In early October, TomDispatch’s Tom Engelhardt, in a piece entitled “ISIS in Washington,” touched upon a key point which, I think, deserves some emphasis. Terror, Engelhardt said, is used not only by Islamist militants as means to their own political ends, but is exploited by Western states as well. When terrorist groups begin to make the headlines at home, interested parties work to hype up and exaggerate the crisis to serve personal and organizational ends.
The terror about terror, sometimes quite professionally managed (as in the case of the Khorasan Group), has flooded through our world year after year after year. ISIS is just a recent example of the way the interests of a group of extremists in making themselves larger than life and the interests of groups in this country in building up or maintaining their institutional power have meshed. Terror as the preeminent danger to our American world now courses through the societal bloodstream, helped along by regular infusions of fear from the usual panic-meisters. [Emphasis added]
In other words, terrorism—the strategic use of fear to move along a political agenda—is a tool of both revolution and reaction. The hyperbolic self-promotion of the Islamic State not only bolsters their own power and reputation as fierce religious warriors—“Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet”—but also the power of Western governments, like the United States, who, in turn, employ that reputation to their own benefit.
Indeed, for decades, US politicians have latched onto virtually every single event of import in world affairs and blown it up into an existential crisis; said to imperil the country, and the very lives of every citizen.
This strategy is certainly not new, yet the historical memory of (especially) the American populace tends to wane in the face of a new crisis. Have we lost sight of the colossal waste that was Vietnam, and the hollow pretexts upon which that war was based? Did we not just go through a harrowing episode of fear-mongering and deception, used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which, to be sure, created the IS problem in the first place)?
Have we so quickly forgotten the over-the-top, at times hysterical, rhetoric surrounding the now-fallen Soviet Union, where a crumbling, bloated communist state was presented to the American people as an absolute menace to their values and lives?
Consider, for example, the words of J. Howard McGrath, a former US Attorney General, during the Red-scare era of McCarthyism: “There are today many Communists in America. They are everywhere—in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners, in private businesses. And each carries in himself the germ of death for society.” [Emphasis added]
Compare this with the more recent scare-mongering surrounding Islamist extremism, al-Qaeda, and IS, and you’ll see the immediate parallels. It is declared that the Islamic State lurks under the lid of every trashcan, in every airport terminal, in every major American city; just biding their time until they can deliver the next decisive blow to the American homeland.
Despite comments to the contrary (for whatever they’re worth) from US counterterrorism chief, Matthew Olson—that “there’s no credible information,” and “no indication” of either an Islamic State plan to attack America, or of even an Islamic State cell operating inside the US!—those residing in the haughty milieu of high office and media punditry would prefer to present matters differently. This should, however, come as no shock. As we have seen, fear is one of the most potent implements ever known in the ever-growing arsenal of political weaponry.
As Islamic State zealots strut their stuff on the world stage, American political figures ride the coattails of the reign of terror they’ve carved across Iraq and Syria, perhaps accruing just as much political benefit from it as the Islamic State has itself. “Never let a crisis go to waste” they say; and a crisis as dramatic and frightening as IS, or the shadowy “Khorasan group,” is simply too much for the hawks to pass up.
This “never waste a crisis” doctrine finds some lineage in a respected, lauded, and honored historical predecessor: the Nazis. Long before the fanatical nobodies of Islamist extremism were built up as America’s greatest existential threat, the National Socialists of Germany were tuning this technique of “soft” domestic terrorism to perfection.
When questioned by psychologist Gustave Gilbert after the Allied victory in World War 2, Herman Goering, Nazi politician and high-ranking military officer, puts forth comments that are quite illuminating. Gilbert suggests that the average citizen has no interest in war, to which Goering replies:
Why, of course, the people don’t want war…Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. [sic] Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. [Emphasis added]
Gilbert retorts that under a democratic system, the people have their say; their voice is heard! This, he insinuates, is the all-important distinction to be made between countries like the US, and those like Nazi Germany. To this, Goering responds:
Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country. [Emphasis added]
Long predating the era of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the use of fear in advancing a political cause was frequently used by war-seeking state officials. If Randolph Borne was correct in saying that “War is the health of the state,” it is but a matter of common sense that states will invent—or blow wildly out of proportion—threats in order to justify some martial action to quell them.
Building up the edifice of the garrison-state is an all-time favorite pastime of high-profile political actors, as well as their “private” contractor adjuncts—as it yields power, treasure, status, and legacy—and thus the need for an external threat is vital. For, without some threat of impending annihilation, how else could the citizenry possibly be dragooned into paying for and fighting in a war, which, as Goering casually admits, they often have absolutely zero personal interest in?
Similar to the tactic of exploiting fear is that of whipping up moral outrage over an (alleged or real) atrocity. Two notable examples include the campaign of baseless assertions during World War 1 that German soldiers were skewering Belgian babies on bayonets. This doesn’t only shock and terrorize the public, but inspires some with intense vitriol and a thirst for retribution. The “enemy” takes on the alien form of total otherness, devoid of the rights to which only men are entitled.
Perhaps the most notorious instance of this is found in the testimony of a young woman named “Nayirah,” who accused the Iraqi army (during the invasion of Kuwait) of pulling babies “out of their incubators and [leaving them]…to die on the cold floor.” Nayirah’s identity was withheld at the hearing, citing a fear of reprisal from those who might act to silence her.
Come to find out, this young woman was, in fact, the daughter of Saud Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US! Not only was her claim dubious on its own merits, but with this additional piece of information, an obvious shell-game is revealed. This PR operation ultimately played a role in distorting the debate, and convincing the American people to accept the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
Two additional principles of propaganda, supplementing the “Tell them they are being attacked” doctrine, are the doctrines of simplicity, and persistence. A simple, repetitive message—especially one that involves hyping up some menace—does wonders for the would-be propagandist. Shepherd and trailblazer of American political PR, Adolph Hitler, presciently explains:
…the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success. [Emphasis added]
Sound familiar? Just 10 years ago, Americans bit hook, line, and sinker the incessant talking points of a certain neo-conservative cabal, and their Administration allies, before, during, and after the Iraq War. When a narrative is kept down to a simple list of bullet points, delivered with nauseating repetition, this tends to best serve a war-seeking itinerary.
Sometimes narratives fail to persuade the public—like when Americans rejected the bombing of Syria last year—thus persistence is essential. After hearing about the evils of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State for long enough, eventually many Americans will simply tow the War Party line in obsequious resignation.
The American people don’t want to squander blood and treasure overthrowing the government of Syria? Worry not, o’ grand tyrant; all one’s to do is try, try again! Sarin gas didn’t do the trick? Keep trying. The Islamic State: now that’s a threat, right? Not enough, but that Khorasan group, surely they’re super dangerous. Seriously guys, there’s a threat out there…somewhere.
The charade could extend indefinitely. So long as citizens are susceptible to these easily-refuted, oft-repeated narratives, unwilling to do the (quite minimal) work required to stay basically informed, governments will continue to walk all over them—sending their children to die horrible deaths in foreign lands, and committing an ever-greater proportion of the nation’s GDP to grand schemes of “democratizing” the globe.
From boogey man to boogey man, the United States Ministry of Truth will perpetually scour the planet in search of the next Hitler, to be used to push into acquiescence those adrift in the sea of historical events and world affairs.
From the evil Southern Confederates to the Spanish, from the Second Reich to the Axis of Evil, to Communists, Communists, and yet more Communists; while today we face not only a corporeal adversary, but terror itself, manifest in the nihilistic gangsterism of radical Islam and the creed of Osama bin Laden.
The sprawling global National Security State, emanating from Washington DC, simply could not be maintained without the constant reminder to the American citizen that the world is a far too dangerous one. To boot, the enormity of this network of institutions ensures that special interests of all kinds rest their livelihood on its indefinite perpetuation.
Thus, the United States and the Islamic one have found common cause: to scare the crap out of you, and to browbeat whatever part of America that still loves liberty into quivering, be-sweated submission.
Fear itself is not the crux of the issue, some fears are indeed well-founded. Instead, fear is only (or at least especially) dangerous when wielded in the name of political ambition. This long played out practice of scare-mongering—never more popular than now—is due to be taken with all the grains of salt in the world’s blue oceans.
Pay no mind to that ancient siren song which tempts masses of otherwise reasonable men to gallop headlong into truculent, “preemptive,” warfare; into the paranoid, insecure ethos of the National Security State. Disregard the warm gale which blusters forth from the sputtering muzzle of the two-bit tyrant; turn away from the panic with which he would have you paralyzed.
If war—along with its bankrupt tactics of persuasion—is the health of the state apparatus, then skepticism is, no doubt, its greatest plague.