The United States of Fear

Email Print

by Tom Engelhardt: A
World Made by War

National Security State Cops a Feel: Taking Off the Gloves (and
Then Everything Else)

It’s finally
coming into focus, and it’s not even a difficult equation to grasp.
It goes like this: take a country in the grips of an expanding national
security state and sooner or later your "safety" will
mean your humiliation, your degradation. And by the way, it will
mean the degradation of your country, too.

Just ask Rolando
Negrin, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener
who passed
one of those new "whole body image" scanners
last May as part of his training for airport security. His co-workers
to have gotten a look at his "junk" and mocked him mercilessly,
evidently repeatedly asking, "What size are you?" and
referring to him as "little angry man." In the end, calling
it "psychological torture," he insisted that he snapped,
which in his case meant that he went after a co-worker, baton first,
demanding an apology.

Consider that
a little parable about just how low this country has sunk, how psychologically
insecure we’ve become while supposedly guarding ourselves against
global danger. There is no question that, at the height of Cold
War hysteria, when superpower nuclear arsenals were out of this
world and the planet seemed a hair-trigger from destruction, big
and small penises were in play, symbolically speaking. Only now,
however, facing a ragtag set of fanatics and terrorists – not
a mighty nation but a puny crew – are those penises perfectly
real and, potentially, completely humiliating.

Bombs Do the Job

We live, it
seems, in a national security "homeland" of little angry
bureaucrats who couldn’t be happier to define
what "safety" means for you and big self-satisfied officials
who can duck
the application
of those safety methods. Your government can
now come up with any wacky solution to American "security"
and you’ll pay the price. One guy brings a failed shoe
on an airplane, and you’re suddenly in your socks. Word
has it that bombs can be mixed
from liquids
in airplane bathrooms, and there go your bottled
drinks. A youthful idiot flies
toward Detroit with an ill-constructed bomb in his underwear, and
suddenly they’re taking naked scans of you or threatening to grope
your junk.

Two bombs don’t
go off in the cargo holds of two planes and all of a sudden sending
things around the world threatens to become more
problematic and expensive
. Each time, the price of "safety"
rises and some set of lucky
, along
with the
and politicians that support them, get a windfall.
In each case, the terror tactic (at least in the normal sense) failed;
in each case, the already draconian standards for our security were
ratcheted up, while yet more money was poured into new technology
and human reinforcements, which may, in the end, cause more disruption
than any successful terror attack.

Directly or
indirectly, you pay for the screeners and scanners and a labyrinthine
intelligence bureaucracy that officially wields an $80
budget, and all the lobbyists and shysters and pitchmen
who accompany our burgeoning homeland-security complex. And by the
way, no one’s the slightest bit nice about it either, which isn’t
surprising since it’s a national security state we’re talking about,
which means its mentality is punitive. It wants to lock you down,
quietly and with full acquiescence if possible. Offer some trouble,
though, or step out of line, and you’ll be hit with a $10,000
or maybe put
in cuffs
. It’s all for your safety, and fortunately they have
a set of the most inept terror plots in history to prove their point.

By now, who
hasn’t written about the airport "porno-scans,"
the crotch gropes and breast jobs, the "don’t
touch my junk"
uproar, the growing lines, and the exceedingly
protests on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, not to
speak of the indignity of it all?

Totally been
there, completely done
; totally written about, fully read. Shouldn’t we move on?

Off the Gloves (and Then Everything Else)

And yet there
are a few dots that still need to be connected. After all, since
the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, Americans have been
remarkably quiet when it comes to the national security disasters
being perpetuated in their name. America’s
, its soaring Pentagon budgets, its billion-dollar
military bases
, its giant new
still called embassies but actually regional command
centers, its ever-escalating CIA drone
along the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the ever-expanding
at home, and the incessant "night
and home
thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, not to speak
of Washington’s stimulus-package
in its war zones have caused no more than the mildest
ripple of protest, much less genuine indignation, in this country
in years.

American "safety"
has, in every case, trumped outrage. Now, for the first time in
years, the oppressiveness of a national security state bent on locking
down American life has actually gotten to some Americans. No flags
are yet flying over mass protests with "Don’t Scan on Me"
emblazoned on them. Still, the idea that air travel may now mean
a choice between a spritz of radiation and a sorta naked snapshot
or – thrilling option B – having some overworked, overaggressive
TSA agent grope you has caused outrage, at least among a minority
of Americans, amid administration confusion.
(If you want evidence that Hillary Clinton is considering a run
for president in 2012, check out what she had
to say
about her lack of eagerness to be patted down at the

Local authorities
have threatened
to bring sexual battery charges against TSA agents who step over
the line in pat-downs. Some legislators are denouncing the TSA’s
new security plans. Ron Paul has introduced
the American Travel Dignity Act. And good for them all.

But here’s
the thing: in our deluded state, Americans don’t tend to connect
what we’re doing to others abroad and what we’re doing to ourselves
at home. We refuse to see that the trillion or more dollars that
continue to go into the Pentagon, the U.S.
Intelligence Community
, and the national security state yearly,
as well as the stalemated or losing wars Washington insists on fighting
in distant lands, have anything to do with the near collapse of
the American economy, job-devastation at home, or any of the other
disasters of our American age.

