DATE December 18, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bernard Lewis discusses the roots of Islamic rage
resulting in extremism
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Ever since September 11th, Americans have been asking `Why do they hate us?'
My guest, Bernard Lewis, tried to respond to that question back in the
September 1990 issue of The Atlantic in a cover story on the roots of Muslim
rage. He has a new piece in this month's Atlantic. Last month, he had an
article in The New Yorker titled "The Revolt of Islam." When did the conflict
with the West begin, and how could it end?
Lewis has spent his life studying the Middle East and Islam. He's a professor
emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. He has a new book
of his translations of classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew poems
called "Music of a Distant Drum." He also has a new book that will be
published next month titled "What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle
I asked him, now that the Afghans are so relieved to be free of the Taliban,
might the US seem less like a villain and more like a force for good to people
in the Islamic world?
Dr. BERNARD LEWIS (Author, "What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle
Eastern Response"): Most of the Middle East falls into one of two groups. On
the one hand, there are countries with governments which are said to be
pro-American, and whom we regard as friends and allies, and in those
countries, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the population is fanatically,
passionately anti-American because they regard us as responsible for the
tyrants that rule over them, and it's no accident that most of the hijackers
came from these two countries.
On the other hand, there are countries like Iraq and Iran where the
governments are anti-American and where the people, therefore, are very
strongly pro-American. It was very remarkable, immediately after September
the 11th, thousands of people in Iran spontaneously went out into the streets
and held vigils to express sympathy and compassion. This was not organized.
On the contrary, the state tried to prevent it. It was a spontaneous
expression of goodwill, and I don't have the slightest doubt that the scenes
of rejoicing in Afghanistan would look like a funeral compared with what we
would see in Iraq and Iran if they were liberated from their present rulers.
GROSS: Now you mentioned that, you know, a lot of the extremists came from
Saudi Arabia and Egypt because they live under tyrants there. In what way is
the Saudi family tyrannical in their ruling over Saudis?
Dr. LEWIS: Tyrannical, I think, is too strong a word, but certainly very
autocratic, and in the modern age, particularly with modern media and modern
communications, people are less tolerant of that than they used to be, and the
media has made an enormous contribution to this. I mean, there have always
been differences between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the
powerless, but usually the poor and the powerless were very little aware of
those differences. Now they see them and hear them every day, thanks to the
mass media, and this is a major source of a deep and growing frustration and
GROSS: You said that what lies behind Muslim anger is three centuries of
defeat, decline and impotence in the Muslim world. I know you can't describe
three centuries for us, but can you give us a sense of what you mean by that?
Dr. LEWIS: Let my try to explain. For the first thousand years or so of
Islamic history--that is to say, from the career of the prophet and the advent
of Islam in the seventh century--Islam saw itself and, to a large extent,
rightly, as the dominant civilization in the world, the most powerful, the
wealthiest, the most creative, advancing on all its territorial frontiers,
advancing also on all the frontiers of knowledge.
There were setbacks. They had conquered Spain, they lost Spain, but that was
more than compensated by their advances, and as recently, so to speak, as the
17th century, there were still Turkish pashas ruling in Budapest and in
Belgrade, Turkish armies besieging Vienna and North African corsairs raiding
the coasts of England and Ireland. And then suddenly everything changed.
They were defeated on every battlefield, they lost every war. And not only in
war, but they were defeated also--not only on the battlefield, but in the
marketplace, when suddenly they found themselves being outsold, outproduced
by this upstart Western world.
Let me illustrate this with an example. Sugar and coffee are both commodities
which were unknown in the Western world. They were imported from the Middle
East, and they figured prominently in the balance of payment, balance of trade
between the Middle East and the Western world. Then the Europeans learnt to
grow sugar and to grow coffee on their colonial plantations, and they did it
more efficiently and more cheaply than the locals, so that by the 18th century
coffee and sugar are import items from the West and no longer export items to
the West, so that by the 18th century if a Turk or an Arab permitted himself
that traditional indulgence, a cup of sweet coffee, the chances were that the
coffee came from Java or the West Indies, and that the sugar came from
somewhere in Central America and was refined somewhere in Western Europe. The
only thing that was local was the hot water, and by the 19th century even that
ceased to be true because European companies took over most of the utilities.
