"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Anxiety’

Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Oldspeak: “Can you imagine the uproar, the national panic if 1 in every 78 Americans had cancer? Or was a victim of gun violence? Or if 1 in 78 Americans had AIDS? Why then is it acceptable that 1 in 78 Americans is suffering from severe and disabling mental illness? Why is it acceptable that there has been a 35 FOLD INCREASE in mental illness among children!?!!  Pathology has been normalized. Sociopathy is a key trait in the dominant institutions of our civilization (corporations) and by extension the people who work within them. 70% of Americans hate their jobs.  Lack of empathy and compassion is seen as normal.  You see it every day walking down the street; people looking upon with disdain or just plain actively ignoring the steadily growing number of homeless and mentally ill who populate our streets.  Elder abuse is institutionalized in this time where there our population is the greyest it’s ever been. Youth are increasingly disposable, with children serving as fodder for the burgeoning prison-industrial complex; pumped full of powerful toxic, illness inducing pills that no one has any idea what the long-term health effect will be. While pharmaceutical drug dealers’ profit margins explode.  Whole cities are failing while the banks & other corporations that greatly contributed to their failure are given unlimited resources. Something is terribly terribly wrong. Our society is making us crazy. Destroying our planet. How much longer well we go on without having serious discussion about restructuring our civilization in a way that healthy, beneficial and sustainable for all? ” –OSJ

By Bruce E. Levine @ AlterNet:

In “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why [3]?” (New York Review of Books, 2011), Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discusses over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, pathologizing of normal behaviors, Big Pharma corruption of psychiatry, and the adverse effects of psychiatric medications. While diagnostic expansionism and Big Pharma certainly deserve a large share of the blame for this epidemic, there is another reason.

A June 2013 Gallup poll [4] revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.

While historically some Americans have consciously faked mental illness to rebel from oppressive societal demands (e.g., a young Malcolm X acted crazy to successfully avoid military service), today, the vast majority of Americans who are diagnosed and treated for mental illness are in no way proud malingerers in the fashion of Malcolm X. Many of us, sadly, are ashamed of our inefficiency and nonproductivity and desperately try to fit in. However, try as we might to pay attention, adapt, adjust, and comply with our alienating jobs, boring schools, and sterile society, our humanity gets in the way, and we become anxious, depressed and dysfunctional.

The Mental Illness Epidemic

Severe, disabling mental illness has dramatically increased in the Untied States. Marcia Angell, in her 2011 New York Review of Bookspiece, summarizes [3]: “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.”

Angell also reports that a large survey of adults conducted between 2001 and 2003 sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health found that at some point in their lives, 46% of Americans met the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.

In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke [5] to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago. . . the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. . . .Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”

In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [6] (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. By 2008, 23% of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants.

The CDC, on May 3, 2013, reported [7] that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010 (from 13.7 suicides per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 per 100,000 in 2010).

The New York Times [8]reported in 2007 that the number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder had increased 40-fold between 1994 and 2003. In May 2013, CDC reported in “Mental Health Surveillance Among Children—United States, 2005–2011 [9],” the following: “A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.”

Over-Diagnosis, Pathologizing the Normal and Psychiatric Drug Adverse Effects

Even within mainstream psychiatry, few continue to argue that the increase in mental illness is due to previous under-diagnosis of mental disorders. The most common explanations for the mental illness epidemic include recent over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, diagnoses expansionism, and psychiatry’s pathologizing normal behavior.

The first DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952 and listed 106 disorders (initially called “reactions”). DSM-2 was published in 1968, and the number of disorders increased to 182. DSM-3 was published in 1980, and though homosexuality was dropped from it, diagnoses were expanded to 265, with several child disorders added that would soon become popular, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). DSM-4, published in 1994, contained 365 diagnoses.

DSM-5 was published in May, 2013. The journal PLOS Medicinereported [10] in 2012, “69% of the DSM-5 task force members report having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.” DSM-5 did not add as many new diagnoses [11] as had previous revisions. However, DSM-5 has been criticized even by some mainstream psychiatrists such as Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-4 taskforce, for creating more mental patients by making it easier to qualify for a mental illness, especially for depression. (See Frances’ “Last Plea To DSM-5: Save Grief From the Drug Companies [12].”)

In the last two decades, there have been a slew of books written by journalists and mental health professionals about the lack of science behind the DSM, the over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, and the pathologizing of normal behaviors. A sample of these books includes: Paula Caplan’s They Say You’re Crazy (1995), Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk’s Making Us Crazy (1997), Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (2007), Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (2008), Stuart Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen’s Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs (2013), Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (2013), and Allen Frances’ Saving Normal (2013).

