Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #6


Below is my final journal entry, first written on the date indicated, dealing with Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  Before leaving Lifton, in my next two posts I will ,share some reflections on a later work of his on September11, 2001, and its aftermath.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lifton (p 467) on developing “the paradigm of death and the continuity of life–or the  symbolization of life and death–that [based on Otto Rank’s work] I have been employing in this book and in other works over several decades” to apply to genocide.  To that end, to “the central  tenet of that model” in accordance with which, a propos genocide at least, “human beings kill in order to assert their own life power,” he now adds “the image of curing a deadly disease, so that genocide may become an absolute form of killing in the name of  healing.”

It is worth noting that the “model” or “paradigm” he is using also applies, at least in its “central tenet” to addiction [which entails, however, no sort of moral equivalent between the two:  as I will later discuss, the moral difference between genocide and addiction is huge].   That is, both genocide and addiction would be rooted in the need “to assert [the  addict’s and/or the killer’s] own life power” (the “control” of  “my control  disease” of addiction [as therapist J. Keith Miller describes his own alcoholism].

What is more, as Lifton explicitly argues a bit earlier in the book (pp. 447-451), the “omnipotence” that genocidal killers such as, emblematically (because of “killing to heal”), the Nazi Auschwitz doctors experience when killing–that (p. 447) “sense of omnipotent control over the live and deaths” of its victims–wavers with “the seemingly opposite sense of impotence, of being a powerless cog in a vast machine controlled by unseen others.”  Indeed,  it is clear that, in general, any killing in order to heal must, in my language, disappropriate itself of (or dis-own) its own inner sense (direct intentionality, as it  were) as killing.  That is why the exercise of power in such a way is wracked internally by its “opposite,” the sense of powerlessness.  That would occur whenever a split of the direct, inner intentionality of means and ends occurs.

And just such a split also occurs in addiction, in that the very way the addict experiences as the only available avenue for asserting her own “life power” is by subjecting herself (note:  not just “being subjected to,” but, exactly, “subjecting oneself to,” since otherwise it would be no means of exercising power or control at all) to undergoing the activity of the drug or drug-equivalent upon her.  Thus, in addiction, too, there is this same central wavering between power and powerlessness.

Also common to  genocide and addiction is insatiability:  No amount of killing for the one who kills in the name of healing will ever be enough–enough to eliminate all “infection” and “disease” and risk thereof–any more than any amount of alcohol is ever enough for what, following Lipton’s talk of the Nazi doctor’s “Auschwitz self,” we might call an alcoholic’s alcoholic-self. 

But perhaps the key to a crucial differentiation lies here, in the “insatiability” of both genocidal killer and addict.  That is, why the one is insatiable may be significantly different from why the other is “insatiable.”  The  difference may, indeed, be there, along the axis of the active/reactive distinction that Deleuze makes central in his reading of Nietzsche.

In effect, it may come down to  the insatiability of the genocidal killer being reactive, whereas that of the addict is active.  Genocide, insofar as it requires the attribution of generative power–power generative of the very efforts of healing that come to consist in killing–to what is other than itself.  The point to extract from that is not just that genocidal action is only called forth by the irruption of “infection” or “disease,” which really becomes the tautology that healing efforts are only called forth in response or “reaction” to illness.  The point is, rather, that at the very heart of genocide lies coiled the fundamental experience of powerlessness–better:  the experience of fundamental powerlessness:  the experience of oneself as not powerful, but as, instead, the mere pawn of what does have power.  Genocide would be reactive, then, because it would emerge, not directly from and/or as the assertion of one’s own power or “vitality” (to use a language closer to the Nazis’ own) but as avoidance of the recognition of one’s own powerlessness.  But since the very endeavor to deny, disavow, or avoid something that is experienced as definitive of one’s very selfhood–here, the radical experiential impotence of the killer in the face of  what he must kill, because it has power over him–the very powerlessness one is trying to avoid by genocide is incorporated or institutionalized within genocidal action itself:  Hence the more one kills, the less power one feels, which means the more one has to go on killing.

In contrast, addiction is at root an assertion of one’s power or vitality as such. It involves the direct experience of such power, the exercise of it in the only way experientially open to one, under addictionogenic circumstances.  That would be why one could bottom out in addiction, whereas genocide is bottomless.

