The Socialization of Evil: Robert Jay Lifton on the Death Penalty, the Holocaust & Armenian Genocide

May 07, 2015


Robert Jay Lifton

leading American psychiatrist and author of several books. He is distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at the City University of New York. He is the recipient of numerous national and international awards and honorary degrees. His books include Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, for which he received the National Book Award; The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide; and most recently, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. He is currently working on a book comparing the nuclear threat to the threat posed by climate change.

For the past five decades, eminent psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has written extensively on the psychological dimensions of war, from the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, to doctors who aided Nazi crimes, to nuclear war. In 1967, Lifton won a National Book Award for his work, "Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima." In 1970, he would testify before a Senate committee about the Vietnam War, warning about the need to help rehumanize returning veterans into society. In 1986, he published the seminal book, "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide." In the final part of our interview, Lifton expounds on what he calls "the socialization of evil," from the Holocaust to Vietnam to the death penalty.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, leading American psychiatrist. Among his books, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir and Who Owns Death?: Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions. Dr. Lifton, U.S. prisons are feeling the effect of a global revulsion against the death penalty, the U.S. the only industrialized country in the world to have it. So when European companies cut off the drug supply to be used in the execution cocktail of a prisoner, states have had to put off executions, because they don’t have the proper death cocktail. Utah just passed, as a backup, firing squad, execution by firing squad, and Oklahoma just passed gassing—not clear exactly how that gassing of a prisoner would be done—if they don’t—aren’t able to get their hands on the drugs. Can you talk about this? You have written this book, Who Owns Death?, and you’ve talked to many different people involved in the death chain.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: At issue is the mythology of humane killing—of course, a contradiction in terms. And with each form of killing by the state in carrying through a death penalty, whether it’s hanging, gas chamber, electric chair or the use of chemicals, with each of the shifts from one to the other, there is the claim: This is more humane. But there’s no such thing as humane killing. Each of them brings about suffering, cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited, according to our laws, and one can’t overcome that. It’s another situation where you judge a society, and many wise writers, including, for instance Albert Camus, have focused on judging a whole society in terms of whether it will kill individual people. There’s always also the added idea of human culpability or the inability of human beings to be certain about convictions that lead to the death penalty. So, with human fallibility, there is always the danger, whatever the technical tools, DNA or anything else, there is always the danger—and it has happened—of executing innocent people. If you have the danger of executing innocent people, there must be no execution carried out by a society.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Lifton, you’ve also talked about, in the context of the research that you’ve done on genocide and war, that you were surprised to find that the socialization of evil is all too easy to accomplish. So could you talk about that in the context of both the death penalty in the U.S. as well as the expanding numbers of prisoners here, the incarceration system?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: It’s as if even right-wing Republicans, when they experience the prison system, sometimes get the urge to reform it. Most of these reform movements haven’t gone very far. I hear there’s a new one that combines right-wing people and the usual people from the left who see the unfairness and cruelty within the prison system. Yes, the prison system has become a norm, and it involves, selectively, enormous numbers of blacks, African Americans, who are imprisoned, and there are various reasons for that, including methods of policing and lack of opportunity in various environments. And that forms a norm that becomes part of the way society runs. Then police departments, politicians, people in everyday life simply adjust to it. You know, adaptation is the great human achievement in evolution. We are the champions of adaptation, so much so that we’ve made the planet our habitat. That’s not true of any other species. But adaptation is also a vulnerability, because sometimes immediate adaptation is contrary to larger necessities and ethical issues in more extensive adaption. And that’s what we’re talking about, a narrow, normalized adaptation to a cruel and unfair prison system.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Jay Lifton, you wrote the book, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. Explain what you mean by "extreme century."

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You know, there is a group now that wants to say we’re making progress because, if you look statistically, there seem to be fewer wars and relatively fewer people according to population size. That has not been my experience. In studying both Auschwitz and Hiroshima, I found these to be defining events of the 20th century, and although they are very different events, they converge in threatening the human future. One has to do with, of course, the gas chambers in Auschwitz. That was a high technology of the time, and it’s our capacity to destroy ourselves, in this case, with chemicals or other substances. The other, of course, has to do with nuclear threat, and that’s a more immediate danger. Nuclear weapons still, although not thought about much publicly now, certainly when one looks into it, still a looming threat, if anything greater than in recent past. So these are two events that define the 20th century. And when one looks for ways—and, you know, I’d be the first to want to look for human progress, but when one looks for ways of diminishing killing in war, those who make the claim are hard put to explain the 20th century, more people killed in that century than any other century. So, Auschwitz and Hiroshima are defining events of the 20th century.

