I conclude with this excerpt from the end of my book on Hiroshima in order to return to the issue of ultimate technological atrocity. I want to suggest also that it is possible to draw wisdom from atrocity, and that we had better make every effort to do so.
Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.
The survivor's major defense against death anxiety and death guilt is the cessation of feeling. In our observations on Hiroshima we spoke of this process, in its acute form, as psychic closing-off, and in its more chronic form as psychic numbing. I would suggest now that psychic numbing comes to characterize the entire life style of the survivor. A similar tendency has been observed among concentration camp victims (one observer spoke of "affective anesthesia"), and as a general feature of "the disaster syndrome" (the "inhibition of emotional response" noted to account for the "stunned" and "dazed" behavior of victims of ordinary disasters). But what has been insufficiently noted, and what I wish to emphasize as basic to the process, is its relationship to the death encounter.
We have seen how, at the time of the encounter, psychic closing-off can serve a highly adaptive function. It does so partly through a process of denial ("If I feel nothing, then death is not taking place"), but also through interruption of the identification process, with the additional unconscious equation: "I see you dying, but I am not related to you or to your death." Further, it protects the survivor from a sense of complete helplessness, from feeling himself totally inactivated by the force invading his environment. By closing himself off, he resists being "acted upon" or altered. Concentration camp inmates, according to Bettelheim, sought to resist such alteration by protecting the "inner self": "I became convinced that these dreadful and degrading experiences were somehow not happening to 'me' as a subject, but only to 'me' as an object."