There was this feeling of frustration in a society accustomed to a position of
preeminence and, indeed, dominance, and another point which I think is very
important, a society with a very strong sense of history. In this country, if
you say of something, `That's history,' you mean it's unimportant, irrelevant,
of no value for present concerns. This is not the Middle Eastern view.
History is very much present around them all the time. During the Iraq-Iran
war, 1980 to 1988, I had occasion to look at the propaganda on both sides. It
was full of rapid, passing, incomplete allusions to events in history a
thousand or more years ago, and they didn't need any explanations, and they
knew perfectly well that their readers would pick them up and understand them,
in the same way when Osama bin Laden spoke of this `shame and humiliation
which we have suffered for more than 80 years.' People were running around in
circles, `What happened 80 years ago? What's he referring to?' I don't think
anybody in the Middle East have the slightest doubt as to what he was
GROSS: What was it?
Mr. LEWIS: He was referring to the final defeat and occupation of the Ottoman
Empire, the last of the great Islamic states.
GROSS: In your recent writings, you've said that you think that al-Qaeda and
other extremist Islamic groups have caught on, in part, by working with this
victim mentality, `Why did they do this to us?' Who is the `they' and what is
the `this' that they're being accused of having done?
Dr. LEWIS: Well, let me try to put this in a historical context.
Dr. LEWIS: As I said, during the last 300 years or so, things have gone badly
wrong from their point of view, and there is an increasing awareness among all
levels of society in all these countries that things have gone badly wrong as
compared with what went before and as compared with what is happening in other
parts of the world. And they've not only fallen behind the West, but they've
also fallen behind such new societies as Korea, Taiwan and so on.
So when you become very much aware that things have gone badly wrong, there
are two question you can ask. You can ask `What did we do wrong?' in which
case, the next question is, `How do we put it right?' That is what the Turks
have been doing in their slow and painful road to, I would say, a real
The other question you can ask is `Who did this to us?' and that leads you
into a sort of twilight zone of conspiracy theories and neurotic fantasies,
and that, I'm afraid, is what--the path that many have chosen. Now the
malefactors, those whom they accuse of having done it to them, have varied
considerably. It has been the imperialists, and then, of course, there are
various candidates for the role. It has been the Jews for quite a number. It
has been, on a smaller scale, the Communists and so on and so on, going back
to earlier times, and they accused the Mongols and they've also accused each
other. The Turks accused the Arabs, the Arabs accused the Turks and so on.
Now America is undoubtedly the prime candidate because America is what we call
the leader of the free world. They wouldn't put it in those terms. They
would say the leader or chief of the house of unbelief. The world is divided
into the believers, which means the Muslims, and the unbelievers, and they see
this as a competition between the two world religions that has been going on
for 14 centuries. The enemy of the past was headed by the Byzantine emperors
in Constantinople, the Holy Roman emperors in Vienna, the British and French
empires and so on. Now the United States has inherited that role.
GROSS: Why is America more the enemy now than it was, say, 30 years ago?
Dr. LEWIS: Because America now is the undisputed head of the free world.
There is no rival, there is no alternative.
GROSS: How was it different in the Cold War?
Dr. LEWIS: Well, there was a Soviet Union, an alternative power, and, of
course, many of them turned to the alternative powers. I mean, during the
World War there was considerable support for the Third Reich. After the end
of the war and the Cold War, there was considerable support for the Soviet
Union. Now there is no alternative. They find themselves face to face with
the only serious power in the Western world.
GROSS: Now you've pointed out how paradoxical it is that when the Soviet
Union invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, it was the United States that
went to the aid of the Afghans who were trying to drive the Soviets out. It
wasn't other Arab countries, it was the United States. What kind of sense do
you make of that, given what's happening now?
Dr. LEWIS: Yes. And it's not paradoxical...
Dr. LEWIS: It's not paradoxical that the United States went to the aid of the
Afghans. What is remarkable is the very limited support that the Afghans got
from their Muslim brothers. Even the Organization of the Islamic Congress
could only bring itself to vote a very lukewarm condemnation, and at the
United Nations the same thing happened. They were scared of the Soviet Union.
