Scholar studies why we hate

Times Union/November 2, 2000

It's a grim fact of contemporary life, with school shootings in this country and numerous recent examples of genocide in Rwanda and Kosovo, that Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has more killing fields to cover than he can possibly find time to write about.

During an acclaimed scholarly career that has spanned 20 books, including his best-known, "The Nazi Doctors," Lifton has interviewed Hiroshima survivors, cult members, global terrorists, survivors of Armenian genocide and other victims of war or human rights atrocities.

"I'm perhaps more sensitized to victims because I'm Jewish," Lifton, 74, a psychiatrist and distinguished professor at The City University of New York, said in a phone interview from his seasonal home in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. "My life's passion has been to expose and confront mass killing and genocide anywhere it occurs."

Although the locales and cultures vary widely and the forms of genocide range from the machete in Rwanda to the gas chamber in the Nazi Holocaust, Lifton's far-flung studies discovered commonality that amounts to a kind of genocidal mentality.

"All of the things I've written about are related in a way, because there is an underlying psychology to this extremist behavior," he said. "In very broad terms, the model I've come up with includes an extreme historical trauma, confusion and chaos, followed by a group with a revitalizing ideology that becomes genocidal by feeding on an impulse to destroy what I call the designated victim."

Lifton will discuss the interrelated nature of cults, terrorism, genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, Armenian genocide and other examples of mass killing in an annual Armenian lecture series at Russell Sage College in Troy. Lifton's Nov. 2 visit is underwritten by contributions raised from Armenian-Americans locally and throughout the U.S. The fund-raising effort was organized by Lucille Gochigian Sarkissan, of Guilderland, a Sage graduate. Sarkissian's mother survived the Armenian genocide during World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey were killed by the Turkish government beginning in 1915. Turkish authorities dispute that number and the facts surrounding the mass killing and have attempted to deflect questions about the genocide, suggesting that Armenian history should be left to historians.

Recently, a vote was withdrawn in the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution that would have officially recognized the Armenian genocide for the first time in American diplomacy.

Shelving the resolution came after a request by the Clinton Administration, which feared further roiling the turbulent Middle East and creating potential danger for U.S. tourists in that region. The State Department also recently issued a warning to U.S. citizens traveling to Turkey as a result of mounting tensions over the outcome of the Congressional resolution. Lifton was harshly critical of Congress dropping the resolution. "I think it's denying the truth of history and Americans' understanding of the Armenian genocide," Lifton said. "I thought the resolution was a very reasonable step that had no legal significance. It was wrong to withdraw it."

Lifton said his visits to college campuses in recent years have been more encouraging. "I think there's an increasing interest emerging among college students about encountering the suppression of historical truths about the Armenian genocide and others," Lifton said. "The American consciousness is expanding to include more recognition of these issues."

Debating the politics of the resolution's withdrawal and other nuances of the Armenian genocide and its aftermath is not the primary purpose of Lifton's talk.

"We're trying to get to the universality of the issue by coming to understand the underlying psychology of a society's enthusiasm for destroying fellow human beings, and there's no more accomplished person to do that than Dr. Lifton," said Steven Leibo, who directs Sage's Center on Violence and Healing and invited Lifton to campus.

In addition to his teaching and writing, Lifton, a recipient of more than a dozen honorary degrees, is director of The Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

Lifton continues to expand his range of subjects. His new book, which will be published by William Morrow in November, is an examination of the death penalty in the U.S., with co-author Greg Mitchell. It's titled "Who Owns Death: Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions."

Last year, a paperback edition was published of "Destroying the World to Save It" (Metropolitan Books), Lifton's study of the extremist Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which released poison gas in Tokyo subways. Lifton said the killings at Columbine High School and other schoolyard violence across the U.S. should be a warning to parents and teachers. "There is a sad and dangerous process in which these kids spend a lot of time visiting right-wing extremist Web sites and become sort of junior neo-fascists in a confused way," Lifton said.

"There needs to be a balance in a democracy between freedom of expression and awareness of danger," Lifton said. "But if there are signs of violence and extreme tendencies of a cultic kind, along with acquisition of weapons, one has to be vigilant and take action."

Lifton said the best deterrent to such extremism is knowledge. "The more we understand in advance about the way extreme cults function, the less vulnerable we are to them," Lifton said.

Lifton said he finds relief from the unremitting brutality that is central to his scholarship by walking the beach near his Wellfleet home, which he vacated last week for his permanent base in New York City. He also draws cartoons for fun and has published two books of humorous bird cartoons, the most recent being "Psychobirds."

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