Shock and Awe

The neverending end times.

By Lewis H. Lapham

The Last Judgment, by Hieronymus Bosch, late fifteenth century. © Akademie der Bildenden/Bridgeman Images.

Catastrophe is our bedtime story.
—Don DeLillo


’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.
—David Hume

Nor is it contrary to reason to prefer the sight of a raging inferno or restless typhoon to the view of a worm in one’s apple or a fly in the soup. The spectacle of disaster—real and imagined, past, present, and imminent—is blockbuster box office, its magnitude measured by the number of dead and square miles of devastation, the cost of property, rates of insurance, long-term consequences, short-form shock and awe.

Ground zero in all instances is the eye of both beholder and storm, some disasters therefore more disastrous than others—my first lesson learned as an apprentice reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in the autumn of 1957, posted to the press room in Oakland to stand watch for blood in the streets. First thing of a morning I telephoned every police station and emergency room in Contra Costa and Alameda counties to ask if anything of interest had turned up overnight—multiple homicide, heavy-metal highway accident, five-alarm fire. The worth of the story was graded by color: banner headline on page one if the victims were white; if not, three paragraphs on page twenty-eight.

We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

—D.H. Lawrence, 1928

Times change, and with them the markets in human interest and grief. We live surrounded by terror alerts projected on myriad screens, late-breaking reports of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in full stride at all points of the compass—corpses of unarmed black men on the streets of Chicago and Cleveland, jihadists massacring innocents in Palmyra and Paris, disease in Bahia, flood in Missouri, birds flying north to extinction, the economy headed south to oblivion, nuclear weapons falling into the hands of despots, carbon despoiling the atmosphere, ice abandoning the poles, drought in California, famine in South Sudan, seas rising offshore Miami and Mumbai, civil war in the Congo, concealed weapons walking around in plain sight in Texas, Syrian migrants at the gates of Vienna and Berlin, drug addicts littering the lawns of Bel Air, the end of the world coming soon to your neighborhood cineplex, this year The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, recovered from his going down on the Titanic, up for an Academy Award.

Fear of the future is a long-abiding shadow on the horizon of the American dream (present in the years prior to the Civil and Spanish American wars as in those leading to the year 2000), but since the 9/11 pouring out of God’s wrath on the Manhattan temples of mammon it has moved steadily up the media leader boards into the red zones of near-hysteria. The directors of Hollywood disaster movies shoot scenes from the
Book of Revelation
, dress their sets with dead children, cries of anguish, pillars of smoke, dote lovingly on blood-soaked deserts east and west of Suez.

The Hollywood field commanders poolside in Beverly Hills might not know the difference between Arab and Turk, or how much to tip the parking attendant to valet the tank, but dystopia they recognize as a travel destination no farther away than next week’s atrocity in Charleston or San Bernardino. Their holiday entertainments come wrapped in ribbons of critical acclaim—“nervously plausible future,” “glorious bummer that lifts you to the rafters, transporting you with the greatness of its filmmaking.”

And with the greatness of what else? Together with headline and prize-winning photograph the images of disaster come wrapped in a sermon or sales pitch. To whom is the message addressed? With what beast in view? How and why a bedtime story?


The questions raised in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly follow from a speculation floated by
Adam Smith
in 1759 in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. The author of The Wealth of Nations, like David Hume a son of the Scottish Enlightenment, concerned himself not only with the divisions of labor but also with the distribution of man’s humanity to man:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity.

Due consideration leads Smith to observe that a man of humanity in eighteenth-century Europe would “express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people,” make many “melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life…and when all this fine philosophy was over,” go comfortably to sleep with the conclusion that the loss of millions of Chinese was a no “more real disturbance” than “if he was to lose his little finger tomorrow.” Smith presumably had in mind the response among the intellectual gentry in Glasgow to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which swallowed up sixty thousand Portuguese but in Scotland didn’t excite much of an effort to relieve the suffering of an unknown multitude. Smith takes comfort in the happier reflection that a man of humanity, no matter how or where placed, never would willingly sacrifice a hundred million of his unseen brethren to forestall or prevent a “paltry misfortune to himself…Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it.”

Smith’s generous view of his fellow man, consistent with the one embraced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract, persuades him that it is not the “feeble spark of benevolence” in the human heart that prompts men to aid and abet one another in the throes of disaster. It is the recognition of their being part of the collective and therefore immortal life of mankind that induces “a more powerful affection” than self-love, which is always small-minded, grasping, and sordid. The stronger feeling draws men to “the love of what is honorable and noble, of the grandeur and dignity and superiority of our own characters.”