Then, of course, came the Afghan wars, and they feel that they were the ones
who defeated and destroyed the Soviet Union, and they feel that having dealt
with one of the superpowers, they are capable of dealing with the other.
They regard the United States as a much easier opponent than the Soviet Union,
less ferocious, less determined. And one of the things which comes out very
clearly in the writings of Osama bin Laden is not the hatred. I mean, if you
ask, `Why do they hate us?' you're asking the wrong question. The question is
not `Why do they hate us?' They've been hating us for centuries, and the `us'
has varied, always meaning the world of the infidels. What is new and
dangerous is that they no longer fear or respect us, and that is quite clear
from Osama bin Laden's writings.
And this is why I feel that the events of the last few weeks may have brought
a really significant change. Osama bin Laden speaks of the Americans in his
various interviews and declarations as paper tigers, `They have gone soft.
They can't take casualties. Hit them and they'll run.' This is a recurring
theme, and there's a sort of repeated litany--Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, `Hit
them and they'll run.' This was the theme. It was hatred, yes, but the
important thing is that the hatred was not restrained by fear or tempered by
respect. I think that he and his followers will have changed their minds on
that point now.
GROSS: My guest is historian Bernard Lewis. His new book, "What Went Wrong?:
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response," will be published next month.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is historian Bernard Lewis. His new book, "What Went Wrong?:
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response," will be published next month.
He's written extensively about the Islamic world.
Bin Laden has sent, or at least allowed, people who are his followers to go on
suicide missions, and he didn't seem to be bothered at all that some of the
hijackers didn't even know what the nature of their mission was, and even
though they understood that they were being chosen for martyrdom, they didn't
know that this mission was necessarily that mission that was going to martyr
them. What does the Koran have to say about suicide missions? Is there any
precedent in the Koran for that type of fighting?
Dr. LEWIS: None whatever. On the contrary, the whole Islamic tradition is
against suicide. Suicide is considered, in the Muslim tradition, to be a
mortal sin. One who commits suicide forfeits paradise and is doomed to
eternal hell, and his punishment in hell will consist of the unending
repetition of the act of suicide. I mean, it is one thing to throw yourself
to a certain death against a much stronger enemy. It is quite another to die
by your own hand. And this is made perfectly clear in Muslim writings.
There is a very early Muslim tradition, according to which a Muslim soldier
was mortally wounded, was lying on the battlefield dying, and in order to
shorten his pain, he killed himself with his own sword, and the prophet
said--the God said that, and I quote, "My servant has preempted me by taking
his own life. He shall not enter paradise." That's not Koran, but it's a
very early Muslim tradition, and it does, I think, express the basic Muslim
view concerning suicide. The idea that the suicide bomber also can be
considered as a martyr on the battlefield and qualify for the rewards of
paradise is a very new one, and I would say that in their own terms, these
people are taking a big chance on eternity.
GROSS: Do you think that the Gulf War contributed to the hatreds that have
resulted in terrorist acts against the United States?
Dr. LEWIS: Yes, I do. I mean, first of all, the manner of ending the Gulf
War--the actual fighting of the Gulf War, no, because it was to rescue two
Arab-Islamic countries from attack by a third. Kuwait was occupied, Saudi
Arabia was threatened and the United States came in at their request to help
them--nothing wrong with that. But then in the course of the war we called on
the Iraqi people to rise in rebellion against the tyrant that ruled over them.
They did so. And then after the cease-fire, we sat and watched while Saddam
Hussein brutally suppressed these risings, crushed the rebels group by group
and region by region while we sat and watched, and he used the helicopters
which we had thoughtfully allowed him to retain under the terms of the
cease-fire. This was a very anti-divine spectacle. And the message was, `We
don't mind what you do to your own people, we don't mind what kind of
tyrannical regime you set up, as long as you meet our requirements.'