Still, we can look toward expressions, anti-nuclear expressions, confrontations of the Holocaust and of weapons of mass destruction of any kind, that we mount as sources of hope and as commitments that we continue to make. That has to do—that’s what I mean by being a witness. When I did my research on, say, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, I was looking to be accurate in what I found psychologically. I also saw that research as a form of witness. A witness is someone who opens himself or herself to experience, takes it in, and retells the story, tells the tale, gives it a new narrative. That’s what I saw myself as doing with Hiroshima and with Auschwitz and with other events of the 20th century, also to the Vietnam War and the Vietnam—the antiwar veterans who admirably found meaning in the meaninglessness of their war. So, witness and research become combined. And the other thing I would say about it is—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean they found meaning in the meaninglessness of the war?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Every soldier who fights a war, and, for that matter, those in the society that is mounting a war, need to have a sense that there is justification for this war, and every politician must explain to his or her people these soldiers of ours did not die in vain. That becomes harder and harder to say in counterinsurgencies like Vietnam with an atrocity-producing situation that is psychologically and militarily created. The antiwar veterans developed the insight that this war was wrong and bad. They confronted this insight, which is painful to do—very painful thing to do for a veteran, because one has killed people and one has seen one’s buddies dying right next to one. That was a brave and hard thing to do. Most veterans’ groups come home often to victory parades or celebration or whatever, and declare the just achievements of the war, the heroic victory for which they’re celebrated. Of course, the Vietnam veterans were not welcomed. They came home individually. But these antiwar veterans came home with no feeling that there was anything like victory or a just cause in relation to their war. They got up in 1971, the Winter Soldier hearings and other such events, described how they had witnessed and been involved in atrocities, and that was the truth about their war. They found meaning in this political and personal opposition to their war, their war which could not be justified. So, that was what I meant by the meaning they found in the meaninglessness of their war.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Lifton, before we conclude, I’d like to ask you about the Armenian genocide, about which you spoke last night at the PEN festival. You talked about the significance of cultural genocide and the targeting, in genocides, of this kind of intellectuals, writers, artists, and why that’s particularly important. Could you talk about that?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes. When Raphael Lemkin, a heroic man, came to the concept of genocide, he included what he called cultural genocide, the destruction of the institutions and ritual elements of a culture which all of us live from. And I talked last night about how intellectuals, professionals of all kinds, are key groups in sustaining these rituals and structures and institutions that we call culture, because we human beings are meaning-hungry creatures, and we don’t take in perceptions nakedly. If you sit across the table from me, I don’t just see you as you are, but I reconstruct you as people I know, I think about, who are doing certain things. We all use this wonderful and dangerous grey matter of our brain in this symbolizing and meaning-constructing process. The intellectuals and professionals are key because they create words and images in not only sustaining but in criticizing culture. And when you seek out intellectuals and professionals to put them to death, as perpetrators of genocide often do, you are making a wound in the whole spiritual side of culture, which is crucial to human life. And that is another source of great human suffering. And that was what much of the panel was about last night.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the other point that you make is that genocides, in fact, rely on the participation, at one level or another, of the professional classes, intellectuals, etc. Could you explain why?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes. When I did my study of Nazi doctors, I was of course very intent on looking at how professional collude in genocide by this egregious example of Nazi doctors. But looking more generally at genocide, I came to see that professionals are crucial to carrying out any form of genocide. They are well educated and capable of doing the nitty-gritty work of genocide. So they often develop the rationale for the genocide, the technology, some of the science. They often create images or poems or songs, which—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: —which render the genocide heroic. And in that way, professionals are socialized to evil.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Jay Lifton, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to continue this discussion afterwards and post it online. Robert Jay Lifton, a leading American psychiatrist, author of many books. He’s a distinguished professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at City University of New York, author of Witness to an Extreme Century, Who Owns Death? and much more. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. This is Democracy Now!

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