In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bill Moyers speaks with Robert Jay Lifton, psychologist, author and professor at Harvard and CUNY.
BILL MOYERS: It’ s been almost a week now, and the questions continue to pile up. What kind of people would do this? What do they want? How do we witness death on this scale and go on with our lives? What do we do about the rage we feel? What does it mean to realize how vulnerable we suddenly are?
My guest tonight is uniquely qualified to help us answer these questions. Robert Lifton has wrestled with some of the most disturbing event of the time. Trained in psychology and psychiatry, 40 years ago he went to Hiroshima to listen to the survivors of the world’s first nuclear bombing explosion. His book won the national book award.
He’s also written on the Nazi doctors in Hitler’s Germany, home from the war about Vietnam veterans, and most recently “Destroying The World To Save It” — a study of the extremist religious Japanese cult. Thank you for being with us.
ROBERT LIFTON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: As we listen to Gwen Ifill’s and her guests, you said to me it’s a very scary moment.
ROBERT LIFTON: I did, it really is. Because we’ve been hit very hard. There’s been an evil act committed on us that can be said in this massive terrorism, and what’s scary is the kind of response we might have and the whole process or the vicious circle of violence that could develop from all this.
BILL MOYERS: Is it possible from all your studies to put yourself in the head of the mastermind of this terror and imagine how he would like us to respond?
ROBERT LIFTON: Yes, one has to try to do that, one can’t be certain one is exactly accurate. But when people ask the question, what does bin Laden really want, they assume that it’s some specific set of political goals. And it’s not that simple. Of course he has political goals, he wants America out of the Middle East and he wants to destroy America. But there’s also an apocalyptic dimension, I called my earlier book destroying the world to save it. And that’s very much the story with bin Laden. He wants to destroy a major part of the world to purify the world. And that’s why where you get into an apocalyptic non-rational vision that’s very hard to cope with.
BILL MOYERS: I was taken by your extensive studies into this Japanese cult. It was six years ago?
ROBERT LIFTON: Yes. I did it mostly in ’95.
BILL MOYERS: They had taken deadly gas down into the subways of Tokyo, and if it had been a purer form of gas, the casual teams could have been tens or hundreds of thousands. And you refer to them as appear apocalyptic group.
ROBERT LIFTON: That’s right, because the guru and his close disciples had this idea that everything around them, ordinary people, the world at large, was defiled, was defiled and had to be destroyed because it had no prior contact with purity, namely the guru. It’s so wild and absurd idea, but it can be embraced. And that’s the apocalyptic side.
BILL MOYERS: Would you put bin Laden in that category?
ROBERT LIFTON: I would. I would, because with this apocalyptic vision, there’s always an idea of renewal. It’s wrong to say that these people have no conscience; they have a whole moral structure. But it’s a destructive moral structure and it requires mass killing to realize their moral goals. And I would certainly put bin Laden there, because he’s willing to initiate large scale destruction, as we can see from this event and potentially larger ones, in the name of what’s perceived by them always a higher purpose. You can’t leave out that vision of a higher purpose if you’re to understand what they’re after.
BILL MOYERS: Is that what you meant when you once referred to altruistic murderers?
ROBERT LIFTON: Yes, exactlyI talked about them as performing altruistic murder and in their case there was a further idea that in killing someone, you are favoring him or her by initiating a special kind of immortality for the victim, there’s a kind of theory which they put forward. With bin Laden it isn’t that he’s offering us more immortality so, to speak, by killing random people, but there is a parallel idea that the world will be purified and that the renewal will improve the world, will be a service to the world.
BILL MOYERS: This this case by getting rid of the Great Satan, the united states?
ROBERT LIFTON: Absolutely, the Great Satan. That’s why I’m very wary of our leaders polarizing the world between good and evil, because that’s exactly what bin Laden is doing. He sees us as the evil and his motive as good and absolutely virtue us. I think we do better by looking into what he’s about and the more complex nuances that create terrorism, and do things to minimize terrorism and prevent it.
BILL MOYERS: The Japanese religious cult did have this idea of saving the people they were killing by sending them to a better place. In this case it seems ostensibly that the hijackers, the terrorists themselves were seeking paradise and martyrdom for themselves, not for the 5,000 plus victims in the world trade center.
ROBERT LIFTON: That’s exactly right. There’s always some immortalizing promise in this kind of apocalyptic violence. And really in a lot of violence, a kind of promise that we overlook.
And in the case of bin Laden, and his followers, there is a kind of Islamic heaven which they envision, and in a sense they’re giving up their life for something greater, in their terms, which is immortality and endless virtue and endless reward.