Saddam Hussein, for example, to replace him, it was argued at the time, would
be dangerous. What we wanted is not a change of regime, but a change of
ruler. A change of regime would open up all sorts of new issues and new
uncertainties. What we wanted is to replace the tyrant by a more amenable
tyrant who would be amenable to our purposes. That made a very bad and very
painful impression. It reinforced the feeling among many that the West in
general, the United States in particular, does not regard them as civilized
human beings with the same rights and aspirations as others, but simply as
people of backward cultures only fit to be ruled by tyrants. All that matters
is that they should be our tyrants and not somebody else's tyrants.
I think that is an oversimplification, but it is not a falsification, as I
said before. And there's a lot of evidence to reinforce that impression. I
won't say to prove it or confirm it, but to reinforce that impression,
GROSS: Bernard Lewis is my guest. He's a scholar of the Arab world, a
professor at Princeton University and author of the new book "What Went
Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response." That will be published
In addition to your new book, "What Went Wrong?" you've edited a new book of
classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew poems. The book is called
"Music of a Distant Drum."
Dr. LEWIS: Yes. These are translations...
GROSS: I wonder...
Dr. LEWIS: ...poems that caught my fancy in which I tried my hand at
translating into English.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you could leave us with one of the classical Arabic
poems that you translated.
Dr. LEWIS: Arabic. No, I don't recall one. I don't have the book with me,
but I can give you a Turkish one...
Dr. LEWIS: ...by a 15th century Turkish woman, a quatrain. `Woman, they say,
is deficient in sense. Therefore, they ought to pardon her every fault. But
one female who knows what to do is worth more than a thousand males who
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to speculate why that part of the world, by our
standards, has gone backwards and not forwards in terms of women...
Dr. LEWIS: Well, as you can imagine...
GROSS: ...where women have more covering even than they used to.
Dr. LEWIS: Mm-hmm. As you can imagine, there's an enormous literature on
this subject, from inside as well as from outside, and many different
explanations have been offered. There's a Turkish writer called Namik Kemal,
in an article published in 1868, uses some very striking images. He says that
`The reason for our backwardness compared with the West is that we deprive
ourselves of the talents and services of half the population, so that our
society is like a human body that is paralyzed on one side.' I think that's a
very striking image and a very accurate one.
The position of women in the Western world in premodern times and, for that
matter, in modern times was very far from one of equality, but it was in most
respects incomparably better than that of women in the Middle East. For one
thing, there was no legal polygamy or concubinage. Women had somewhat better
property rights in Islamic law until modern times. But in every other
respect, they were constrained and repressed, and the society was accordingly
When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic, one of his first
campaigns was for women's rights. Difficult to imagine anything more
improbable than an Ottoman pressure on the general as a campaigner for
feminist causes. Nevertheless, he did it and he gave his reasons with true
military terseness. He said--and this is in the early '20s. He said, `Our
task now is to catch up with the modern world. We will not catch up with the
modern world if we only modernize half the population.'
GROSS: What are your concerns about the post-Taliban government in
Dr. LEWIS: I think they seem to be doing fairly well so far. It's a very
difficult country to rule. It's a wild, rugged, mountainous country with a
very independent people who have not acquired the habit of submission, as so
many of their neighbors--a difficult country to rule at the best of times, but
much worse now after Soviet occupation, the struggle against it, the wars that
followed and then the Taliban.
But I spent a little while in Afghanistan and I must say I have confidence in
the ability of the Afghan people to work things out when they're left to
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. LEWIS: Thank you.
GROSS: Bernard Lewis is professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at
Princeton. His new book of translations of classic Arabic, Persian, Turkish
and Hebrew poems is called "Music of a Distant Drum." His book "What Went
Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" will be published next
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, an expert on
extremists and cult groups, about what might have inspired an American to join
the Taliban. And Lifton will share his impressions of the bin Laden tape.
Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg offers some choices for word of the year.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton discusses the bin Laden tape and
the American who was found fighting with the Taliban
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
From time to time since September 11th, we've checked in with psychiatrist
Robert Jay Lifton, an expert on extremist religions, cult groups and the
appeal of apocalyptic thinking. In 1999, he wrote about apocalyptic violence
and the new global terrorism in a book about the Japanese cult group Aum
Shinrikyo in a book entitled "Destroying the World to Save It." Dr. Lifton is
about to become a visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. We
called him to talk about two subjects, the bin Laden tape that was released
last week, and John Walker, the 20-year-old American who was found fighting
with the Taliban in Afghanistan and could face charges of treason.
