Originally published in The Moscow Times, April 23, 2004.
Homo sapiens is the only species that dreams of its own total demise. Our brief history of conscious thought is replete with vivid scenarios of the end of life on earth. The brain-fevers we call religions have produced most of these – giddy, voluptuous nightmares of universal extinction, usually by fire, at divine order. A favored remnant is always saved in such tales, of course, but only after being transformed into some different, higher order of being. The gross human body – that bleeding, fouling, endlessly replicating sack of earth – is gleefully consigned to eternal oblivion.
It seems that some ineradicable nihilism pervades us, like a virus, now dormant, now flaring: something in us that wants to die, to be done with the long, overhanging doom of mortality – and to take the world with us. Our grandiose visions of the future seem to hide, at their core, a secret, desperate anxiety about the profound meaninglessness of existence – an anxiety that often disguises itself in elaborate fantasies of the afterlife, in dreams of "dominance" for one's "own kind" (nation, tribe, faith, race, ideology, etc.), or in the eroticizing of death, war and destruction.
Instincts for preservation, sentiments of affection, the drive for pleasure – from the most basic bodily urges to the most sublime creations and apprehensions of the intellect – act as counterweights to this dark virus, of course. They provide for most of us, most of the time, enough fragments of meaning – or at least sufficient distraction – to get on with things, without too much resort to world-engulfing visions or the extremes of nihilistic anxiety.
On the individual level, the calibration of these competing impulses can be intricate, subtle, ever-shifting, because the individual mind is so complex and all-encompassing, yet so enclosed, so unlockably private as well: an infinitely supple tool for managing the conflicts and contradictions of reality. But on the broader level – species, nation, group – human consciousness is, of necessity, a far more blunt and brutal instrument.
There, our brain-fevers and anxieties rage more virulently, lacking the counterweights of individual feeling and the quick, intimate responsiveness of the private mind. In the group-mind, the fantasies that root in the muddy fear of meaninglessness can emerge full-blown. Thought and discourse are reduced to broad strokes, slogans, codes and incantations, with little correspondence to reality. Awareness of this tendency can mitigate some of its effects; but the group-mind's fundamental falsity and irreality almost invariably infects the thoughts and actions of group leaders – and eventually many of the group members as well.
Thus we can sometimes say, not entirely metaphorically, that nations "go mad," hurtling themselves toward ruin, embracing self-destruction, lusting for violence and death, sick with nihilism – although this sickness is always painted in the colors of patriotic fervor or religious zeal, or both. Thus we can say – again, with some accuracy – that humankind in general has suicidal tendencies, manifested most clearly in the development of world-killing, species-ending nuclear weapons.
Now draw these dangerous streams together, and you have a portrait of the blunt and brutal group-mind at work in the leadership of the world's most powerful nation. The folly, fantasy and death-fetish of the Bush Regime – long evident to anyone who cared to see – were finally "revealed" in the mainstream media recently by the quasi-official Establishment oracle, Bob Woodward. His latest insider portrait, Plan of Attack, offers – in the usual, easily-gummed pabulum form – a few tastes of the bitter truth behind the Regime's mad, ruinous war crime in Iraq.
The corrosive nihilism at the heart of the enterprise ate through the gaudily-painted surface most tellingly in a single anecdote. Woodward asks George W. Bush how he thinks history will regard his adventure in Iraq. Bush, gazing out the window, shrugs and waves the question away. "History, we don't know," he says. "We'll all be dead." No fine, faith-filled talk here about God and Jesus and the immortal soul responsible for its actions throughout all eternity – the kind of zealous patter Bush favors in public statements. This was just the cold, rotten, meaningless core of his grand vision – "we'll all be dead." So who cares? Après moi, le deluge.
Indeed, even as the world's attention remained fixed on the erotics of death in Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Bush's minions were quietly advancing his philosophy – "we'll all be dead" – with their geo-suicidal plans for more nuclear weapons. Last week, the Pentagon's influential Defense Science Board officially recommended the immediate development of a new generation of "tactical" nuclear weapons – along with a new, Nietzschean will to use them, UPI reports.
Yes, this is the same group that developed a plan in 2002 for "provoking terrorist groups into action." The DSB wanted the Pentagon to foment terrorist attacks in order to flush the terrorists out of hiding so they could then be "crushed." The Pentagon never publicly rejected this morally insane scheme, first uncovered by the Los Angeles Times; perhaps we've already seen it in action, in Madrid, Riyadh, Istanbul or Bali.
In any case, the DSB's nuclear dreams are fast becoming a reality. This year, Bush quadrupled funding for key nuclear weapons development programs; at $6.6 billion, total U.S. nuclear weapons spending is now 50 percent higher than the Cold War average, California's Tri-Valley Herald reports. And Bush officials told Congress last month that the Regime is officially gutting the 2002 "Moscow Treaty" on arms control, AP reports. Instead of reducing stockpiles to treaty levels, the Regime is exercising the agreement's "get-out" option (which made the pact meaningless in the first place), in order to retain "sufficient warheads" for a "robust" posture in the face of unspecified "world events," officials testified.
What "world events" are they secretly dreaming of, these death-fetishists, these unconscious nihilists, mired in their group-mind fog? What voluptuous nightmares will require their "robust" attention? How many world-devouring warheads will be "sufficient" to at last quell their anxiety, their all-too-human craving for oblivion?