BILL MOYERS: How does someone like that, and you’ve referred to his kind before as a mega-low, a night call guru, how does someone like that inspire a group of bright young men, intelligent, well educated in this case, inspire them to seize a plane, slit the throat of the stewardess or more, slit the throat of the pilot and then plunge that plane right into a building knowing they were killing thousands of people and themselves, how does he motivate them?
ROBERT LIFTON: Well, you start out with the term charisma. It’s widely used, but people don’t really think of what it really means what I this it means, someone has charisma when he or she offers you new meaning in your life and new vitality. And as well as that, also immortality. So vitality and immortality are offered. That’s a lot. And if people feel that these are available to them, they will follow someone, not only to the ends of the earth, but to the ends of killing, as you said. And the killing of large numbers of people is not perceived as murder, it’s perceived as carrying out a necessary act for a higher purpose. So they block out from their minds the deaths of actual people, and they see that higher purpose as more important. It’s always dangerous when you block out human beings that you’re harming. What I call psychic numbing, or not perceiving them as human beings, and that’s what you can do when you become a disciple of a charismatic person.
BILL MOYERS: Those are religious terms. In every case isn’t there a religious force at work in the twisted mentality of these people?
ROBERT LIFTON: Oh, very much so. And this kind of apocalyptic violence, the impulse is essentially religious, however dark. But there’s always a combination of the religious and the political. So Asahara had political and military goals as does bin will laden, but there must be that ultimate religious vision if you’re to have this kind of extreme mass murder.
BILL MOYERS: I can’t help but think of something William Penn once said that to be furious in religion is to be furiously irreligious.
ROBERT LIFTON: Yeah. But, you know, religion has its problems. When I was studying —
BILL MOYERS: That’s the religious organization in japan.
ROBERT LIFTON: Yes, this fanatical Japanese cult, which combined ultimate zealotry and ultimate weapons or tried to, I saw a very, a piece by a protestant minister. And he said you can’t dismiss this as non-religion, it’s is a form of religion. This man had been promoting Christianity and teaching it and everything else, and he looked at me and said, there is nothing more dangerous than a religious conviction.
BILL MOYERS: Yet I’ve heard you speak on other occasions and I know you’ve written about how this sense of a religious foundation for life is often very important for people in dealing with what we’re dealing with this week.
ROBERT LIFTON: Absolutely, and you see it all over New York when you walk around New York. It’s as if every major religion can be in either direction, it can be a source of humanity, of opening the mind, an assertion of human right and spiritual expressions. Or it can be the very opposite, absolutely dogmatic, it can move to violence, it can move to versions of fundamentalism that can become violent and it can suffocate feel. So religion has that potential in either direction.
BILL MOYERS What is at the core of what you have called the fundamentalist self?
ROBERT LIFTON: Well, I think the fundamentalist self is a combination of what I call followingism, all or none convictions, wanting to simplify everything and having little tolerance for nuance and for uncertainty, but also is past oriented. It imagines a past of perfect harm harmony that never was, that’s at the heart of the fundamental self. And it’s a very very dangerous mind set in the world, because this is a time when we need nuance, we have problems that we don’t understand. And that haven’t been ever presented to people before. And if you just close down with an absolute decision before you’ve even examined the problems, you have no chance of solving them.
BILL MOYERS: My wife said the other night, she had been reading something where it was said that forgiveness is giving up the idea of a better past.
ROBERT LIFTON: That’s very good.
There’s a lot to that. Because nostalgia can deteriorate into, well, into violent expressions of fundamentalism. And that is an example of not being able to give up a past, or the idea of a perfect past. Because the actual past was never like that.
BILL MOYERS: Thomas, tom freed man of the “New York times” wrote the other day that Muslims, Islam needs to separate out those Muslims who pray to a god of hate from those Muslims who pray to a god of love. Like no smoking and, smoking and no smoking sections of the plane. But always I read that, which was a brilliant insight, and I salute it, it’s also true of Jews and Christians too. I mean the young man who killed prime minister Rabin said on television, I did it for the glory of god, and we have Christians in this country who say this is divine retribution on people god doesn’t like in America.
ROBERT LIFTON: Every religion can go in either direction. And the man who killed Rabin, he wanted to interrupt the peace process, that was his immediate political goal, but it was a broader apocalyptic goal. He wanted to hasten the return of the messiah, which he thought he was doing by this act. So that apocalyptic dimension to violence is terribly dangerous. And maybe the most dangerous mindset that exists in the world.