Hence, too, there would be a corresponding differentiation of what could constitute “recovery.”  In the case of addiction, as active, what ultimately needs to be recovered, in the sense of regained, is the authentic power that has been covered over or concealed by external circumstances, experienced (falsely) as somehow depriving one of power.  Paradoxically, here it is precisely by the full acknowledgement of one’s powerlessness that one finds oneself re-invested with power–though now genuine power, no longer distorted as having anything to do with externalities at all.

In contrast, “recovery” for a genocidal healer-killer (and, as a side note, Lifton’s noteworthy insight that genocide as such involves killing to heal is also worth reversing, insofar as it ponts to a necessarily genocide-engendeging capacity that lies essentially in modern medicine as such–to which much of Lifton’s own work, as well as [Pat] Barker’s Regeneration-trilogy attests [the subject of an earlier series of posts at this blogsite]) involves full acknowledgement or recognition, not of powerlessness as such, but of one’s anxiety-driven avoidance or disavowal of responsibility.

That’s why giving up the illusion of control  starts the addict toward recovery, whereas it is precisely the genocidal killer’s illusion of lack of control–and, hence, blaming others and demonizing them–that must first be abandoned, if any recovery is even to become possible.  That recovery as such, in fact, would only begin at the bottom of whatever processes one might then, after the confession of guilt connected with one’s own actions as a killer (actual or potential), fall into, in now trying to exert control over oneself in some addictive practice.

It may even be that recovery from healer-killing is actually not possible at all!  Here may be, at last, “absolute evil,” now seen to be reaction as such.

After his characterization, above, of his life-continuity model, Lifton writes(p. 467):  “The model I propose [for genocide] includes a perception of collective illness, a vision of cure, and a series of motivations, experiences, and requirements of  perpetrators in this quest  for that cure.”  A couple of pages later (468-470), he presents Germany after WW I and Turkey before the genocide against the Armenians as sharing just such a perception/interpretation of the “national” situation as such an “illness,” which must then be “cured” by atacking the supposed external “causes”–the Jews for the Nazis and the Armenians for the Turkish nationalists in 1915.

It is noteworthy that here, in these genocide-engendering situations, the  perpetrators of the coming genocide begin by inerpreting the situation as an “illness,” and by then projecting the source of that illness onto the selected “other” who has “invaded” the body of the Volk or nation.  In contrast, the addict does not at all begin by seeing her situaion as an illness.  Rather, the addiction seems to be the “solution” to whatever problem is at issue.  And only once the addict can be given the idea that the addiction is some “malady” or “illness,” as Bill Wilson always called alcoholism, does recovery begin.  In the case of the genocidal killer, actual or  potential, it is all but the reverse:  Only by giving up the interpretation that the  problem lies in some illness–e.g., the “stab in the back” purportedly involved in German  defeat in WW Iand acknowledging, instead, that the purported problem is self-engendered, does the genocide have any chance at “recovery.”  That is, so to speak, the genocide must begin at the fourth column of the 4th step [of AA’s twelve steps, where one must examine one’s own “fault” in the situation being analyzed], whereas the addict must first get there by taking the first three steps.

Lifton, p. 470:

The stage of sickness [with which genocide begins], then, includes the experience of collective loss and death immersion; the promise of redemptive revitalization, including total merging of self with a mystical collectivity; the absolute failure of that promise, followed by newly intensified experience of collective death imagery and death equivalents; leading in turn to a hunger for a “cure” commensurate in its totality [it is what he then calls “the vision of a total cure” that comes into play] with the “sickness.”


P. 473:  “Totalism in a nation state, then, is most likely to emerge as a cure for a death-haunted illness; and victimization, violence, and genocide are potential aspects of that cure.”


Also pointing to the reactive nature of genocide is what Liftgon writes on p. 479:  “Hence, the parallel imagery in genocide:  the bearer of deathly disease threatens one’s own people with extinction so one must absolutely extinguish him first.”  Thus, the genocidal killer begins with the perception of himself as a victim.

So, for example, did and does the Republican conservative such as Bush or McCain paint the US as a victim of “Islamic terrorists.”

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