Pythia Peay

America On The Couch

The Gun, the Bomb, and the Wound That Will Not Heal

An Interview With Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.

Posted Aug 06, 2015

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Seventy years ago today, August 6, marks a conflicted sort of American anniversary: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, and, several days later on August 9, the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It was to mark the fiftieth anniversary of these dates that, twenty years ago, the renowned psychohistorian of war and genocide, Robert Jay Lifton, published Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial. It was then that I sought Lifton out for his views on the lingering effects on the American psyche for being the first nation to use nuclear weapons, and other questions around American violence and its romance with the gun.

The author of more than twenty books, Lifton, who is now 89, organized some of the earliest veterans’ “rap” groups during the Vietnam War, and was a pioneer in recognizing the symptoms of PTSD. Our conversation took place in the Fall of 1995: after the April 19th Oklahoma City bombing (168 dead, 680 injured), but before the 1999 Columbine School shootings (13 murdered, 27 injured)—and the forty-two mass shootings that have occurred since (1), including the recent Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater shooting. So it is even more remarkable that, in preparing my interview with Lifton twenty years ago, the topic of guns and the question “Why is America so violent?” should have been uppermost in my mind. The following interview is excerpted from America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture (Lantern Books, 2015).

Pythia Peay: I’d like to ask you a simple question from the point of view of those who, like myself, sometimes wonder about America: “Why are we so violent?”

Robert Jay Lifton: This is a very large question. I find myself a little reluctant to plunge in.

PP: Then let me ask you, having just read your book Hiroshima in America, how America’s use of the bomb affected us in that regard. Did it alter how we are violent, in the sense that violence could now be done from a distance, and thus more easily and frequently?

RJL: I think that American violence starts long before nuclear weapons. Although every nation has its own version of violence, I tend to see us as more violent collectively in certain ways than other peoples—and yet for more general, historical reasons than for reasons of personal badness.

PP: Do you mean that we aren’t intrinsically violent as a people, but that historical events influenced us in that direction?

RJL: Yes, I think it has to do with historical and psychological patterns that we’ve developed over the centuries. I also think a lot of our violent tendencies have to do with American attitudes toward the gun. There’s almost a kind of “sacralization” of the gun in our society. As strange as it sounds, I believe that the gun almost replaces tradition. Or to put it another way, America is a culture that lacks a traditional base, and there is a way in which the gun has filled that gap. It has been central to American thinking. And I believe that is a very harmful and self-defeating kind of psychological and historical tendency.

PP: When you say we lack tradition, what do you mean?

RJL: America was built on patterns of movement around the constantly moving frontier and continuous immigration. We also didn’t start with a traditional culture in place; maybe no country does, but we had even less of one to begin with. So in America we have all sorts of cultures coming together and forming the concept of “the American.” But our identity has always been shaky, and we’ve always been uneasy about our lack of a longer history and of a traditional culture. Sometimes that uneasiness has made us emphasize what history we do have all the more strongly. So what I’m saying is that as a country we tend to look for ways to compensate for the absence of a traditional cultural base. And in my view the identity we’ve built around conquering the wilderness, the gun, and our constitutional right to self-defense together form a major compensation for that absence of tradition.

PP: Why the gun in particular? Is it just because, as you were saying, it became prominent for historical reasons?

RJL: The gun is tied up with our American ideal of the heroic and with later commercialization. We saw ourselves as conquering the wilderness and the native peoples. And the gun was key to that. The gun is also called “the great equalizer”— so ironically it was seen as a democratizing device. It was an expression of personal power that gave individuals some sense of control over life and death, perhaps compensating for the terror and fear that many people must have felt in this country in its early decades. So the gun became a symbol on many levels of a kind of organizing principle; as an expression of individualism and individual power; and as a way of dealing with anxieties about death and vulnerability. For all those reasons, the gun became more important to us than perhaps to any other culture

And although I’m the last to diminish the centrality of nuclear weapons in terms of American violence, much begins with the focus on the gun and the near deification of the gun in terms of American violence.

PP: So what would America have to do to come to terms with the gun?

RJL: It’s important to see it as a continuing struggle. . .But as I’ve learned from taking part in various political struggles, although it’s necessary to take certain actions, our goals can never be fully achieved. . .So one has to have large goals and has to see the whole process as a continuing struggle with no end. And I feel that way about the American struggle with guns.

PP: So we will never be a country that doesn’t own guns.

RJL: Yes, but much can be achieved short of perfection, or short of eliminating guns in our society, at least in terms of restricting them and restraining their use. That is hard enough to do even in modern ways.

PP: Do you have a concern about how guns are romanticized in this culture?

RJL: I’m very concerned about the romanticization of violence and of the gun in particular, especially its presentation in heroic dramatic form in which there is little pain and real suffering. When I worked with antiwar Vietnam veterans we came to refer to it—and it was their term—as “the John Wayne” thing. It was a term that stood for a particular type of American heroic figure with certain good traits: loyalty, bravery, chivalry, and protectiveness toward women. But in this myth there’s no real blood, there is essentially only triumph of the good without pain, suffering, or death, and the women have to be quiet and without opinions.

Many of the antiwar veterans that I worked with felt that they had been lured into the Vietnam War out of patriotism, but also in the spirit of that distorted American romanticism around war and violence that plays out in the media. But although I strongly agree with these veterans . . . .I also believe that although the media have a part to play in our American narrative around violence, it’s not the central part. The central themes of violence are in the culture itself and in our history. The media exploit these cultural tendencies often and without conscience—but they don’t create it.

PP: Would you say that one of the causes of violence today is a reaction to the anxieties of the historical moment we’re living in?