I asked Lifton why a young American might be attracted to extremist Islam.
Dr. ROBERT JAY LIFTON (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): John Walker had
to be a young man who was a religious seeker, but a very intense one. He was
looking for something true and pure in some religious idiom. In a way he
reminded me of some young Japanese I interview in relation to their connection
with Aum Shinrikyo, the fanatical Japanese cult that released sarin gas into
the Japanese subways in '95. These weren't inherently bad or evil people.
They were people in search of an absolute. And I think there's a kind of fine
line between finding what they take to be absolute purity and going over an
edge in which they then see everything else in the world was so defiled that
it must be destroyed.
GROSS: According to news reports, John Walker told his mullah, his Islamic
spiritual adviser, that he was disappointed that Islam was divided among Sunni
and Shiites and other sects. He wanted all Muslims to follow one code, one
law, to have an absolute truth.
Dr. LIFTON: Yeah, that's consistent with what we're talking about, really,
because he was so needy that he wanted something that was absolute, that was
totalistic without any rough edges, without any divisions of the kind that so
troubled him. And that suggests to me that his hunger for totalism was
particularly intense. And it's unfortunate that nowadays, given the warrior
spirit in certain forms of fundamentalism and, as we know, in certain
expressions of Islamic fundamentalism, it can become violent. And you can
have that jump from the quest for purity or totalism into something like
apocalyptic or all-consuming violence.
GROSS: Now everybody talks about how we live in a global world, global
cultures, global economy. Is this an era of global religion now, too?
Dr. LIFTON: That's a very important point, Terry, because what I've come to
feel more and more--and this case illustrates it as much as any--you can put
it very simply in stark terms: Any religious system or set of beliefs, no
matter how bizarre, now matter how absolute, no matter how anything, any such
set of beliefs can be available to anyone anywhere no matter what its origin.
That has to do with what you might call the globalization of religion--not
just religion, but of ideas and of feelings and idea systems. You know, I
could give you a simple example. It isn't fully appreciated, but Aum
Shinrikyo, when it wanted to bring down the world, starting with releasing a
lot of sarin gas and all that in Japan, its main imagery for its last year or
two wasn't Buddhist or Hindu, even though it was mainly a Buddhist and a Hindu
cult, it was Armageddon. It was the Christian narrative of Armageddon.
So any narrative, any religious belief system can become available to anyone
in the world, no matter where it begins.
GROSS: Do you feel like you're seeing a lot more of that now?
Dr. LIFTON: I think we are seeing more of it, and I think we ought to look at
it more carefully. I think we have too much of a fear in this country that if
we start looking at causes, we'll lose our focus on the wrongness of what was
done to us. I don't think that's the case. I think we're perfectly capable
of recognizing that something dreadful and even evil was done to us on
September 11th and at the same time recognize the necessity of various
elements that went into it. And if we don't do that, if we instead take the
lazy way of simply dividing the world into good and evil, we won't really
grasp what's gone on. We certainly will lose all sense of the
inter-relationship of these feelings and theologies all through the world.
The various fundamentalisms which lead into the possibility of apocalyptic
violence are worldwide. You can find them here in America. You can find them
in Japan, as I did. You can certainly find them in Islamic fundamentalism.
And this mind-set, although these are very different kinds of movements, they
nonetheless have a lot in common. So we're not talking about--in the case of
the Taliban or Islamic violent fundamentalism we're not talking about
something absolutely unique and unrelated to the rest of us.
GROSS: Did you watch the bin Laden tape?
Dr. LIFTON: I did indeed.
GROSS: What did you find most striking about the tape?
Dr. LIFTON: The simple, ultimate truth of that tape, which maybe hasn't been
sufficiently commented on, is it reveals him to be a quiet fanatic. I mean,
of course, he's petty enough and he can laugh at things, but he sits there
quietly, comfortable in his fanaticism, a little bit New Age-like in style,
reciting beautiful poetry because it seems to fit in with this sacred vision
and sacred behavior that he's part of. If ever you saw on display a quiet
fanatic, you saw that on that tape of bin Laden.
