Confronting the Actual Existential Threats

The unease and fear are appropriate and can be useful, all the more so as the self is liberated from convoluted efforts at falsification and denial.” — Robert Jay Lifton, The Climate Swerve


On February 8, as COVID-19 fast-approached a slow-moving British government, BBC World News aired a discussion among London-based foreign correspondents on the long-term global impacts of the crisis during which Maria Margaronis, contributing editor to The Nation, made an observation now haunting my locked-down self: was there a possible unconscious source (among others) of the terror triggered by the virus? In floating this strange idea, she was tentative and speculative, open to challenge, more curious than convinced. I offer the following in the same spirit. 

Recreated 1918 influenza virions

This negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showed recreated 1918 influenza virions Photo Credit: Cynthia GoldsmithContent Providers(s): CDC/ Dr. Terrence Tumpey/ Cynthia Goldsmith / Public domain

While fear (which she felt) was a natural reaction to any pandemic, the response to this one seemed to her in some ways abnormal. Was she right? Certainly (though she didn’t make the comparison) responses to the H1N1 swine-flu pandemic of 2009-2010 were far less intense, despite early predictions of millions of deaths from what was, after all, the first H1N1 outbreak since the catastrophic Spanish flu (50 million dead) of 1918-19. In the event, while up to 1.4 billion (!) people were infected, well under 1% – ‘no more’ than half a million – died, though (in sharp contrast to COVID-19) over 80% of them were aged under 65.

Reflecting on the both the relevant similarities and significant differences between H1N1 and COVID-19, Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California at San Diego, lamented that while H1N1 “should have been a warning sign” and “wake-up call,” global efforts to ‘gear up’ for ‘the next one’ proved, with few exceptions, ineffectual and desultory. What instead dominated headlines, concentrated minds, and inspired mass-protest in the ‘inter-pandemic’ period of 2010-19 was, quite rightly, the need to address an incomparably greater threat: climate breakdown caused – a planet killed – by global warming. And in the era of ‘Extinction Rebellion,’ with toxic amounts of what Margaronis called (according to my notes) “existential anxiety floating in the air,” could it be that COVID-19 ‘offered’ something shocking but survivable to latch onto, a ‘sub-existential’ screen on which to project our underlying dis-ease about “a world with no future”?

“But that,” Irish Times journalist Brian O’Connell objected, “is what some people used to say about nuclear weapons!” To Margaronis replied: “Some of us still do!” True, but remarkably few, for while most anti-nuclear activists are (and have long been) committed to climate justice, most climate justice activists (far outnumbering the ‘peaceniks’) are blind to the threat of climate apocalypse posed by the Bomb. But is that ‘blind,’ or numb?


In the 1960s, the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the term ‘psychic numbing’ to describe the drastic ‘defense mechanisms’ – we might today say ‘shutdown measures’ – employed by the psyche in the proximity of overwhelming trauma, particularly the multiple-brutalizations of genocidal mass-destruction. Given the unprecedented bloodshed of 20th century total war – culminating in the atomic explosion of the very concept of ‘the future’ – Lifton understandably concludes, in Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, that “psychic numbing is one of the great problems of our age.” For while atrocious violence is not new, in no previous age has humanity been able to destroy itself and the planet (many times over). As Lifton closes Death in Life by noting:

We have observed the effects of a relatively localized impact of a ‘small’ nuclear bomb, with the existence of an ‘outside world’ to help. There is no need to dwell on the magnification and dissemination of destructive power since Hiroshima, or on the uncertainty of there being an ‘outside world’ to help in a future holocaust. We may simply say that Hiroshima gave new meaning to the idea of a ‘world war’…

Because of the enormity of this sudden change, the meaninglessness of this ‘new meaning,’ psychic numbing spread far and fast, with America, the home of the brave new world, an early and enduring ‘hot-spot.’ In their 1995 study Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial, Lifton and Greg Mitchell chart the course of an ‘American numbing’ serving “the additional purpose of warding off potential feelings of guilt.

