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Everything changed on September 11, 2001. It’s become an American truism. And for many, it’s also absolutely true. It certainly was the case for Tom Engelhardt. He was roughly seven miles north of the World Trade Center that morning and that’s about the furthest he’s been from it since.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say Engelhardt’s a hermit. He travels. But while that morning sent some very prominent Americans running headlong into futility in Afghanistan, ruin in Iraq, and toward utter economic collapse, it sent Tom Engelhardt off to his computer and an unlikely second career. He had been known to insiders in the publishing world as a genius editor – first at Pantheon and then Metropolitan Books – but back then he was barely on email. More than a decade later, he’s an on-line institution. You can’t visit a left-leaning website, or even a number of prominent conservative and libertarian ones, for very long without running into a piece by Andy Bacevich or Rebecca Solnit or Barbara Ehrenreich or Mike Klare or Bill McKibben, or a couple dozen other writers that he regularly edits. Even likelier, since he also pens an article a week, you’ll see a piece bylined to him.
His website, the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com has not only produced some of the most trenchant articles on our post-9/11 world, but also several books on the subject. The latest of these is Engelhardt’s The United States of Fear, a slim but meaty volume that takes the story up to our present crash-and-burn moment.
Engelhardt argues, quite persuasively, that the sole superpower left standing after the USSR crumbled in the early 1990s took its peace dividend and doubled down on war, following what he calls the “Soviet path” to such an absurd degree that it even invaded Afghanistan, the very country that helped cripple that other empire.
It was fear, super-charged by 9/11, that allowed what he calls the “national security complex” to expand far beyond the already excessive levels reached when the United States faced off against the Soviets and their potentially world-ending nuclear arsenal. Today, the so-called “intelligence community” puts its Cold War variant to shame, the Pentagon budget is far larger and an all-new “defense” department, the Department of Homeland Security, has joined the bloated budget scrum. And all of it was unleashed by a few guys with box cutters and has been sustained by hyping up handfuls of men running around the backlands of the planet in what U.S. troops call “man-jamas” (the pajama-like clothes worn by Afghan men) as super-villains.
In The United States of Fear, Engelhardt takes on subjects of critical importance to Americans that somehow remain ill-covered, or sometimes uncovered, by the mainstream media. Among them, why our wonder weapons — most recently, pilotless drones — never actually win wars; why, in a dangerous world, the national security state is concerned with only one thing: terrorism (even though, since 9/11, terrorism has ranked above shark attacks and little else in terms of actual danger to Americans); or why the ongoing damage we inflict on civilians in other countries — including, for example, blowing away at least six wedding parties in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years — seldom gets paid much attention in the United States.
Engelhardt has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, but he’s been analyzing those wars more astutely, and has been right about them more often than most experts who have made America’s warzones a second home. This alone would be remarkable, but in The United States of Fear he does something more impressive and, it turns out, important. In a way few Americans are capable of, he views the country through the eyes of an outsider while retaining all the insights of someone born and raised here. In the end, this allows him to offer a clear, more truthful picture of the United States than many are used to seeing – one that’s troubling to behold, but difficult to ignore.