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America's Divided Soul: Drones, Torture and Technology

05/09/2013 12:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013
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Part of an ongoing series on the American Psyche

In Part Two of my interview with Italian Jungian psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja, we explore some of the psychological conflicts within the American psyche, particularly around issues of war, violence and new forms of technology. The author of many books that have been translated into twelve languages, including Violence in History, Culture, and the Psyche and Growth & Guilt, Zoja brings anthropology, history, and psychology to bear on the problems of modern culture.

Pythia: I'd like to explore the deeper psychological background of America. You write that we were the first country founded on the splitting off of the "shadow," or the rejected or darker side of human nature -- bringing into being the "first collective soul that would not compromise with the shadow."

For example, you say the Monroe Doctrine was a "psychological manifesto" that anticipated the Cold War, in which America saw itself as purely democratic, while viewing the rest of the world as more corrupt.

Zoja: The dissociation of evil is typical of America's puritanical origins, in which the early settlers projected the primitive side of human nature onto blacks and Indians, and evil and corruption onto England and Europe. George Washington's Farewell Address, part of which warned against the influence of foreign nations, and the Monroe Doctrine, perpetuated this pattern of keeping America separate from "contamination" by other cultures.

For these reasons the mythology of America formed around the Bible, the gun, conquering and clearing the land, and cleansing itself of the so-called "evil" of its original inhabitants, slaves or any foreign "other."

Pythia: So this split means that we project onto those we view as "outsiders" those qualities we reject within ourselves -- then attempt to purify ourselves of these qualities by getting rid of them in others. And in turn this effort to remain uncontaminated contributes to an underlying violence in the culture.

Zoja: Yes. Even if you are convinced that you're waging war to bring civilization and defeat evil, you will be intoxicated by violence. You might even become evil yourself through an "infection" of violence.

Pythia: What you describe seems reflected in the recent release of a bipartisan report that found that American forces engaged in torture as part of the war on terror after 9/11.

Zoja: This report reveals a form of collective denial that American military actions could have fostered criminal practices. In the U.S. you tend to assume that these kinds of things don't happen; you diminish the darker side of human nature. Psychologically you could say you are less wise, and more naïve than older cultures like Europe.

On the other hand you are less cynical, and there is an optimistic side of American culture. If it is proven that evil has been committed in the name of America, then the average citizen is ready to act, to enter politics, and to repair that evil, which is more difficult in Europe. Because of America's democratic tradition, one is allowed to express one's opinion, and so it's still the best place in the world in that sense.

Pythia: The lack of transparency around America's unmanned drone attacks against suspected terrorists overseas seems to me another example of America's split-off dark side. What is your psychological perspective on these remote-control strikes executed by what many call "flying killer robots"?

Zoja: The psychological risk is that these drone pilots will become dissociated. So in addition to innocent civilian casualties, we should also be concerned about what happens to the psyche of the drone pilot who kills his target, then gets in his car, drives home, and plays with his children. It's almost inhuman.

Pythia: Still, it's difficult to make the argument that a soldier should be placed in direct combat -- is that more moral?

Zoja: I'm not a philosopher who can say whether these drone strikes are definitely wrong. But there's still a moral issue at stake: For while there are casualties and collateral damage in every war, even the loss of one life will mark the soul of the American pilot.

The danger is that because of the geographical distance created by technology between the pilot and the target, drone pilots are being conditioned to kill without suffering too many inner conflicts; they may even lack the perception of having actually killed someone. And, as they belong to a younger generation, these attacks might be unconsciously experienced as a continuation of the video games they played as youths.

Pythia: A majority of Americans support the use of drones. Is the ease with which the public has accepted drone warfare part of a larger shift around the way technology is reshaping our inner emotional lives?

Zoja: In my book, The Death of the Neighbor, I discuss how technology has killed the second Judeo-Christian commandment: To love God above everything else, and thy neighbor like thyself. Because in this technological, mass civilization, we don't care about our neighbors; we don't even know if our neighbor is dying.

Pythia: So you're describing a creeping dissociation throughout all of our lives brought about by technology.

Zoja: Absolutely. I'm not a nostalgic who believes that past ages were better. But the new forms of technology present enormous psychological challenges that did not exist before. It's not that we lack feelings -- but our emotional responses and natural instincts are being distorted and disrupted through technology, and we're becoming increasingly removed from the moral consequences of our actions.

Pythia: Even modern-day guns are influenced by technology. The Western Six Shooter is nothing like the automatic assault weapons used in recent mass murders.

Zoja: Technology keeps us clean emotionally -- and even literally.

In more intimate forms of warfare, for instance, there was an instinctive reaction of horror. Confronted by the agony of the dying person, ancient warriors felt a natural guilt.

But today we lack the sense of limits that arise naturally when too much blood is spilled. The pilot who drops an atomic bomb, but doesn't see that he's killed thousands of civilians, or the drone pilot in America dropping a bomb on a target in Yemen, is less likely to feel guilt.

Pythia: I can see how technology distances us from our feelings and our conscience, but how does it affect our sense of limits?

Zoja: Technology gives us the illusion that we can break through limits; it reinforces omnipotence, arrogance, and endless growth and affluence. We've lost this necessary balance between growth and guilt, or between wanting more, and finding a natural limit.

Pythia: It strikes me that this limitlessness is intrinsically American.

Zoja: I think so. Because American history was based on the conquest of the enormous and under-populated West, an underlying historical attitude remains that the country can continue to expand. There's still a lot of territory at your disposal, so there are too few reasons to feel the necessity of limits.

Pythia: In that regard, could modern-day America be said to resemble the Roman Empire?

Zoja: America is like the Roman Empire in the sense that Rome was big, and based on continuous expansion. It produced philosophers and artists, but it was imperialistic, not just militarily, but economically -- it was the first step toward mass civilization. So Rome anticipated America with its mass consumerism and mass entertainment, and even the whole modern world, with its mass civilization. It was the opposite of ancient Greece.

Pythia: If the Roman Empire was the opposite of Greece, what are those classical Greek virtues that we're missing in our own culture?

Zoja: Greek culture was based on the importance of limits. The myth of Icarus was a warning against the "sin" of hubris, or pride and inflation.

The ancient Greeks also had more of a sense of tragedy. In America, there is less emphasis on tragic tales, because the commercial side of the culture and Hollywood tends to simplify life by splitting good and evil, and providing a happy ending -- some stories end that way, but not all of them.

Pythia: Indeed you write that the Greek theater aimed at moving the public to think about good and evil. By contrast, Rome with its Circus of public games and chariot races didn't want the public to think at all.

Zoja: The essence of tragedy is more psychological; it poses the problems of ambivalence and complexity. For instance, there are no simple solutions to the tragic problems of drones, torture, guns and terrorism.

These issues take time; in the modern world, we have to examine these issues in complex cultural terms. Real morality lies in not knowing what is black and what is white, or good and evil; it's about having a moral discussion and dialogue, as we are doing in this interview.