As in the very different case of German attitudes towards Auschwitz, we have not wished to permit Hiroshima to enter into our psyches in ways that could affect our feelings.” Psychic distancing, at all costs, must be maintained: and to contain the danger, a cordon sanitaire around Hiroshima “was transmitted, as official policy, throughout American society,” most importantly the elaboration of an increasingly fanciful, self-serving narrative about the ‘need’ for the bombings and how many lives they saved, coupled with national pride at ‘being first,’ the celebration of the Manhattan Project as the exemplar and template of heroic American achievement, etc.


But it isn’t just ‘Uncle Sam’ who needs to function ‘comfortably numb’ to nuclear realities. All nine members of the Apocalypse Alliance – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, US – are hooked on similar drugs of denial and delusion, as are the Club’s ‘associate addicts’ in NATO and elsewhere (sanitizing, for example, their own ‘dependence’ on the Bomb by calling it an ‘umbrella’). And once such nationalized ‘nuclearism’ is in the system, as Lifton and Mitchell argue, “the boundaries of numbing can be blurred,” extending “to other areas,” generating a toxic mix of violences and silences – deficits of empathy, surpluses of cruelty – liable to prove ruinous not just in the long run (to the Abyss) but during sudden shocks to already anti-social systems.

Martha Hennessy, Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta, Patrick O'Neill, Liz McAlister, October 24th, outside Brunswick Federal Court, just after their trial.

Martha Hennessy, Kathleen Rumpf (a plowshares participant but not one of the KBP7), Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta, Patrick O’Neill, Liz McAlister, October 24th, outside Brunswick Federal Court, just after their trial. (Photo by Bones Donovan / CC BY-SA)

The point was brilliantly made by supporters of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 (KBP7) on April 4, the second anniversary of the ‘symbolic disarmament’ by veteran Catholic pacifists of the home port of America’s East Coast Trident nuclear-submarine fleet: six subs – known in the trade as ‘boomers’ – each carrying up to 20 missiles, each carrying up to five warheads, each between five and 25 times more powerful than the ‘crude’ devices dropped on Japan. (Rest easy, there’s a similar West Coast fleet.)

The Seven are now awaiting sentencing – delayed by COVID-19 – for, among other felony offences, placing crime-tape outside a storage bunker housing what National Interest journal dubbed, without hyperbole, “a nightmarish weapon of the apocalypse,” primed and pumped to “destroy,” as Bill Ofenloch of the KBP7 campaign wrote in a recent email to me, “most of the earth and her people.” And in an added twist of unreason, the Kings Bay ‘boomers’ were recently armed with a classified number of ‘low-yield’ warheads, with a probable yield of around 5 kilotons, a third of the Hiroshima blast. Not only are such ‘mini-nukes’ far more powerful than any weapon used in anger since WW2, they also make WW3 more likely, lowering the ‘threshold’ and expanding the scenarios for nuclear use and escalation.

Acknowledging that, because of the virus, “this world has forever changed,” a KBP7 statement highlighted the “irony” that it “took a tiny virus to stop” Superpower America in its “tracks, something we thought wasn’t possible:

Man of us have been blinded to what death feels like, having learned a terrible lesson of indifference, especially since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Every day many of us accept, without protest, the reality of living in a world that could be erased at any moment by nuclear weapons. And because we are willing to live with that absolute threat, we are also able to ignore the death and suffering that the mere existence of these weapons brings in denying the poor and displaced of the world their rights to health and safety and independence.

Denial of death, indifference to life: hardly a winning combination, but a ‘logical’ expression of inexpressible (numbed-down) nuclear fear, the ‘invisible enemy’ stalking us no matter how we try to ignore or outrun it. As nine eminent members of the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) noted on April 2, one of many moments we could have stopped running was 1984, the year a major study by the World Health Organization (WHO) affirmed that “nuclear weapons constitute the greatest immediate threat to the health and safety of the planet,” with “no health service in any area of the world…capable of dealing adequately with the hundreds of thousands of people seriously injured by blast, heat or radiation from even a single one-megaton bomb.”