BILL MOYERS: What accounts, what in the modern world accounts for it?
ROBERT LIFTON: The modern world itself, perhaps.
BILL MOYERS: You mean, meaning?
ROBERT LIFTON: Well, meaning that the modern world is wonderfully liberating in many ways. And equally confusing. Just wrap at historical change and the sudden advances of technology leave all the old certainties less than certain and create all kinds of confusion. I’ve written about what I call the protein cell for the many sided self, it’s an effort to come to terms with the modern and postmodern world, and it rail a self of flexibility, of experiment and of change.
But that self brings about a lot of uncertainty, and many people can’t deal with that. And I think that fundamentalism is a reaction to the opening out of the modern world or what I call the protean self, you can give it other names, and it’s a response of closing down. What it often does is label and attempt at resolving problems or at exploring problems, labeling that as the problem. So the people who try to bring on new ideas and experiment are labeled as the problem by fundamentalists and put down.
BILL MOYERS: That’s one reason that democracy, which is based on compromise, is an anathema to them.
ROBERT LIFTON: That’s right. Fundamentalists hate democracy, if they’re full fundamentalists in the way I’m describing it. One has to really examine each group that one uses such a label for. You can’t really dispense it so freely. But democracy is by its nature many sided. At its best it’s sloppy and people have opposing ideas and they argue, and the result is imperfect from all sides.
But that’s what the fundamentalist mind cannot abide by. And it very important that when we confront bin Laden or any terrorist, which is a form of fundamentalist vile, that we don’t go that route ourselves and that we don’t start polarizing the world into good and evil, but rather look at our own contributions to where we are now, as opposed to laying it all on the ostensibly evil source.
BILL MOYERS: Looking at the fundamentalist mind of a bin Laden and his followers, do they have any legitimate grievances against the united states as you read them?
ROBERT LIFTON: There are all kinds of grievances. The Arab world is impoverished and there’s all kinds of confusion, they’ve had many dictator and also very little democracy.
Lots of people in Arab countries have had limited and miserable lives.
They are vulnerable to fundamentalism, which promises them something absolutely good, and very beautiful. Our own contribution has been many sided. I mean, even literally we helped train some of these terrorists in Afghanistan as is well-known.
BILL MOYERS: When we were, whether the soviet union had occupied Afghanistan?
ROBERT LIFTON: Yes, absolutely. And we’ve done various things in the Middle East, some even handed and some not so even handed. For instance, the existence and the spread of the settlers in the west bank in essentially Arab material is anathema to anybody… And also we’ve been involved in terror ourselves, like nuclear terror, ourselves and the Soviet Union and other nuclear weapons bearing countries. So we’re not total innocents, we have been involved in all this, and I think we have to look at this if we’re to get to the bottom of it and take constructive policies.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve had a lot of talk the last few days about how suddenly Americans feel vulnerable over what happened down at the world trade center just a mile from here, that we can no longer feel that the oceans are moats out there protecting us from the rest of the world. What do you think it means to us to feel that vulnerable?
ROBERT LIFTON: It is very important, I agree that’s very basic to what’s happening. I’m a New Yorker and I always thought of New York as being impregnable. And the fact that in our central most visible city you can destroy a major set of buildings which are themselves symbolic of American industry and capitalism, is a sudden vulnerability.
We Americans don’t take to vulnerability very well. We see ourselves always a super power. What I call the super power syndrome. A super power is by definition more than natural in its power, it is invulnerable.
So it the invulnerability of a psychological kind that we all carry around, for instance people in battle never feel they’ll be killed, it will be someone else, that’s a psychological sense of invulnerability, along with this vast historical sense of being the only super power, which intensifies that individual sense of invulnerability, and makes anything suggesting vulnerability anathema and difficult to accept. But the fact is that everybody is vulnerable in this world. It has to do with our technology, terrorism yes, but that technology that you can never be totally protected from.
BILL MOYERS: I always thought we were vulnerable during the 50s and 60s and 70s to a nuclear attack. Who would have thought we were vulnerable on such a scale to our jumbo jets.
ROBERT LIFTON: It’s a very strange form of terrorism. Even though I’ve been studying these things, I never imagined the jumbo jet used as a battering ram. In one sense it very low tech. Terrorism, they used knives rather than high tech. Weapons. But of course the contemporary jet is a very high tech. Instrument, but used as a weapon is a diabolical kind of brilliance you might say.
BILL MOYERS: Can we, how do we live, now, knowing that we could be obliterated at any moment by something like this, how do you go about your ordinary life?