This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly bears witness to the truth of Smith’s happier reflection—the art of Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Achille Beltrame, the report of King Charles II joining the common effort to smother the great London fire of 1666, nurse
Helen Repa’s
unbidden response to the tragedy engulfing 844 people aboard the excursion boat Eastland overturned at its dock on the Chicago River in 1915, the testimony of the nineteenth-century American philosopher and Harvard professor William James, and the American essayist Rebecca Solnit.

Block from a relief depicting a battle, reused in the foundation of the Theban mortuary temple of Ramses IV, c. 1400 BC. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1913.

Solnit’s observations are drawn from her book A Paradise Built in Hell, published in 2009 as a summation of her encounters with people caught in the hurricane coming ashore on the Gulf Coast in 2005, clearing the wreckage of the 9/11 attack on New York, stranded in the rubble of the earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985. At ground zero in all instances Solnit finds “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.” When she asks people about the disasters they have lived through she is struck by their “retrospective basking” in the joy arising from their immersion in a suddenly formed community of unselfish motive and purpose, free of their loneliness and fear because granted in the face of calamity “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

William James was teaching at Stanford when earthquake and fire overwhelmed San Francisco in 1906; like Solnit he finds among those present (on day one in Palo Alto, a few days later in the ruined city) “cheerfulness,” “a tendency more toward nervous excitement than toward grief,” and “not a single whine or plaintive word.” From sympathetic friends back east James soon received letters “ringing with anxiety and pathos”; they convinced him of “what I have always believed, that the pathetic way of feeling great disasters belongs rather to the point of view of people at a distance than to the immediate victims.” Sentiment is a privilege reserved for spectators in galaxies far, far away, tormented by their opinions of things, not by the things themselves.

The distance between James in California and his friends at Harvard was the distance between the earthquake in Lisbon and the fine-feathered gentry in Glasgow. Smith recoiled from the prospect of a distance even greater if human suffering could be reduced to bloodless abstraction, but he couldn’t conceive of a world producing such villainy.

The Industrial Revolution could. Machines don’t startle with horror; neither does money. Nor does the sensibility shaped to regard their joint enterprise (the working of Smith’s “invisible hand”) as the new and improved presence of God. Prior to the invention of the steam engine and spinning jenny the villain in man’s heart didn’t lack for depravity—Caesar’s legions in Gaul exterminated over a million barbarians; Tamerlane’s Mongols massacred entire populations of cities throughout Persia and Mesopotamia. But the twentieth century was born blessed with the creatively annihilating energies of free-market capitalism, capable of yielding not only the wealth of nations but also the means of their utter destruction—Henry Ford’s motorcars and Heinrich Himmler’s crematoria, the building of Hoover Dam and the dropping of atomic bombs. The century opened with warfare upgraded from sport to industry, the manufacture of death setting new records by employing an efficient division of labor—the killing done with machines, the dying by human beings.


Further downstream from the nineteenth-century coal mines and cavalry officers—along with the climate-changing rise of greenhouse gases into the once-upon-a-time clear blue sky—the consumer consciousness of disaster undergoes further distancing between the eye of beholder and storm as a result of consequences also unforeseen by Smith but noted by Marshall McLuhan: “We become what we behold,” that we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us; by the Swiss novelist Max Frisch, technology “is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”; and by the French philosopher Simone Weil, “It is the thing that thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of a thing.”

McLuhan’s Understanding Media accounts for the extension of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution into the twentieth-century communications revolution. The epistemological shift from words in print to icons on screen establishes a new aesthetic and political order in which the image is substance, the medium the message; war is an advertising campaign, a bomb a figure of speech.

Robert S. McNamara, U.S. secretary of defense, explicitly defined the bombing raids helping to eventually dispose of three million civilians in Cambodia and Vietnam as a means of communication—dispatches intended to win the hearts and minds of the Vietcong to an appreciation of America’s goodness and greatness. Among staff officers at the Pentagon, the four-color spreads of explosion overhead Phnom Penh and Hanoi came to be known as “bomb-o-grams.”

The NATO alliance adopted a similar approach to the bombardment of Belgrade in March 1999. The targets were chosen for rhetorical rather than tactical reasons, as were the cities in Germany (among them Hamburg and Dresden) terror-bombed by British and American air forces during World War II under instruction from Winston Churchill to make no distinction between civilian and military targets because the mission was to remind the German people of their being on the wrong side of history.