RJL: Yes, that’s right. My argument is that we would do best to recognize that this confusion is inherent in our historical moment. Now that doesn’t solve the question of violence. But it does help us to understand that a lot of violence stems from the discomfort and anxieties many feel around the postmodern self, with its many-sidedness and moral flexibility, that has been thrust upon us by the times we live in. When you look at the violent expressions of various fundamentalist groups (whether religious, ethnic, or political) they often have a powerful and sometimes violent impulse to assert a monolithic vision of absolute truth and a desire to simplify things into a vision of a past of perfect harmony that never was—and to destroy any who contest it, or who are seen as enemies of their mission.

PP: Is violence a natural impulse in human nature that’s “gone wrong” or that is misdirected? It sounds odd, but is there some positive way of looking at violence?

RJL: In my work on violence, and especially in my book The Broken Connection, I talk about violence as a misdirected effort to restore or regain vitality. There are studies of individuals who are depressed or withdrawn, but who after committing an act of violence experience a surge of vitality—so in that sense it’s a misdirected potential.

Violence is also often bound up with a search for recognition and identity. In studies we did with inner city black youth, we found that for teenagers the acquisition of a gun functioned as a center for identity, or as an object around which an identity could be built. So that when young kids who felt afraid and anxious in their environment got a gun, others were then afraid of them. There are parallel patterns among deracinated white groups who are not only poor, but who are radically dislocated in terms of family and subculture, and who suffer feelings of worthlessness, of being lost and without status—all these factors can give rise to violence.

PP: So where do nuclear weapons and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II come into play with the American narrative around violence?

RJL: For one thing, high technology weapons and nuclear weapons can be epitomized as the most extreme model for ultimate violence without feeling, or what I call psychic numbing.

PP: Why?

RJL: Because with nuclear and high-technology weapons, cause and effect are radically removed from one another. But even more important, America’s use of nuclear weapons as a legitimate weapon rendered them respectable. This altered our moral standards in a very harmful way, as after that all other weapons became relatively humane in comparison. So in that sense our use of so-called “conventional” weapons, many of which are not too different in their effects from nuclear weapons in their killing power, became more acceptable. . . .So our inability to fully come to terms with nuclear weapons with what they really are has affected our relationship to violence across the board.

PP: How would you interpret the furor that erupted around the National Air and Space Museum’s proposed exhibit commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima (2), and their original vision of offering a more complete picture of what happened that August day in 1945?

RJL: It had to do with what . . .I call the American “raw nerve” in relation to Hiroshima. When you touch a raw nerve it hurts. We have this agitated, anxious feeling about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so we don’t like to look at it. Above all, we’ve spent the better part of half a century avoiding coming to terms with its human effects. In saying this, I don’t think we are worse than any other people. I say this again and again—but it happens that we were the ones to make the bomb first, and to use it, and this has had its impact on us. The raw nerve exists because we have a need to fend off any kind of guilt or self-condemnation.

PP: But even though the original exhibit was canceled, leaving only a very pared down display of the Enola Gay at a different museum, with a simple plaque, was something gained from the national debate that was stirred up around this event?

RJL: Yes, the reaction against the exhibit didn’t represent the whole country by any means; fortunately, there is another side to America. Because it had the effect of raising the issue of our use of nuclear weapons again, we came closer to a national dialogue on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1995 than we’ve ever had before—including admirable statements by some in our main media. . .So that is the Jeffersonian side of our country that one should never give up on.

PP: Can you say more about America’s Jeffersonian side?

RJL: That’s the side of our historical character that has to do with true freedom of speech, and the right and even the obligation to speak critically about one’s government when one considers it wrong. When it comes to Hiroshima, it’s not a question of defending Japan, and being blind to its atrocities, or of defending America’s right not to look at the consequences of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Everyone is obligated to look at the past and especially at destructive behavior in the past. And I believe that is in keeping with the American Jeffersonian spirit.

PP: So whether we were right or wrong in dropping the bomb, it’s a moral act for the country to look back and examine its decisions and ask questions?

RJL: Absolutely. Beyond condemning our use of the weapon, which I do, we can’t deny its danger to the human future. Once we have that perspective, the question around nuclear weapons centers on their threat to human existence in general.

PP: Would you say that since Hiroshima, humankind has been psychologically affected in ways that we’re not aware of with regard to the future, and how we think of it or look forward to it?

RJL: Yes, I do. I’ve written in Hiroshima in America, and in many other places, about our fear of “futurelessness.” We all struggle at some level with the idea of survival: Will we live out our lives, and more importantly will our children and grandchildren fully live out their lives? But nuclear weapons are more bound up with feelings of fear, and even anticipation and expectation, of the end of the world. No one is entirely free of these feelings; it’s a worldwide phenomenon, but it’s also stronger in those countries that have felt most vulnerable to nuclear weapons—and it’s always the possessors of nuclear weapons who feel most vulnerable to them.

PP: Is this fear around whether or not humanity will have a future something new to the human condition?

RJL: What’s new is our capacity to eliminate ourselves as a species with our own technology, by our own hand, and to no purpose. That combination is new. It’s hard to know how much people in early centuries became adapted to losing siblings or parents or children to disease. But the idea of a sudden mass collective dying by our own hand is what is new.

1). Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings.Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2015. article does not include the most recent shooting at the Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater July 23, 2015.

2). To celebrate the bombing's fiftieth anniversary in 1995, the cockpit and nose section of the Enola Gay, the B-29 used to drop the bomb over Hiroshima, were put on exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington. D.C. After controversy arose over the accompanying description on the plaque (whether to list the number of Japanese casualties), the Enola Gay was moved in 2003 to NASM's Steven F. Udvaar-Hazy Center, outside the city, where the entire restored B-29 is on permanent display.