Emergencies: Delusions of Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Innocence in Elite Groups

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“And death shall have no dominion.

Though they go mad they shall be sane” Dylan Thomas

“Madness in individuals is something rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” Nietzsche [1]

There are now cascading interacting factors that bring massive human suffering and death. In a number of powerful and influential groups there are skewed perceptions of reality and grandiose schemes that are inflicted on societies worldwide. Interrelated emergencies are obviously complex tragedies but are often incorrectly attributed to abstract single causes like human nature, the system, the media. Many other factors figure in, and secretive elite groups are one cause. These socially cohesive unelected groups instigate, aid and abet implementation of vast destruction.

What is meant by “skewed perceptions of reality”? Freud identified the illogical mechanisms of dream formation, but also the capacity to be objective and to perceive reality correctly. Dreams and early childhood thinking illogically distort time, confuse animate and inanimate and human and non-human, distort cause-effect relationship, conflate words with things and reverse the meaning of words. Words in current common usage words confuse human and non-human, animate and inanimate, such as artificial intelligence and corporate personhood. Representing humans as a number or a cost (e.g. the cost of killing a person) are examples of conflating people with things. A distorted sense of time comes with the diffuse, illogical time frame for reducing greenhouse gas concentration to 350 ppm. In the groups of people described below, representations of real, actual people do not seem to be part of their thought process or emotional feelings. They lack the maturational capacity to feel concern about other people, the capacity to feel guilt, and to comprehend the reality of death. These capacities are absent or intermittent in the elite powerful groups described here. Instead of realism there are presumptions of omnipotence, omniscience, and entitlement. [2]

Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner, is about the elite military/security and nuclear weapons scientist groups, and about Ellsberg’s own maturing ability to see the reality of the nuclear project, to feel personal guilt, and to investigate and disseminate key ‘doomsday’ facts: 1) thermonuclear, or H-bombs, are thousand times larger in yield than the atom bombs of WWII (original italics); this was known since the late 1950s but kept from the public. 2) that the irreversible military strategy is to launch on hair trigger alert and simultaneously bomb all Russian and Chinese cities, exterminating the entire populations. Fall-out would cause massive death in Europe, and retaliatory nuclear strikes would result in human extinction. 3) the loose chain of command randomly allows many to push the button and launch a nuclear war.

Ellsberg first describes the ambiance at the RAND Corporation where he started working when he was a young adult: he felt it was “apparent from the beginning that this was as smart a bunch of men as I had ever encountered” [he was educated at Harvard and Cambridge]. He felt especially at home when Herman Kahn (Dr. Strangelove), “brilliant and enormously fat”, told young Ellsberg that one of his ideas was “absolutely wrong”. He felt a “warm glow spread throughout my body…. This was the way that fellow brilliant Jewish students routinely interacted.” Ellsberg thought “I’ve found a home.” He loved Rand. He described a “secular priesthood”, of being in “the middle of, living and working with others for a transcendent cause.” They had knowledge of the secrets of the universe, not to be shared with laity, a sense of being insiders. RAND consultants moved invisibly across bureaucratic boundaries opaque to others.

As a RAND expert, he interacted and was privy to the top secret military planning echelon. His direct quotations shockingly display omniscient and omnipotent attitudes that take no account of the tremendous carelessness and strategic flaws of plans that would be “virtually impossible to implement for technical and bureaucratic reasons.” Two examples should terrify. Ellsberg asked Vice Admiral Kivette how long it would take to change orders, in the event of war, to execute plans against the Soviet Union only and not China. “There was a long silence in which it appeared that Admiral Kivette was almost holding back an urge to vomit. Then he said, enunciating each phrase separately, almost gasping, as if in pained incredulity, ‘You have…to assume…some…modicum…of rationality…in higher authority…that they would not do something…so insane as to go to war…against one Communist power…while letting the other one off…scot-free.’” (p. 84-85). A second example is the willingness of the Manhattan Project scientists, including Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Teller, to gamble with the possibility of incinerating the Earth, leaving it to a wholly speculative estimate of a ‘1 in 3 million’ chance whether a hydrogen and nitrogen chain reaction would ignite the entire atmosphere and ocean. This is rocket-scientists’ faith in a so-called facts- evidence- mathematic- based order. On their way to the test-site, Fermi laid bets on whether this would happen and Ellsberg described how the scientists at the test site obviously believed this was a possibility. (p. 274-285).

There is a maturational capacity to maintain a constant sense of other people as real. In an earlier article, I quoted Manhattan Project physicist Richard Feynman saying that he never regretted his work on the atom bomb. At the end of his life and for the first time, he wondered what would happen in a nuclear attack on the U.S. He had an image of a destroyed Brooklyn Bridge but not an image of people. After the first atomic test at Alamogordo New Mexico, he organized a triumphalist snake dance and said the ‘gadget’ worked. People do not seem to be part of his thought process. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were called Little Boy and Fat Man, land the massive Soviet bomb was called Big Ivan. Like boyish jokes.

Groups are varied and complex, but the following elite groups, primarily made up of men, reflect cohesiveness around specific delusions of ‘grandeur’, entitlement and omnipotence.

