From right-wing think tanks to Homeland
Security to the “drone lobby,” a lot’s riding on the constant threat of global terrorism. Here’s how it all started.
This article originally
appeared at TomDispatch.
The communist enemy, with the “world’s
fourth largest military,” has been trundlingmissiles around and threatening the United States
with nuclear obliteration. Guam, Hawaii, Washington: all, it claims, are targetable. The coverage in
the media has been hair-raising. The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam,
deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of
miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.
Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons
facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no
less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching
Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn’t count on Guam either.
It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose
people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to
decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre
three-generational family cult. If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once
famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,”
we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.
In the previous century, there were two devastating
global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins. There was
also a “cold war” between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual
assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were
capable of destroying the planet many times over. Had you woken up any morning
in the years between December
7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading
international candidate for America’s Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s
ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on
your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.
The same would be true for the other candidates for that
number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely
decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas
of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed
jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or
Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.
All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a
“global war on terror.” We’ve poured money into national security as if
there were no tomorrow. From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere. We constantly
hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.” And yet, when you knock on
the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.
Few in this country have found this
striking. Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden,
threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for
(and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even
those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody
You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve
had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in
waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move
in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next
ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that
envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us —
all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face — I
think to myself: Where’s the enemy? And then I wonder: Just what kind of a
dream is this that we’re dreaming?
A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home
Let’s admit it: enemies can have their uses. And let’s
admit as well that it’s in the interest of some in our country that we be seen
as surrounded by constant and imminent dangers on an enemy-filled planet. Let’s
also admit that the world is and always will be a dangerous place in all sorts
Still, in American terms, the bloodlettings, the
devastations of this new century and the last years of the previous one have
been remarkably minimal or distant; some of the worst, as in the multi–country
war over the Congo with its more than five million dead have passed us by entirely;
some, even when we launched them, have essentially been imperial frontier
conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or interventions of little cost (to us)
as in Libya, or frontier patrolling operations as in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,
and Northern Africa. (It was no mistake that, when Washington
launched its special operations raid on Abbottabad,
get Osama bin Laden, it was given the code name “Geronimo” and the message from the SEAL team
recording his death was “Geronimo-E KIA” or “enemy killed in action.”)
And let’s admit as well that, in the wake of those wars
and operations, Americans now have more enemies, more angry, embittered people
who would like to do us harm than on September 10, 2001. Let’s accept that
somewhere out there are people who, as George W. Bush once liked to say, “hate us” and what we stand for. (I
leave just what we actually stand for to you, for the moment.)
So let’s consider those enemies briefly. Is there a major
state, for instance, that falls into this category, like any of the great
warring imperial European powers from the sixteenth century on, or Nazi Germany
and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union
of the Cold War era? Of course not.
There was admittedly a period when, in order to pump up
what we faced in the world, analogies to World War II and the Cold War were
rife. There was, for instance, George W. Bush’s famed rhetorical construct, the Axis of
Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), patterned by his
speechwriter on the German-Italian-Japanese “axis” of World War II. It was, of
course, a joke construct, if reality was your yardstick. Iraq and Iran were then enemies. (Only in
the wake of the U.S.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
have they become friends and allies.) And North Korea had nothing whatsoever
to do with either of them. Similarly, the American occupation of Iraq was once regularly compared to the
U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan, just as Saddam Hussein had long been presented as a modern Hitler.
In addition, al-Qaeda-style Islamists were regularly
referred to as Islamofascists, while certain military and neocon types
with a desire to turn the war on terror into a successor to the Cold War took
to calling it “the long war,” or even “World War IV.” But all of this was so wildly out of whack
that it simply faded away.
As for who’s behind that door marked “Enemy,” if you
opened it, what would you find? As a start, scattered hundreds or, as the years have
gone by, thousands of jihadis, mostly in the poorest backlands of the
planet and with little ability to do anything to the United States. Next, there were a
few minority insurgencies, including the Taliban and allied forces in Afghanistan and separate Sunni and Shia ones in Iraq. There
also have been tiny numbers of wannabe
Islamic terrorists in the U.S.
(once you take away the string of FBI
sting operations that have regularly turned hopeless slackers and lost
teenagers into the most dangerous of fantasy Muslim plotters). And then, of
course, there are those two relatively hapless regional powers, Iran and North Korea, whose bark far exceeds
their potential bite.
The Wizard of Oz on 9/11
in other words, is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any
moment in the last century. There is no other imperial power on the planet
capable of, or desirous of, taking on American power directly, including China. It’s
true that, on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers with box cutters produced a
remarkable, apocalyptic, and devastating TV show in which almost 3,000 people died. When those giant towers in
downtown New York
collapsed, it certainly had the look of nuclear disaster (and in those first days, the
media was filled was nuclear-style references), but it wasn’t actually an
The enemy was still nearly nonexistent. The act cost
bin Laden only an estimated $400,000-$500,000, though it would lead to a series
of trillion-dollar wars. It was a nightmarish event that had a
malign Wizard of Oz quality to it: a tiny man producing giant
effects. It in no way endangered the state. In fact, it would actually
strengthen many of its powers. It put a hit on the economy, but a passing one.