GROSS: Now I think this expression of the quiet fanatic is interesting
because it seems to be a type that you're acquainted with. Several reporters
who have met with bin Laden and interviewed have referred to him as kind of
shy because he's so quiet. And there seems to be a big difference between
calling him a quiet fanatic and calling him kind of shy.
Dr. LIFTON: Yeah. Well, he might be a little shy. He's also grandiose and
megalomanic in his fanaticism. You know, a parallel story, for instance,
Shoko Asahara, the Japanese guru of Aum Shinrikyo, was described by most of
his disciples, at least at the time they were very dazzled by him, as
extremely dignified and quiet, said little, but everything he said had
extraordinary power. And then one of these same disciples happened to go to a
courtroom, an open court that he could attend where Asahara was rejected by
one of his former closest disciples who said, `You are not a true guru. You
are a false guru.' And one could see, visibly, Asahara collapse from this
quiet, confident fanaticism into a kind of near psychotic behavior, bizarre
movements of his body, strange words coming out.
So the quiet fanaticism becomes a stance that certain gurus can readily
sustain because they're functioning well within in it. But when something
happens to undermine the stance, they may indeed collapse.
GROSS: So you think there's a bit of theater to it?
Dr. LIFTON: There is theater and all such gurus are performers. There's no
doubt about it. They are many-sided. They believe in the religious
extremities that they embrace. They feel that they have every right to
manipulate other people, in the case of bin Laden to not tell some of those on
the suicide mission exactly what their mission was to be. So they can see
themselves as pragmatic manipulators, they can be religious believers, they
can feel themselves to have the right to lie or deceive or cheat, any of these
components, part of their skills in performance, and in their own mind,
completely justified because it's in the service of a higher spiritual
GROSS: My guest is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. He's about to become a visiting
professor at Harvard University. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. He's written extensively
about cult groups, extremist religions and apocalyptic thinking. You know,
one thing that a lot of people have mentioned is that bin Laden and his
visitor from Saudi Arabia were talking and laughing and congratulating
themselves. And there was no sense--forget remorse. There wasn't even a
sense of the gravity of what they'd done. I mean, they seemed to be speaking
of it all in a self-congratulatory and fairly light-hearted way. Did
you--what did you make of that?
Dr. LIFTON: It had that. It had a certain tone of happy triumphalism, `We
did it. We killed so many of them. And we pulled it off and they never
suspected it.' Even though those expressions were hardly dignified and there
was almost, like, giggling and it certainly was triumphalist, it all was in a
way grounded in their minds in its sacredness. And interspersed with the
giggling and the pleasure was `Oh, this sacred moment' and, of course, `Praise
be Allah.' And that was serious because that underlay everything, no matter
how seemingly light-hearted it might be. Once you have some kind of
underpinning of sacred necessity, then there can be all kinds of
light-heartedness, all the more so when it's been achieved.
GROSS: In watching the bin Laden tape, did you feel that the longer bin Laden
was in the company of the Saudi Arabian visitor, who obviously was a great
admirer of bin Laden's, that bin Laden maybe really started to, like, soak up
the attention he was getting and kind of enjoyed an element of sycophancy?
What would the word be?
Dr. LIFTON: Yeah, that's right. He's sycophantic. I thought of that as you
were talking, and in a way, that is a certain kind of vulnerability of a guru
of. Gurus need their disciples even more than disciples need their gurus, and
they move into a certain stage of relationship with disciples which itself is
very absolutized and it becomes a kind of absolute or total guruism. And you
can see indications of that on the tape and partly because it was a very
informal, not very dignified scene, it was very blatant, as he was eating up
this sycophancy. There's no doubt about it.
GROSS: Can you make sense of how bin Laden, who believes in a form of
religion that harkens back to medieval or pre-medieval times, and really
opposes modernity in almost every form, how he can believe that, and at the
same time, really want to build nuclear weapons, which is the height of
modernity when it comes to armaments?