Like presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, President Clinton understood foreign policy as a Hollywood action picture. During the filming of Dark Moon over Belgrade (sequel to Reagan’s Sands of Grenada and Bush’s Storm in the Desert), his military spokesmen appeared at podiums every night in Brussels or Washington to say the NATO aircraft had enjoyed another glorious day of filmmaking in Yugoslavia. The uniformed publicists displayed maps and video highlight reels, counted sorties, apologized for the odd cruise missile wandering off into Bulgaria or finding a hospital instead of a bridge, reaffirmed their faith in democracy and the rule of law. Later in the program the camera angle shifted to the mountains of Macedonia, where network news correspondents culled the herd of refugees for those with prime-time stories to tell. Here was Saimir, whose three sons had been beheaded, and there was Besjana, who had been raped by fourteen Serbian soldiers in Peć, and over here, just behind the tractor, we have little Besim, age nine, who watched his father and mother burn to death in a barn.

The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (code name, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”; tactic, “shock and awe”), conceived by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney as the playing of a video game, deployed twenty-four-hour montages akin to a Super Bowl halftime show. The fireworks displays were deftly intercut and cross-promoted, the correspondent aboard an aircraft carrier handing the microphone across a split screen to the correspondent in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, two- and three-star generals parading to and fro on Tom Brokaw’s reviewing stand, computer animations of the hostile terrain presented in the manner of golf-course graphics illustrating the perils of the PGA tour.

Journalists on duty at the Pentagon pronounced the assault worthy of Napoleon, the tanks in the desert reminding them of George Patton and Erwin Rommel, the battle of Basra analogous to the defense of Stalingrad. The rave reviews never squared with the facts on the ground. Proofs of a fierce Iraqi resistance were nowhere to be seen.

It would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading.

—Virginia Woolf, 1924

Like the Super Bowl halftime shows, the capture of Baghdad inspired heroic feats of merchandising, not only on the part of the Pentagon and the White House but also for home-front consumer products. The triumphant framing of the camera shots in old, romantic Baghdad sponsored a flurry of applications for the trademark “Shock and Awe” from makers of women’s underwear and men’s cologne, the manufacturers of bubble-making wands and dollhouse furniture, ski boots, teddy bears, mouse pads, cigars, yo-yos, and inflatable bathtub toys.


Whether presented as entertainment or news, the spectacle of disaster seen from a safe distance demands nothing from the eye of the beholder other than the duty of ritual observance. Words in print require the active presence of a reader’s imagination. The camera does not: like the moon acting upon the movement of the tides, it calls forth collective surges of emotion that rise and fall with as little apparent meaning as the surf breaking on the beach at Santa Monica. Consciousness becomes pattern recognition rather than the forming of a thought, the networking of brands—many hundreds of them in the course of an afternoon’s shopping and an evening’s programming—all we know or need to know.

The constant viewer learns to read the signs as advertisements for reality, weightless and without consequence, returning once again to the 24/7 news cycle as surely as the swallows to Capistrano—what was seen last week certain to be seen this week, then again next week, next month, and next year—the familiar face masks reworked and rearranged in other settings for other football or bombing seasons; other Coca-Cola commercials and presidential elections. Rerun the same show often enough and in the benumbed mind of the constant viewer it serves as sedative and bedtime story.

The evening news hour begins with glimpses of the big, bad wolf just in from London or Boston, then the camera cuts away to the reassuring smiles of the Geico lizard, State Farm insurance, Southwest Airlines, L’Oréal, and Mercedes-Benz. The message is overt and covert. Obey the law, follow instructions, watch your mouth, speak nicely to the police officer, and you go to the Virgin Islands on your American Express card. Disobey the law, neglect your prescription drugs, speak rudely to the police, and you go to Kings County Hospital in a body bag.

Behold the world for what it is, a raging of beasts and a writhing of serpents, and know that the war on terror will be with us until the end of our days. Get used to it; harden thy resolve; America is everywhere besieged by monsters that must be destroyed—by any and all means necessary, no matter how costly or barbaric. And yes, Virginia, there is an answer to Adam Smith’s disturbing question—to prevent a paltry misfortune to oneself not only is it possible, it’s also prudent to sacrifice as many of our fellow human beings as circumstances require. The UN Security Council in 1990 imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iraq in order to send a stern message to Saddam Hussein. When Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was asked in an interview on 60 Minutes whether she had considered the resulting death of over 500,000 Iraqi children (of malnutrition and disease for lack of medicine and baby food), she said, “We think the price is worth it.”

