In one of his final HBO specials, Life is Worth Losing, comedian George Carlin explained that, in a sense, destruction gave him joy. He said:
I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it’s natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse.He goes on in this vein for quite some time. Disaster, when it concerns the destruction of mankind’s creations, makes a fun spectacle. Film audiences that ate up the disaster flicks of the 1970s would agree. Consider 1974’s The Towering Inferno, in which man’s arrogance turns a skyscraper into a pile of smoking rubble. The 135-story building symbolizes, according to the movie's own script, “a kind of shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”
Don’t you? Don’t you have a part of you that secretly hopes everything gets worse? When you see a big fire on TV, don’t you hope it spreads? Don’t you hope it gets completely out of control and burns down six counties? You don’t root for the firemen do you? I mean I don’t want them to get hurt or nothing, but I don’t want them to put out my fire. That’s my fire—that’s nature showing off and having fun. I like fires.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud wrote that humans had a “death instinct”—an unconscious desire for death that is expressed as outward aggressiveness. This aggressiveness, he concluded, was “the greatest impediment to civilization,” but one that a cultural superego or a cultural conscience could limit. We are taught to suppress this urge to destroy and to feel guilty about our obvious love of destruction, but the collapse of buildings and things in a typical disaster film is too exciting. According to any number of hackneyed plot lines, disaster strikes because a powerful elite wouldn't listen to the film’s plucky band of heroes. On the rare occasion when forests are leveled and animals die, this is presented as a tragedy—because animals and forests represent an ideal—a vision of the world to which we should all want to return. Nobody wants to watch a disaster film with lots of dead cute furry animals! We pay to see the White House destroyed by a giant flying saucer, or the Empire State Building smashed by an asteroid, or even whole cities cinematically obliterated hundreds of times over, as long as no cute puppies or kittens are harmed as a result.
During the Cold War, demands that we launch a first strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, while not mainstream, were common enough within the military establishment and among the public to warrant concern. What could cause people to crave such massive, suicidal destruction? Theologian Thomas Merton recalled receiving a letter from a woman in the 1960s, right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, she petitioned the monk for prayers that the US would soon launch a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union and its 200 million residents. Pleading with him, she wrote, “We cannot stand it any longer.”
In 2003, Comedian Julian Morrow asked a dozen or so random people who the United States should bomb next. Most answered, Iran, North Korea or Russia, but a few mentioned Cuba, Italy and even Canada. One individual even said we should bomb France, because “They were not our allies [during the Iraq War].” None of the dozen or so shown in the interview said that we shouldn’t bomb anyone.
In 2015, decades after the Cold War ended, a videographer in California asked some random pedestrians to sign a petition urging President Obama to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia, “to show Putin who is boss” and, amazingly, they signed it! When in response the television channel RT sent a representative into the streets of Moscow to get Muscovites to sign a petition to nuclear-bomb the US, most of them refused to sign and instead questioned his sanity. Apparently, Russians lack this death wish. So, what makes Americans different?
Americans have a profound sense of what Hegel called “negative identity.” A society with a negative identity defines itself not by what it is but by what it is not, and is always on the lookout for new and fashionable enemies from which to differentiate themselves in superficial ways. Sigmund Freud got at the same thing with his “doctrine of small differences.” It is much easier to hate that which you closely resemble, focusing on minor differences and projecting everything you dislike about yourself onto the other, than to find reasons to hate that which is entirely unfamiliar. A negative identity can be psychologically fortifying and justify murder, invasions and even genocide. But while a society built on a negative identity may be willing to die fighting a made-up enemy, it can’t find anything worth living for.
In our failed search for identity, negative or otherwise, many of us become like the monster in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein—hopeful that death will finally give us with rest. In the final chapter of the novel the monster, having taken his revenge upon his creator, realizes that he no longer has any reason for living:
I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.When an individual is faced with a meaningless existence, mass annihilation becomes subconsciously desirable. Enforced uniformity, individual meaninglessness and mass destruction come as a package. Destruction becomes therapeutic, but it’s a therapy devised by madmen which, when matched with nuclear weapons, may result in the entire human race reclassifying itself as collateral damage.
To a dehumanized bureaucrat deprived of identity or purpose, an atomic wasteland may indeed be the image of peace. Perhaps the entire military-industrial complex, and all the violence it unleashes on the world, is, at the individual level, a cry for help.
Sean Kerrigan is the author of Bureaucratic Insanity: The American Bureaucrat’s Descent into Madness. He has been a writer and public social critic for the last 15 years, concentrating on issues of economic, political and social decay in the United States. Educated at Temple University in Philadelphia, he worked for several years as a journalist focusing on hard news coverage. Disillusioned by the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, he refocused his attention on political and spiritual matters, with most of his subsequent writing challenging the accepted mythology of American society. His work has been featured on the BBC World Service Radio, popular blogs such as Zero Hedge, and several daily newspapers including the Bucks County Courier Times. He maintains a regularly updated website at www.SeanKerrigan.com and a Twitter account @SeanJKerrigan.