Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels” Ignores Demons That Lie Dormant

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In this month’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a paywall), esteemed atrocity authority Robert Jay Lifton addresses the “emerging school of thought” that “contends that the world is becoming increasingly safe.” For example he singles out Steven Pinker, who, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), maintains that the world is considerably less violent than ever before.

Professor Lifton writes:

The peaceable-world claim is deeply misleading in its failure to confront a revolution in the technology of killing and the increasing capacity for detached slaughter or numbed technological violence.

This author was happy to have his own reservations about that school of thought seconded by someone as esteemed and knowledgeable as Professor Lifton. He elaborates by recalling an interview with a Hiroshima survivor.

I was left with a powerful image: “One plane, one bomb, one city.” That image has deeply influenced my perception of our vulnerability to products of technology that are called weapons, but can more accurately be termed instruments of genocide.”

The author of The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1988) then writes about the numbing processes that are adopted by those who carry out mass killings and concludes:

Drones are the epitome of numbed technological violence, perhaps even a caricature of it in their increasing replacement of human beings.

Viewed from another angle, violence is kinetic energy: action, bodies in – no matter to what end – motion. Its incidence has declined in recent years. (Recall that during World War II, each day an average of over 50,000 people were killed or died from the effects of the war.) But that’s an illusion in an age when, from a remove, our civilian and military leadership are countenancing violence that’s in not a kinetic state, but its opposite: potential energy.

Nuclear weapons, for example, are like a drawn bow, especially when they’re on high alert. Their potential, once realized, would dwarf all the kinetic energy expended in the violence of the past.