The National Security Council with a core group of several hundred officials, is described by Michael Glennon [3] as the network that has the power to kill and arrest and jail, to instill fear and suspicion, to shape public debate. These men seldom appear on TV and seek neither celebrity nor wealth. Their pride lies in being in the big meeting, reading key memo, being part of the big decision. They are ‘in’ because they are smart, hard-working, reliable, and unlikely to embarrass their superiors. Love of country draws them to their work but so too the adrenaline rush of urgent top=secret news flashes, hurried hallway briefings, emergency teleconferences, knowing the confidential subplot, and their authority. They must appear tough, hard hitting, basically military.

Glennon also describes how the NATO Council provides “credibility, flexibility, and anonymity…. It has no substantive written rules of procedure. It issues no legal guidance or guidelines that might restrict member-states.” It does not reveal which state participated in any given military operation, kills and lies with impunity. Louise Arbour, chair of the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY) refused to investigate NATO war crimes. [4]

The following three groups are not official bodies but are closed societies that establish secretive social bonds between wealthy and powerful mainly white Protestant men.

The Order of Skull and Bones, formally known as the Brotherhood of Death, dates back to 1832 at Yale University , and until recently only admitted white Protestant men. Members include the Bush and Rockefeller family dynasties, John Kerry, government and military leaders , bank and media executives. The club “deepens the fraternal bonds between initiates, sanctifies the legacy of the ‘patriarchs’ that came before them, and indefinitely perpetuates this network of power.’ The society’s iconography and rituals occur inside a building known as “The Tomb”, and society secrecy prevents verification of alleged racialized and sexual rituals.

The Bohemian Club, founded in 1872, located in California, is highly secretive and male, and is dominated by business and government leaders such as Kissinger, Reagan, Colin Powell, Rockefeller and Bush dynasties, S.D. Bechtel (Bechtel Corporation), IBM Thomas Watson, World Bank A.W. Clausen. The Manhattan Project (constructing the first atom bomb) was conceived and informally set into motion at the Bohemian Grove at a meeting hosted by Robert J. Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence. “The club becomes an avenue by which the cohesiveness of the elite class is maintained… the function of defining major directions of policy is served by exclusive groups, in and out of government that are designed specifically to come up with ideas to steer national and global policy”. (P155)

A two-week summer event at the Bohemian Grove begins with the Cremation of Care ceremony in which members in red robes and pointed hoods carry a coffin containing a human effigy symbolizing the Body of Care. The effigy is thrown onto a funeral pyre, fireworks explode, and a band plays “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” Lectures called ‘lakeside chats’ are presentations on world issues such as military budgets and free trade. A lecture in 1994 by a political science professor warned of the dangers of multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, and the loss of family boundaries. The “unqualified” masses cannot be allowed to carry out policy and elite values must be translated into ‘standards of authority’” 154. There are unconfirmed descriptions of crude behavior at this summer camp.

The Bilderberg Group is also completely secret, its members selected mainly from the NATO countries’ network of corporate and military power. In addition to these clubs and groups, there are similar powerful networks with these values in think tanks, academic groups, roundtables, commissions, advocacy boards, and councils, often with overlapping membership.

Emergencies threatening human extinction are not caused by human nature or because of an indifferent, uncomprehending public. People globally are fighting for daily survival, many losing their lives in opposing the real purveyors of evil. This brief sketch is about unconscionable, dangerous people and their power and influence. The system doesn’t force people to act this way – people have choices and comply and collude for many reasons. Laws are degraded into rules that are infinitely bendable. Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Canadian Liberal political party, a leading ethicist who taught at Harvard, obviously had choices. He formulated the principle of the ‘least possible evil’, meaning it’s ok for the state to torture people, who said that he was not “losing sleep” over Israel’s killing 28 family members in a Lebanese village.

Silence is another complexity and is influenced by cultural norms. Academic Steven Salaita was blacklisted by American universities for expressing horror and grief about Israel’s slaughter of children in Gaza; he speaks about the cultural tyranny of civility that aims to silence expressions of rage. This era has its own pathology of evil in which perpetrators can wear a veil of innocence or of brilliance, while they are willing and able to destroy far more than all past perpetrators. Silence is shameful about the extent of deaths caused by climate change and nuclearism. [6]


[1] Epigraph from Daniel Ellsberg’s book The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2017. I have used extensive material from his book.

[2] On thought processes, Freud The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 7, The Standard Edition Vol 5, Hogarth Press, London, 1900-1901. On maturational capacities Anna Freud Normality and Pathology: assessments of development, International Universities Press, New York, 1965. An eloquent statement on morality, Freud “The Moses of Michelangelo”, Standard Edition Vol 13, 1914.

[3] Michael.Glennon, National Security and Double Government, Oxford University Press, New York, 2015.

[4] Michael Mandel, How America gets away with Murder: illegal wars, collateral damage and crimes against humanity, Pluto Press, London, 2004.

[5] Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, The Hidden Structure of Violence: who benefits from global violence and war, Monthly Review Press, New York ( 2015).

[6]Hanna Segal, “Silence is the Real Crime”, International Review of Psychoanalysis, 1987, Vol. 14, p. 3-12

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at judithdeutsch0@gmail.com