As a result,
those porno-scanners and enhanced pat-downs are indignities without
a cause – except, of course, for those terrorists who keep
launching their bizarre plots to take down our planes. And yet whatever
inconvenience, embarrassment, or humiliation you suffer in an airport
shouldn’t be thought of as something the terrorists have done to
us. It’s what the American national security state that we’ve quietly
accepted demands of its subjects, based on the idea that no degree
of danger from a terrorist attack, however infinitesimal, is acceptable.
(When it comes to genuine safety, anything close to that principle
is absent from other
aspects of American life
where – from eating
to driving, to drinking,
to working – genuine danger exists and genuine
damage is regularly done.)

We now live
not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in
something like a United States of Fear.

So think of
it as an irony that, when George W. Bush and his cronies decided
to sally forth and smite the Greater Middle East, they exulted that
they were finally "taking
the gloves off
." And so they were: aggressive war, torture,
abuse, secret imprisonment, souped-up surveillance, slaughter, drone
wars, there was no end to it. When those gloves came off, other
people suffered first. But wasn’t it predictable – since unsuccessful
wars have a nasty habit of coming home – that, in the end,
other things would come off, and sooner or later they would be on
you: your hat, your shoes, your belt, your clothes, and of course,
your job, your world?

And don’t for
a second think that it’s going to end here. What happens when the
first terrorist with a suppository bomb is found aboard one of our
planes? After all, such weapons already
. In the meantime, the imposition of more draconian safety
and security methods is, of course, being
for buses, trains, and boats. Can trucks, taxis,
cars, and bikes be far behind? After all, once begun, there can,
by definition, be no end to the search for perfect security.

Wanna Be Safer? Really?

You must have
a friend who’s extremely critical of everyone else but utterly opaque
when it comes to himself. Well, that’s this country, too.

Here’s a singular
fact to absorb: we now know that a bunch of Yemeni al-Qaeda adherents
have a far better hit on just who we are, psychologically speaking,
and what makes us tick than we do. Imagine that. They have a more
accurate profile of us than our leading intelligence profilers undoubtedly
do of them.

Recently, they
an online magazine laying out just how much the two U.S.-bound cargo-bay
that caused panic cost them: a mere $4,200 and the efforts
of "less than six brothers" over three months. They even
gave their plot a name, Operation Hemorrhage (and what they imagined
hemorrhaging, it seems, was not American blood, but treasure).

Now, they’re
laughing at us for claiming the operation failed because –
thanks reportedly to a tip from Saudi intelligence – those
bombs didn’t go off. "This supposedly ‘foiled plot,’"
they wrote, "will without a doubt cost America and other Western
countries billions of dollars in new security measures. That is
what we call leverage."

They are, they
, planning to use the “security phobia that is sweeping
America" not to cause major casualties, but to blow a hole
in the U.S. economy. “We knew that cargo planes are staffed by only
a pilot and a co-pilot, so our objective was not to cause maximum
casualties but to cause maximum losses to the American economy”
via the multi-billion-dollar U.S. freight industry.

This is a new
definition of asymmetrical warfare. The terrorists never
have to strike an actual target. It’s not even incumbent upon them
to build a bomb that works. Just about anything will do. To be successful,
they just have to repeatedly send things in our direction, inciting
the expectable Pavlovian reaction from the U.S. national security
state, causing it to further tighten its grip (grope?) at yet greater
taxpayer expense.

In a sense,
both the American national security state and al-Qaeda are building
their strength and prestige as our lives grow more constrained and
our treasure vanishes.

So you wanna
be safer? I mean, actually safer? Here’s a simple formula
for beginning to improve American safety and security at every level.
End our trillion dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; set our military
to defending our own borders (and no, projecting power abroad does
not normally qualify as a defense of the United States); begin to
shut down our global empire
of bases
; stop building grotesque
abroad (one even has a decorative
, for god’s sake!); end our overseas war stimulus packages
and bring some of that money home. In short, stop going out of our
way to tick off foreigners and then pouring our treasure into an
American war machine intent on pursuing a generational global war
against them.

course, the U.S. national security state has quite a different formula
for engendering safety in America: fight the Afghan War until hell
freezes over
; keep the
odd base or two
in Iraq; dig
the Persian Gulf region; send
U.S. Special Operations troops into any country where a terrorist
might possibly lurk; and make sure the drones
aren’t far behind. In other words, reinforce our war state by ensuring
that we’re eternally in a state of war, and then scare the hell
out of Americans by repeatedly insisting that we’re in imminent
danger, that shoe, underwear, and someday butt bombers will destroy
our country, our lives, and our civilization. Insist that a single
percent of risk is 1% too much when it comes to terror and American
lives, and then demand that those who feel otherwise be dealt with
punitively, if they won’t shut up.

It’s a formula
for leaving you naked in airports, while increasing the oppressive
power of the state. And here’s the dirty, little, distinctly Orwellian
secret: the national security state can’t do without those Yemeni
terrorists (and vice versa), as well as our
homegrown variety.
All of them profit from a world of war. You don’t – and on
that score, what happens in an airport line should be the least
of your worries.

The national
security state is eager to cop a feel. As long as Americans don’t
grasp the connections between our war state and our "safety,"
things will only get worse and, in the end, our world will genuinely
be in danger.

2, 2010

Engelhardt [send him mail]
of the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
. His book, The
End of Victory Culture
, has recently been updated in a newly
issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best
of TomDispatch book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire

(Verso), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. His new book
is The
American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's

Best of Tom Engelhardt

Email Print