It was a spectacular and spectacularly gruesome act of terror by a small,
murderous organization then capable of mounting a major operation somewhere on
Earth only once every couple of years. It was meant to spread fear, but nothing
When the towers came down and you could suddenly see to
the horizon, it was still, in historical terms, remarkably enemy-less. And yet
9/11 was experienced here as a Pearl Harbor
moment — a sneak attack by a terrifying enemy meant to disable the country.
The next day, newspaper headlines were filled with variations on “A Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century.”
If it was a repeat of December 7, 1941, however, it lacked an imperial Japan or
any other state to declare war on, although one of the weakest partial states
on the planet, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, would end up filling the bill
adequately enough for Americans.
To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major
dangers in U.S.
life: suicide by gun and death by car. In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns. (In the same
year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.) In 2011, 32,000 Americans
died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was again on the rise in the first six months of 2012). In other
words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six
9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths.
Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of
terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have
been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to
bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more
than 110 planes for vehicular deaths.
And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the
gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them). No one has
built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal
with them. In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown
debate over gun control has made all too clear. On both scores, Americans have
decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that
accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.
Despite the carnage of 9/11, terrorism has been a small-scale American danger in the years since, worse than
shark attacks, but not much else. Like a wizard, however, what Osama bin Laden
and his suicide bombers did that day was create an instant sense of an enemy so
big, so powerful, that Americans found “war” a reasonable response; big enough
for those who wanted an international police action against al-Qaeda to be
laughed out of the room; big enough to launch an invasion of revenge against
Iraq, a country unrelated to al-Qaeda; big enough, in fact, to essentially
declare war on the world. It took next to no time for top administration
officials to begin talking about targeting 60
countries, and as journalist Ron Suskind has reported, within six days of the attack, the CIA had
topped that figure, presenting President Bush with a “Worldwide Attack Matrix,”
a plan that targeted terrorists in 80 countries.
What’s remarkable is how little the disjuncture between
the scope and scale of the global war that was almost instantly launched and
the actual enemy at hand was ever noted here. You could certainly make a
reasonable argument that, in these years, Washington has largely fought no one — and
lost. Everywhere it went, it created enemies who had, previously, hardly
existed and the process is ongoing. Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold
War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be in
Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have
thought you mad (or lucky indeed).
Creating an Enemy-Industrial Complex
Without an enemy of commensurate size and threat, so much
that was done in Washington
in these years might have been unattainable. The vast national security building and spending spree — stretching from the Virginia
suburbs of Washington, where the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
erected its new $1.8 billion headquarters, to Bluffdale, Utah, where the
National Security Agency is still constructing a $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center for storing
the world’s intercepted communications — would have been unlikely.
Without the fear of an enemy capable of doing anything,
money at ever escalating levels would never have poured into homeland security,
or the Pentagon, or a growing complex of crony corporations associated with our
weaponized safety. The exponential growth of the national security complex, as
well as of the powers of the executive branch when it comes to
national security matters, would have far been less likely.
Without 9/11 and the perpetual “wartime” that followed,
along with the heavily promoted threat of terrorists ready to strike and
potentially capable of wielding biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons,
we would have no Department of Homeland Security nor the lucrative mini-homeland-security complex that surrounds it; the
17-outfit U.S. Intelligence Community with its massive $75 billion official budget would have been far less impressive;
our endless drone wars and the “drone lobby” that goes with them might never have
developed; and the U.S. military would not have an ever growing secret military, the Joint Special Operations Command,
gestating inside it — effectively the president’s private army, air force, and
navy — and already conducting largely secret operations across much of the
For all of this to happen, there had to be an
enemy-industrial complex as well, a network of crucial figures and institutions
ready to pump up the threat we faced and convince Americans that we were in a
world so dangerous that rights, liberty, and privacy were small things to
sacrifice for American safety. In short, any number of interests from Bush
administration figures eager to “sweep it all up” and do whatever they wanted in the world
to weapons makers, lobbyists, surveillance outfits, think tanks, military intellectuals, assorted pundits… well, the whole
national and homeland security racket and its various hangers-on had an
interest in beefing up the enemy. For them, it was important in the post-9/11
era that threats would never again lack a capital “T” or a hefty dollar sign.
And don’t forget a media that was ready to pound the
drums of war and emphasize what dangerous enemies lurked in our world with
remarkably few second thoughts. Post-9/11, major media outlets were generally
prepared to take the enemy-industrial complex’s word for it and play every new
terrorist incident as if it were potentially the end of the world. Increasingly
as the years went on, jobs, livelihoods, an expanding world of “security”
depended on the continuance of all this, depended, in short, on the injection
of regular doses of fear into the body politic.
