wrote about the stages of life and helped popularize the concept of identity. Erikson also produced books on Martin Luther and Gandhi suggesting how their individual conflicts helped them come up with new ways of thinking, or acting, for millions of others.

While such "psychohistory" could become reductionist in lesser hands, Erikson spawned such followers as Lifton.

Teaching at institutions such as Yale and Harvard, the "Wellfleet Group" would meet to hash out their theories at Lifton's home on Cape Cod. "We have a long tradition of reflecting on dreadful events," he says, "in a utopian setting."


Japanese cult

It was there, as well, that he wrote much of his 1999 book on the Japanese cult that killed 11 people in its subway attack, injured several thousand more and had even bigger plans: to make tons of nerve gas and use crop-dusting helicopters to release it in the major cities of Japan, and perhaps the United States, setting off a world war. In "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism," Lifton warned that the events in Japan might signal worse to come.

"Its members can claim the distinction of being the first group in history to combine ultimate fanaticism with ultimate weapons in a project to destroy the world," he wrote. "The next group of disciples to try might not be quite as small as Aum, or as inept, or as encumbered by its own madness."

That book didn't sell well, however -- and Lifton wasn't delighted with some reviews. It was almost as if he'd cried out into a void.


Context for terrorism

Then came Sept. 11.

In New York the media kept calling him, needing a quote or talking head on terrorism, violence or the plight of survivors. But Lifton also wanted to visit ground zero and, he hoped, start speaking to the people whose lives were upended.

He also knew he'd be asked to share what he'd learned over 50 years -- and his talk at NYU was his first chance to do that in any formal setting. He went through each of his studies, often not needing to elaborate on its relevance to ongoing events.

The "thought reform" practiced by the Communist Chinese was an illustration of how individuals could be taken over by a cause, pulled into an "all-or-nothing commitment, a polarization of good and evil." His theories in this area were an extension of Erikson's observations of how adolescents, in particular, were prone to fanaticism. Finding it hard to form an identity, they opted for one that was rigid, handed to them by a strong leader. That was Lifton's "psychology of totalism."

From Vietnam veterans, especially antiwar veterans, he observed "destroying to save . . . You had to destroy a village to save it." He also saw, as others have, how ordinary people find themselves committing atrocities.

From the Nazi doctors, he "came upon the idea of 'killing to heal,' " the notion that certain people have to be killed in order to heal the dominant group.

In the Japanese cult, he saw both apocalyptic motivation and desire to take "ownership of death." The group also engaged in "altruistic murder, in which members felt they bestowed benefits . . . a higher form of immortality" on those who killed, that "because the world was so defiled, other than themselves, that this all had to be done."


An apocalyptic dimension

Lifton worries that Americans don't understand this apocalyptic dimension of such destructive movements -- and that of Osama bin Laden, who he sees operating on two levels: with easily graspable political grievances, such as America's support of Israel or its presence in Saudi Arabia; yet also speaking of cleansing the world of the Great Satan, America, and of Muslims who don't fit his ideal.

"He talks about those who are defiled, who are non-believers and they must all be destroyed on behalf of creating a perfect Islamic vision of the world, that is the destruction in the service of spiritual renewal.

"I think people misunderstand bin Laden when they leave out that dimension, which is amorphous, and without boundaries and cannot be encapsulated by specific political goals," Lifton continued. "There is a mystical dimension of bin Laden, who envisions Saladin" -- the Islamic hero of the Crusades -- "coming out of the clouds. So bin Laden then has told us about the apocalyptic projects and sometimes we haven't wanted to hear it."

He said Americans may be skeptical of such pious pronunciations when they learn that the hijackers went to strip clubs or malls. "I'm not certain, but it sounds to me like a form of what I call 'doubling,' " he said, "the formation of a functionally second self, so it is true that some of them could drink and make merry and go bowling, and do things that ordinary Americans did, so removed from the suicidal martyr's mission. It's the kind of double life that spies can often live."

In understanding the impact on Americans, he turns to the survivors of Hiroshima. Though the devastation there was far greater, "we heard people (in New York) describe the feeling that it seemed like a nuclear attack, like a nuclear bomb had gone off. It struck him that the term used, "ground zero," was "a nuclear weapons term."

"In my experience, survivors immediately experience a sense of anxiety, or a death-haunted image (stemming from) the death immersion or the death encounter which can last for a very long time."

He also fears the American response. For while "survivor anger is understandable, quite human," he does not believe that anger should drive policy.

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