But the numbing persisted, only briefly diminished by the end of the Cold War, and as Newsweek recently reported, in 2019 the US spent enough on nuclear weapons – $35 billion, a figure set top rise sharply this year  – to purchase 300,000 intensive care beds, and 35,000 ventilators, and hire 150,000 nurses and 75,000 doctors. Of course, even though nuclear weapons are supposed to make conventional warfare less likely – how’s that working out– one could also transform the global health system by reducing, even a little, conventional military spending. How little? A 10-15% cut would work wonders, Mikhail Gorbachev (the anti-nuclear, anti-war leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-91) recently argued in Time magazine (“When the Pandemic is Over, the World Must Come Together“):

Is it not clear by now that wars and the arms race cannot solve today’s global problems? … I’ll never tire of repeating: we need to demilitarize world affairs, international politics and political thinking.

Robert Jay Lifton’s latest book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival (2017), opens with a quote from Theodore Roethke:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see.

In the last 10 years, the ‘darkness’ enveloping our overheating world has become more visible, to more people, than ever: but what of the other, elder existential threat? Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death (1973) that “there is nothing like shocks in the real world to jar loose repressions.”

At times like this, when the awareness dawns that has always been blotted out by frenetic, ready-made activity, we see the transmutation of repression redistilled, so to speak, and the fear of death emerges in pure essence. This is why people have psychotic breaks when repression no longer works, when the forward momentum of activity is no longer possible.

When we all come to a juddering halt…


Could it be, then, that this awful coronavirus shock will open our eyes to the real Cloud around us? Could our collective nuclear numbness be about to wear off, ‘redistilled’ into acknowledgment, ‘transmuted’ to resistance? And to turn the question round, does that numbness explain at least some of the more irrational and paranoid, phobic, even psychotic aspects of our current ‘Death in Life’ interregnum?

I’m thinking, for example, not of the epidemiological logic but the Cold War, ‘duck-&-cover’ language of directives for millions of people to “shelter in place?” Or the endemic misuse of ‘existential,’ often coupled to ‘apocalyptic,’ to describe a patently ‘sub-existential’ emergency? The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for example, is now set closer than ever to midnight – 100 seconds – due to two threats, global warming and nuclear weapons, ‘existential’ in the strict sense of endangering existence itself, causing ‘ecocide’ or ‘omnicide.’

Cabot’s Landing Provincial Park, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Cabot’s Landing Provincial Park, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (Phot by James Nicholson / CC BY-SA)

For many, a tantalizing agony of lock-down is being so-near-yet-so-far from green spaces. But those parks, squares and trails will not, when we emerge from our ‘shelters,’ be gone, gassed or ‘nuked.’ Indeed, while there is no silver lining to a mushroom cloud, one ‘dividend’ of the pandemic – though paid for far too dearly – is the literal clearing of the air above and around us.‘ Apocalypse’ isn’t something one gets to look back on and post-COVID life will be a mix of joys and struggles, not some ghoulish fate worse than death.

Dostoevsky’s fictionalized memoir of ‘life’ in a Tsarist prison, House of the Dead, contains the chilling assertion:

Man is a creature that can get used to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.

Lifton, in Climate Swerve, puts it more positively:

…we can take some pride in a human evolutionary narrative of stunning adaptive skills….

And more starkly:

…but we cannot hide from a sense of ourselves as a talented species in deep trouble.

If ‘getting used to’ means ‘becoming numb to,’ no wonder the trouble is “deep!”

We’ve kept way too much distance from our selves.

Featured image: P.S. 58 – Carroll & Smith Streets, Brooklyn, hold a “take cover” drill practice, 1962. Photo by Walter Albertin,1962, US Library of Congress.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.