That was the “favor” Osama bin Laden did for Washington’s national
security apparatus and the Bush administration on that fateful September
morning. He engraved an argument in the American brain that would live on
indelibly for years, possibly decades, calling for eternal vigilance at any
cost and on a previously unknown scale. As the Project for the New American
Century (PNAC), that neocon think-tank-cum-shadow-government, so fatefully put
it in “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” a year before the 9/11 attacks:
“Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings
revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and
catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”
So when the new Pearl Harbor
arrived out of the blue, with many PNAC members (from Vice President Dick
Cheney on down) already in office, they naturally saw their chance. They
created an al-Qaeda on steroids and launched their “global war” to establish a Pax
Americana, in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They were aware
that they lacked opponents of the stature of those of the previous century and,
in their documents, they made it clear that they were planning to
ensure no future great-power-style enemy or bloc of enemy-like nations would
For this, they needed an American public anxious,
frightened, and ready to pay. It was, in other words, in their interest to
manipulate us. And if that were all there were to it, our world would be a
grim, but simple enough place. As it happens, it’s not. Ruling elites, no
matter what power they have, don’t work that way. Before they manipulate us,
they almost invariably manipulate themselves.
I was convinced of this years ago by a friend who had
spent a lot of time reading early Cold War documents from the National Security
Council — from, that is, a small group of powerful governmental figures
writing to and for each other in the utmost secrecy. As he told me then and
wrote in Washington’s China, the smart book he did on the
early U.S. response to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China,
what struck him in the documents was the crudely anti-communist language those
men used in private with each other. It was the sort of anti-communism you
might otherwise have assumed Washington’s
ruling elite would only have wielded to manipulate ordinary Americans with
fears of Communist subversion, the “enemy within,” and Soviet plans to take
over the world. (In fact, they and others like them would use just such
language to inject fear into the body politic in those early Cold War years,
that era of McCarthyism.)
They were indeed manipulative men, but before they
influenced other Americans they assumedly underwent something like a process of
collective auto-hypnotism in which they convinced one another of the dangers
they needed the American people to believe in. There is evidence that a similar
process took place in the aftermath of 9/11. From the flustered look on George
W. Bush’s face as his plane took him not toward but away from Washington on September 11, 2001, to the image of
Dick Cheney, in those early months, being chauffeured around Washington in an armored motorcade with
a “gas mask and a biochemical survival suit” in the backseat, you could
sense that the enemy loomed large and omnipresent for them. They were, that is,
genuinely scared, even if they were also ready to make use of that fear for
their own ends.
Or consider the issue of Saddam Hussein’s supposed
weapons of mass destruction, that excuse for the invasion of Iraq. Critics
of the invasion are generally quick to point out how that bogus issue was used
by the top officials of the Bush administration to gain public support for a
course that they had already chosen. After all, Cheney and his men cherry-picked the evidence to make their case, even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they
needed, and ignored facts at hand that brought their version of events into question.
They publicly claimed in an orchestrated way that Saddam had active nuclear and WMD
programs. They spoke in the most open ways of potential mushroom clouds from (nonexistent) Iraqi nuclear weapons
rising over American cities, or of those same cities being sprayed
with (nonexistent) chemical or biological weapons from (nonexistent) Iraqi
drones. They certainly had to know that some of this information was useful but
bogus. Still, they had clearly also convinced themselves that, on taking Iraq, they
would indeed find some Iraqi WMD to justify their claims.
In his soon-to-be-published book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill cites the conservative
journalist Rowan Scarborough on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s growing
post-invasion irritation over the search for Iraqi WMD sites. “Each morning,”
wrote Scarborough, “the crisis action team had
to report that another location was a bust. Rumsfeld grew angrier and angrier.
One officer quoted him as saying, ‘They must be there!’ At one briefing, he
picked up the briefing slides and tossed them back at the briefers.”
In other words, those top officials hustling us into
their global war and their long-desired invasion of Iraq had also hustled themselves
into the same world with a similar set of fears. This may seem odd, but given
the workings of the human mind, its ability to comfortably hold potentially
contradictory thoughts most of the time without disturbing itself greatly, it’s
A similar phenomenon undoubtedly took place in the larger
national security establishment where self-interest combined easily enough with
fear. After all, in the post-9/11 era, they were promising us one thing:
something close to 100% “safety” when it came to one small danger in our world
— terrorism. The fear that the next underwear bomber might get through surely
had the American public — but also the American security state — in its
grips. After all, who loses the most if another shoe bomber strikes, another
ambassador goes down, another 9/11 actually happens? Whose job, whose
world, will be at stake then?
They may indeed be a crew of Machiavellis, but they are
also acolytes in the cult of terror and global war. They live in the Cathedral
of the Enemy. They were the first believers and they will undoubtedly be the
last ones as well. They are invested in the importance of the enemy. It’s their
religion. They are, after all, the enemy-industrial complex and if we are in
their grip, so are they.
The comic strip character Pogo once famously declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
How true. We just don’t know it yet.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American
Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the
Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com.
His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
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Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt