MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
To receive periodic email summaries of the blog, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Update” in the subject line. You can communicate directly with Ira at the same address.
Dick Cheney in 2011, and the infamous Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock.
I also love those brave (fictional) CIA analysts, Maya and Carrie. They see a huge danger ahead that everyone else is blind to, and they insist on crying out a warning, regardless of the risk -- just like the biblical prophets. What’s not to love?
In fact they’ve inspired me to cry out a warning of my own. It’s not the threat of “another terrorist attack,” but the threat of America being seized once again by “war on terror” fever. I know that seems crazy, because hardly anybody worries seriously about the “terrorist” threat any more. In the last year, when pollsters asked about the single most important issue facing the nation, they usually didn’t even list “terrorism” as an option. When they did, it consistently showed up at the bottom of the list.
But Zero Dark Thirty and “Homeland” reminded me that one sector of the American populace ranks “terrorism” right up at the top, way above any other national concern, and obsesses about the “threat” night and day. It’s not just the CIA but the entire “Homeland Security Complex” -- what the Washington Post called, in 2010, “Top Secret America: A hidden world, growing beyond control.”
The Post’s article began by saying that the HS Complex is “so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”
It went on to estimate that there were “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States,” with “33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work built or under construction since September 2001” -- with total space bigger than three Pentagons -- in the DC area alone.
That’s a lot of people, spending a lot of money, focusing like a laser on the single goal of “defeating the terrorists.” And that was three years ago. Think how the HS Complex has grown since then.
As those “most important issue” polls show, there’s a huge disconnect between the HS Complex and the rest of the nation, which doesn’t think much about “the terrorist threat” at all any more -- except as an exciting theme for suspenseful movies and television shows.
We’re back in a situation much like the early and mid-1970s, when “détente” was the watchword in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The debate over Vietnam generally treated that country as an isolated hot spot, largely detached from its global cold war context. So the global cold war purred along quietly in the background of American life, little more than a plot device for the entertainment industry -- except in the huge Military-Industrial-Intelligence Complex, which devoted itself night and day to waging and worrying about the conflict between the U.S. and the whole of the “communist bloc.”
The M-I-I Complex was a kind of fuel waiting to be ignited, to put the global cold war once again at the top of the national priority list. The fuse that did the job was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It re-ignited the cold war, which dominated much of the nation’s life for the next decade (and vastly inflated the federal budget).
The resurrection of the cold war was a triumph for a group of high-powered conservative and neoconservative politicos, banded together under the banner of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD).
One of their icons, Norman Podhoretz, explained that they worked hard to counter a “national mood of self-doubt and self-disgust” triggered by the debacle in Vietnam. Americans were crippled by “failure of will” and “spiritual surrender,” the neocon writer lamented. They would no longer make the sacrifices needed to “impose their will on other countries.”
The only way to counter this national transformation, as the CPD saw it, was to revive cold war brinksmanship. A nuclear buildup, bringing increased risk of nuclear war, was not merely a price worth paying; it was a way to teach the public to accept sacrifice as the route to national and spiritual greatness.
The CPD’s diagnosis and prescription were extreme, to say the least. But many Americans did feel what President Jimmy Carter called a “a crisis of confidence”; many others called it a “malaise.” And the CPD understood correctly that it was triggered, above all, by the Vietnam war -- the first war that America had ever lost -- which did so much to undermine faith in the narrative of American exceptionalism.
The 1970s teach us a vital lesson: The “foreign threat” narrative has a much better chance to prevail when large numbers of Americans are unsure that the familiar structures of public life are secure.
We had already learned that lesson in the late 1930s. The Great Depression had created so much anxiety about American life for so long that the public was ripe for a “foreign threat” narrative. In the late 1970s there was also economic anxiety, powerfully reinforced by the all-too-fresh memory of the defeat in Vietnam.
It could happen again! The fuel pile -- the Homeland Security Complex -- grows bigger every day. The neocon heirs of the CPD still have their well-honed public relations machine in high gear, eager to see that fuel explode.
In an economy that is slowly recovering but still perceived as feeble, even a minor “terrorist attack” -- or any incident that could plausibly have that label pinned on it -- would give the neocons the fuse to ignite the fuel. We might well be thrown back a decade, to a time when the “war on terror” dominated national life in a way that teenagers of today can hardly imagine.
The HS Complex, as big as it is, could grow by leaps and bounds. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan all showed that an M-I-I Complex widely seen as immense could actually grow much bigger.
There’s one other vital piece in this ticking time bomb: the weakness of any alternative narrative to interpret a “terrorist attack.” Whenever there’s sudden, unexpected violence, people will demand some narrative or other to make sense out of it. That’s why we have news media: to “give us the story.” Right now, the only story the media can even think about using is the “war on terror” tale.
It wasn’t always thus. When an attempt was made to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, the Clinton administration treated it as a criminal attack. The media followed suit. And eventually people were convicted for the crime through due process of law.
In the weeks after the 9/11 attack, there was some effort to invoke the same “crime and justice” narrative. But it was quickly eclipsed by the story that labeled the attack an “act of war,” and that view has prevailed ever since.
As long as there is no other narrative on the scene to effectively challenge the “war” story, the “war on terror” time bomb will keep on ticking. The longer it ticks, the more likely it is to explode, plunging us back into the world that Dick Cheney once assured us would be “the new normal” forever.