This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
The communist enemy, with the "world's fourth largest military," has been trundling missiles 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 US 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 century.
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 of ways.
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, Pakistan, to 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 US 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 US 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 US (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
The US, 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 apocalyptic event.
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 more.
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 US 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.