Together with an estimated $2 trillion, President George W. Bush sacrificed the lives of nearly 5,000 American soldiers and 165,000 Iraqi civilians to prevent America from being harmed by Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The cost–benefit analysis emerged from the administration’s doctrine of forward deterrence and preemptive strike, a policy predicated on the notion that if any nation anywhere in the world presumed even to begin to think of challenging America’s supremacy (moral, military, cultural, and socioeconomic) America reserved the right to strangle the impudence at birth—to bomb the peasants or the palace, block the flows of oil or bank credit. Michael Ledeen, foreign-policy adviser to the Bush White House and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put the policy in its clearest perspective: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

Fortunately for the faint-hearted among us we can throw crappy little countries over cliffs or up against walls because our technologies protect us in cocoons of virtual reality. They allow us to be tormented, if tormented we must be, by sentiments. Good for a moment of silence and a pause that refreshes the conscience, sentiments are one mouse click away from our little finger tapping the Facebook icons. We can sit ten rows back at the neighborhood movie palace within the cinematic equivalent of a federal witness-protection program. Safe behind popcorn boxes, we can cast a moist eye at the sight of a dismembered Palestinian teenager or a butchered African elephant, ward off the fear of death by picturing it as a Quentin Tarantino cartoon.


A product of Smith’s invisible hand (joint venture of money and machine), the danse macabre surrounding us on-screen reduces human beings to things—broken toys, smashed dollhouse furniture, scattered debris knowing not how or why it was destroyed. Too far removed or arriving too late on the scene, the camera doesn’t grasp the human response in the eye of the storm, what Solnit discovered to be the joyful “measure of otherwise neglected desires, desires for public life and civil society, for inclusion, purpose, and power.”

The discovery accorded with Solnit’s own experience during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, surprised to find herself in “an intensely absorbing present,” as was almost everybody else she ran across in the San Francisco Bay Area. People without orders or centralized organization stepped up to meet the needs of the moment, directing traffic at blacked-out intersections, cooking meals in the street, gladly and gratefully inducted—as was Helen Repa on the Chicago River and the first responders to Hurricane Katrina, many of them traveling thousands of miles to reach their unknown but fellow human beings—into what the French novelist Albert Camus called “the only indisputable human solidarity—our solidarity against death.”

The response is normal everyday practice among people who come together in the face of calamity. It is common among soldiers in combat, doctors and patients in operating rooms, strangers becoming neighbors at the scene of the accident, people anywhere and everywhere engaged at ground zero in what Sigmund Freud identified as the struggle between Eros, the instinct of life, and Thanatos, the instinct of death. Civilization Freud defines as a process in the service of Eros, “whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.” And it is “this battle of the giants”—for the life of the human species—“that our nursemaids try to appease with their lullaby about heaven.”

The nursemaids in charge of our fairy-tale media regard mankind as too sinful and weak to preserve the living substance of anything without their advice and consent. The cameras fielded by CNN and Disney cast ordinary people on the set of disaster as frightened rabble or dangerous mob, desperate mothers cowering in panic, the anarchist poor looting a Walmart. The story is false, but the images establish the markets in fear. They convey to the constant viewer the sense of his or her helplessness while at the same time promoting the need for more heavily armed law enforcement, more security apparatus, stronger defense budgets, more bubble-wand magic technology.

The spectacle of disaster as Old Testament trauma sells newspapers, but the drug of fear—administered in increasingly heavy dosages over prolonged periods of time—produces a harmful side effect among natives both foreign and domestic. Humans too long imprisoned by society in its dehumanized extensions, knowing themselves downgraded to things, turn for relief to the dream of apocalypse that solves all the problems, takes out the whole world, and with it all the flies in the soup. To prophets secure in the knowledge that only the wicked shall perish, Armageddon is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Let the Lord make manifest his disgust with the sins of mankind and so loose upon earth the redeeming flood and purifying fire, and the host of the damned will drown in sewers of their foul and pestilent blood.

Such is the bright hope and fond expectation of the Islamic terrorist acronym
that locates itself in “the prophetic end time” and wages what it bills as the “final battle” between forces of darkness (the American capitalist world order) and armies of the light (the start-up Muslim caliphate) with postings on the Internet of images up to the standards of Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott.

The champions of Western civilization make a bad mistake by deploring the mind and method of jihad as medieval and barbaric. The techniques and the objectives are modern. From whom do we suppose that jihadists learn to appreciate the value of high explosive as vivid speech if not from the example of the U.S. Air Force overhead Vietnam, Serbia, and Iraq? The organizers of the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan clearly not only understood the ethos of globalized finance capitalism but also the idiom of the American news and entertainment media. Their production values were akin to those of Independence Day; the spectacle of the World Trade Center collapsing in ruins was rated by the New York film and social critics as “awe inspiring,” “never to be forgotten,” “shatteringly emotional.”