ROBERT LIFTON: In a strange way, I think the first step is to acknowledge vulnerability. You take stems against terrorism, we have to take very strong stems, and we can’t avoid some violence, I’m sure, in trying to track down terrorists and bring them to justice.
BILL MOYERS: Even peaceful people know that we have to do that?
ROBERT LIFTON: That’s right, and I would put myself among them and say we have to do that because the American people need and deserve that and they have been subjected to a form of mass murder. So that has to be said. But we should do that with a recognition that being a contemporary human being means to be vulnerable. Individually and collectively. If we don’t have that recognition, we can take extraordinarily violent actions, which are ill advised, as a way of covering over that vulnerability and denying it. And that’s a big mistake, it’s a mistake for the world, but a mistake for us in terms of our own self-interest.
BILL MOYERS: If we could apprehend instead of annihilate them, and bring them to an international court of justice, with due process, it would be a healthier cleaner resolution?
ROBERT LIFTON: That would be ideal too. Have an international and to have an international court or judgment. The important thing is the judgment, and this there has to be punishment. But to make it simply American policy, which is dictated bill our sense of our own needs because we have been wounded and we have been wounded, to make it just American policy without sharing in an overall world policy that both apprehends and punishes murderers, but at the same time looks underneath for the causes of terrorism, and the sources of it, and our own contributions to it.
BILL MOYERS: Here in the closing moments, a couple questions about those of us who are survivors, those who survived intimately the death of someone they love, and the rest of us who survived what you just call a mass assault on our sensibilities, and our society. You once wrote that survivors can do one of two things. They can become numb, and incapacitated, or they can go looking interest that experience for insight and wisdom. How do we find wisdom and insight out of something this horrendous?
ROBERT LIFTON: It’s hard. It’s hard to find wisdom and insight, but we can only do that by stepping back and looking at the causes and the contributions, certainly the sources of terrorism, the kinds of things we’ve been talking about. And also look at our own behavior. Our own policies in areas that have concerned these people. And look ahead toward some kind of democratic process that allows for all this, and that doesn’t legislate an absolute position.
BILL MOYERS: A lot of people, are feeling rage this week.
Have you felt any rage?
ROBERT LIFTON: I felt rage at the terrorists. And I think it’s a human reaction. How can one not? To just, perform these bizarre acts to these three buildings or portions of buildings and kill anyhow 5,000 people, maybe more, it is enraging. But the rage should be in some way transformed into wisdom and into even handed policies.
BILL MOYERS: So there’s a danger in rage that’s at too great a distance?
ROBERT LIFTON: Well, I think the danger is manipulating the rage into political and military policies. As opposed to allowing for the rage as being very human and then stepping back from it and offering leadership that calms the rage but takes strong and necessary and wise actions. Rather than acting from rage, and vengeance.
BILL MOYERS: There was a moment last week that I actually feel somewhat numbed by the experience of the week, and then I thought perhaps that’s just professional detachment, journalistic detachment. I think I got over it this weekend when I began to feel and had to let go of some of his emotions. I read about a young man who had to go out in his back yard and just wail in anguish.
ROBERT LIFTON: Yes. Well, rage and loss can be very closely related. And in some ways rage is an unpleasant emotion, but it’s not as painful as a sense of profound loss and grief. So rage can in some ways cover over the grief, and it can if simply acted upon lead to the opposite of wisdom. I think we do better to allow ourselves to feel our grief and our pain and our loss, and especially those who have it most directly, always you say, from that world trade building or from the pentagon. And if we can allow those emotions to reach us, I think we have a better chance of transcending the rage and moving toward wisdom.
BILL MOYERS: How do we do that? You’re trained in psychologist, just give me, here as we close, just a brief prescription.
ROBERT LIFTON: There’s no formula, and having said psychiatry doesn’t make one totally wise about all these things. But what I can say is that taking stands and public positions that encourage the experience of one’s grief, allow one’s self to feel that it’s really okay, it’s part of the human reaction to extreme loss. And if you don’t allow yourself to undergo that reaction, you suffer more, you have longer term effects. And it also, so it reacts negatively in a personal psychological sense, and also in a more public political sense.
BILL MOYERS: Well, thank you very much. I could go on talking with you much longer, and I really do appreciate your coming here. I want to go back now and read both your books on the Japanese cult and on Hiroshima, because in one sense, not like those people, but all of us are survivors. Thank you very much.
ROBERT LIFTON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Tonight is the first night of the Jewish new year, so we will close with images from the New York streets, with music by Ravel of the Hebrew prayer of Mourning, the kaddish.
This transcript was entered on May 1, 2015.