Dr. LIFTON: Almost all the movements that we call anti-modern embrace the
accoutrements of modernity. It seems like a contradiction, but it's not
entirely fully a contradiction. Somebody has used what is an informative
term. They call it reactionary modernism. It was used about the Nazis. The
Nazis were anti-modern and they had this vision of mythical Aryan beings they
wanted to return to. But they were early on in embracing every kind of
technology of destruction. And they really want to use every single tool or
method of the modern world in order to spiritualize the world. And I've
noticed in these various cults that I've come into contact with--again, I
think of Aum Shinrikyo. You know, they use the Internet. Each generation of
cultic behavior becomes a little bit more knowledgeable about the Internet.
They use it for what they take to be ultimately spiritual purposes. But they
are creatures of our times. Bin Laden has training in engineering, as you
know, and as a developer. And these people aren't--you know, are in certain
ways as modern as you or I might be.
GROSS: Have you been following the speculation that Mohamed Atta is gay and
I've even heard speculation that bin Laden is gay? The implication being--and
this is really like psychohistory, but the implication being that this extreme
type of homophobia that is a part of their religion is perhaps forcing them to
express their own repressed impulses in a very aggressive way?
Dr. LIFTON: Well, I'd be careful about that kind of explanation. I've no
idea about their sexuality or whether either or both are gay or is gay.
Maybe. Maybe they're trying to cover something over. If that's the case, and
I'm not at all sure it is, but if it were the case, then all you could say, I
think, is that their extreme need to cover over an aspect of their sexual
inclinations that they find themselves unacceptable could intensify their
involvement in this apocalyptic violence. But it would be a mistake to see it
as the source of that apocalyptic violence. Because the source has more to do
with the theologies and the ideologies that we've been talking about, and such
ideologies and theologies have been in existence.
And I mean of world ending--they've been in existence since the formation of
religion itself. They seem to be part of every religion. The difference now
is that this kind of world-ending theology can be accompanied by the
acquisition of weapons that could literally bring about that world ending. So
if there are other sources of great anxiety or great conflict such as conflict
over sexuality, yes, they could contribute some aspect of intensity, but I'd
be very wary of looking at that as the causative factor. It's interesting
that there's a new book about Hitler that says just about exactly the same
thing. And it's--I think by focusing on that almost exclusively, I think
it's, again, playing down the broader theological and ideological forces that
are at issue here.
GROSS: The American military has been trying to get Osama bin Laden dead or
alive. If he's captured or if he's killed, do you think that's likely to end
his following? In other words, what happens to a group like his when the
leader is gone?
Dr. LIFTON: Yeah. It's a big question. It's hard to answer exactly. I
think that if he's captured or killed, I think his following will radically
decline because part of his appeal is mystical magic has had to do with his
capacity to humiliate the West, which is a big impulse in much of Islam. And
even people who don't like his method and his mass killing have a certain soft
spot for him because he had succeeded in doing that, not just on September
11th but on three or four prior occasions. If he himself, in turn, is
destroyed or humiliated or removed from any capacity for this kind of guruism
or leadership, I think some of that guru magic, maybe most of it, disappears.
I myself, though, am against the death penalty even for bin Laden, and I would
hope that we bring him to justice in as much an international way as possible,
as a full justice. But at the same time that if we have any opportunity, we
probe his mind. We don't have to make this some world performance in which we
give him a stage, but I do think we have to combine confronting him and
bringing him to justice with grasping everything we can about him as a
GROSS: Dr. Lifton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. LIFTON: Thank you. I've enjoyed our talk.
GROSS: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is about to become a visiting professor of
psychiatry at Harvard. He's the author of many books, including "Destroying
the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg offers some options for word of the year.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Word of the year
TERRY GROSS, host:
What would the word of the year be for 2001? `Jihad'? `Terrorist'? Or maybe
just 9/11. Linguist Geoff Nunberg has some thoughts about this and why the
word of the year isn't usually the word of the decade.
