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 US 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 US 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 planet.
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 arise. Ever.
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 US 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 not.
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, 2001-2050.
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