The sense of living in the prophetic end time has been running around in the American consciousness for the past twenty-five years, on the disheartened political left as on the ferocious political right. The final battle of Armageddon furnished the climax for the Left Behind series of sixteen neo-Christian fables that have sold more than 65 million copies to date, presumably to Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads and future members of the Tea Party. The coauthors of the books, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, offer their hatred of man as testimony to their love of God, and devote many fondly worded pages to the wholesale slaughter of intellectuals in New York, politicians in Washington, and homosexuals in Los Angeles. Their language is of a piece with the film footage in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ or the videos just in of an ISIS beheading.

Detail of a fresco from a series depicting the miracles of St. Francis of Assisi, School of Giotto, fourteenth century. © Gianni Dagli Orti / The Art Archive at Art Resource. 

At the higher levels of academic and political discourse the 1990s brought forth many best-selling books and articles announcing the destruction of worlds. Two of the early terror alerts appeared within a few weeks of each other in the autumn of 1989—“The End of History?” by Francis Fukuyama and “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben. Both authors assign the sad endings of their tales to the worthlessness of human beings. Fukuyama, a State Department policy intellectual, foresaw a future owned and operated by machines, human courage, imagination, and idealism replaced by economic calculation and the endless solving of technical problems. “In the post-historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

McKibben, a principled environmentalist, listed what were then less familiar effects of forthcoming climate change—endless drought, boiling oceans, dying forests, extinct species—and didn’t take the trouble to conceal his disgust for humans beings. Man is vile, a hideous many-headed beast ceaselessly replicating itself, spewing pollution into the innocent atmosphere and the blameless sea. From time to time the word human occurs in one of McKibben’s sentences, and his association is invariably with something foul—a stinking automobile, an ugly condominium, a noisy chainsaw.


The dream of apocalypse is being carried into this year’s presidential election campaign by two leading candidates for the Republican nomination, both of them so angry at the prospect of a future not made in their own image that they have resolved to destroy it. To “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump proposes to annihilate every last one of its competitors and enemies, to savage ISIS, quarantine Mexicans, bankrupt the Chinese. Ted Cruz promises to “strap on the full armor of God” and carpet-bomb the Syrian desert to find out whether “sand can glow in the dark.” They talk the talk of holy jihad, but when I try to see them walking the walk, I remember a 1970 newspaper story about a nineteen-year-old moviegoer and heir to great wealth intent upon cleansing the world of its impurities. From an expensive New York tailor he had acquired the look of the old American West—frock coat, wide-brimmed hat, string tie—and from Abercrombie & Fitch a pair of pearl-handled six-guns. Deeply impressed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he showed up on a Saturday night in a bar on Long Island, not far from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s setting for The Great Gatsby, demanding a duel with the local drug dealer. The bartender, not being set up for that sort of thing, persuaded the young gentleman to wait in the parking lot. Because the scene never showed up on the evening news, I’m free to imagine it, and so in my mind’s eye I still see it—a Siegfried among pickup trucks in the neon half-light between a supermarket and a bowling alley, his hands held above his guns in the chivalrous fashion traditional on the streets of Deadwood and Dodge. Sometimes I wonder what he was thinking, what beast he had in view. He never saw the local police. They weren’t in the mood to take chances, and they killed him with rifles at long-range.

The story would be funnier if it wasn’t another long-term consequence of the Industrial Revolution that Adam Smith didn’t foresee. The difference between ground zero in the eye of beholder and storm becomes not only a matter of distance but also of fantasy. Let the machines do the work and the workmen lose sight of their own consciousness. Like Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush before them, Trump and Cruz neither know nor care to know the difference between reality and virtual reality. What they know is what they see on TV and in the movies. Their enemies are reflections of their own fear. Like the friends of William James on the Harvard faculty, they have sentiments; their tweets, whining and plaintive, ring with “anxiety and pathos.” Like the prophet Isaiah, they envision calamity from a galaxy far, far away—Trump from a golf club terrace, Cruz from a boardroom at Goldman Sachs—and they picture the end of the world as bright Hollywood explosions under cover of which the faithful and saved (themselves in company with Isaiah and Sylvester Stallone) shall find their way home to Palm Beach and Houston. The longing for Armageddon is confession of weakness and counsel of despair, not an attitude one hopes to find on the other end of a phone in command of an atomic bomb.

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