Every year since 1991, the members of the American Dialect Society get
together at their annual meeting to vote on the word of the year. Last year's
winner was `chad.' That wasn't a new word in 2000, of course, but it did have
a moment of prominence before it slipped back into obscurity. For that
matter, neither of the runners-up looked like having legs either. Despite the
success of Harry Potter, `Muggle' hasn't caught on among many people over 12.
And we haven't heard much about dot-bombs lately, now that the collapse of the
Internet bubble has been eclipsed by a more general economic devastation.
Actually, most of the previous winners haven't fared too well either. The
1999 winner was Y2K, and the winners in earlier years included millennium bug,
information superhighway and the exclamation not. Back in 1991, the winner
was mother of all, as in mother of all battles. And the society never even
considered a lot of the liveliest innovations of the period, like `whack,'
`word' and `whatever.'
Of course, there have been some good calls in there as well. The 1995 word of
the year was `Web,' and in 1996, the expression `don't go there' lost out
narrowly to soccer mom. And in 1993, the word voted most likely to succeed
was the quotative `like,' as in `I was like, "No way."' That was a pretty
good pick. If `like' were a stock, you could have made a lot of money buying
into it back in 1993.
So if I seem to be dwelling on the members' miscalculations, it isn't to
disparage their powers of prognostication. They're just trying to have fun.
And anyway, they haven't done any worse at picking classics over the years
than the members of the Motion Picture Academy have. Millennium bug may not
have been the best choice for word of the year in 1997, but it's no worse than
"Titanic" for best picture. What this shows, though, is that the words of the
year don't usually wind up as the words of the decade or the century. A
momentous event can throw a few new words up on everybody's screen for a
while, but its lasting effects on the language are usually felt somewhere
I haven't seen the society's ballot for 2001, but it's clear that this year's
candidates will have a more somber tone. The list is sure to include
`terrorism,' `jihad,' `homeland,' `anthrax' and `ground zero.' And then
there's 9/11 itself. That always sounds to me like the sort of thing a press
agent would come up with to describe a product launch date.
But whichever of these winds up in the winner's envelope, this is one year
when you hope the society can maintain its record of picking nine-days
wonders. It would be nice to think that `jihad' and `anthrax' will be Trivial
Pursuit items in 10 years' time, on the order of words from the early '90s,
like `velcroid' and `starter marriage.' And I certainly hope the word
`evildoer' has disappeared from the American political discourse by then. If
not, we'll be living in a very different sort of country.
Still, vast events do have their effects on the language, even if they're not
the ones that are most obvious at the time. I don't know what word the
American Dialect Society would have picked if it had been giving its awards
back in 1941. Maybe `open city' or `axis' or `lend lease.' In the end,
though, most of the enduring words that came out of the early years of World
War II were the names of less portentous things: `beach head,' `foxhole,'
`bloodbath' and `scuttle.' In fact, most of the really lasting words that
entered the language in the early 1940s had nothing to do with the war,
expressions like `give somebody a leg up,' `off the cuff,' `fuddy-duddy' and
It's too early to say whether the events of September 11th will make any
lasting contributions like these. One candidate might be `weapons-grade,'
which I've already started to hear people using a general superlative, as in
weapons-grade salsa. But the real linguistic significance of September 11th
may have less to do with the words we use than the ones we've stopped using.
Americans have suddenly become circumspect about the violent and bellicose
metaphors that used to pepper our speech. It'll be a while before Microsoft
again accuses a competitor of pursuing terrorist tactics, and people think
twice now before they describe a cocktail or a restaurant as killer. And you
hope the attacks have discouraged some of the military swagger of modern
corporate language, with all its talk of road warriors and scorched-earth
Granted, it isn't clear how long this new circumspection will last. You can
already see the cable news networks straining under the burden of the
conversational new order. They're a lot more comfortable with sarcasm than
solemnity. And over the long run, Americans are more disposed to make light
of their fears than to treat them gravely. In fact, high school kids are
already using terrorist as a comic insult. You think of the way Nazi went
from a name for Hitler and Goering to the officious soup Nazi of a famous
"Seinfeld" episode. But that took 60 years. You wonder whether September
11th will cast that long a linguistic shadow.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the author of
the new book "The Way We Talk Now."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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