Even more remarkable than former chair of the DSM-4 taskforce, Allen Frances, jumping on the DSM-trashing bandwagon has been the harsh critique [13] of DSM-5 by Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Insel recently announced that the DSM’s diagnostic categories lack validity, and that “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” And psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, former chair of the DSM-3 task force, wrote the foreword to Horwitz and Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness and is now critical [14] of DSM’s inattention to context in which the symptoms occur which, he points out, can medicalize normal experiences.

So, in just two decades, pointing out the pseudoscience of the DSM has gone from being an “extremist slur of radical anti-psychiatrists” to a mainstream proposition from the former chairs of both the DSM-3 and DSM-4 taskforces and the director of NIMH.

Yet another explanation for the epidemic may also be evolving from radical to mainstream, thanks primarily to the efforts of investigative journalist Robert Whitaker and his book Anatomy of An Epidemic [15] (2010). Whitaker argues that the adverse effects of psychiatric medications are the primary cause of the epidemic. He reports that these drugs, for many patients, cause episodic and moderate emotional and behavioral problems to become severe, chronic and disabling ones.

Examining the scientific literature that now extends over 50 years, Whitaker discovered that while some psychiatric medications for some people may be effective over the short term, these drugs increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term. Whitaker reports, “The scientific literature shows that many patients treated for a milder problem will worsen in response to a drug—say have a manic episode after taking an antidepressant—and that can lead to a new and more severe diagnosis like bipolar disorder.”

With respect to the dramatic increase of pediatric bipolar disorder, Whitaker points out that, “Once psychiatrists started putting ‘hyperactive’ children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants.” And then these children and teenagers are put on heavier duty drugs, including drug cocktails, often do not respond favorably to treatment and deteriorate. And that, for Whitaker, is a major reason for the 35-fold increase between 1987 and 2007 of children classified as being disabled by mental disorders. (See my 2010 interview with him, “Are Prozac and Other Psychiatric Drugs Causing the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America [16]?”)

Whitaker’s explanation for the epidemic has now, even within mainstream psychiatric institutions, entered into the debate; for example, Whitaker was invited by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to speak at their 2013 annual convention [17] that took place last June While Whitaker concludes that psychiatry’s drug-based paradigm of care is the primary cause of the epidemic, he does not rule out the possibility that various cultural factors may also be contributing to the increase in the number of mentally ill.

Mental Illness as Rebellion Against Society

“The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree. . . . Ultimately such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned, the active and passive barbarians.” —Lewis Mumford, 1951

Once it was routine for many respected social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Erich Fromm to express concern about the impact of modern civilization on our mental health. But today the idea that the mental illness epidemic is also being caused by a peculiar rebellion against a dehumanizing society has been, for the most part, removed from the mainstream map. When a societal problem grows to become all encompassing, we often no longer even notice it.

We are today disengaged from our jobs and our schooling. Young people are pressured to accrue increasingly large student-loan debt so as to acquire the credentials to get a job, often one which they will have little enthusiasm about. And increasing numbers of us are completely socially isolated, having nobody who cares about us.

Returning to that June 2013 Gallup survey, “The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement [18],” only 30% of workers “were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.” In contrast to this “actively engaged group,” 50% were “not engaged,” simply going through the motions to get a paycheck, while 20% were classified as “actively disengaged,” hating going to work and putting energy into undermining their workplace. Those with higher education levels reported more discontent with their workplace.

How engaged are we with our schooling? Another Gallup poll “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year [19]” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states in 2012, and found nearly 80% of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. As the pollsters point out, “If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.”

Life clearly sucks more than it did a generation ago when it comes to student loan debt. According to American Student Assistance’s “Student Debt Loan Statistics [20],” approximately 37 million Americans have student loan debt. The majority of borrowers still paying back their loans are in their 30s or older. Approximately two-thirds of students graduate college with some education debt. Nearly 30% of college students who take out loans drop out of school, and students who drop out of college before earning a degree struggle most with student loans. As of October 2012, the average amount of student loan debt for the Class of 2011 was $26,600, a 5% increase from 2010. Only about 37% of federal student-loan borrowers between 2004 and 2009 managed to make timely payments without postponing payments or becoming delinquent.

In addition to the pain of jobs, school, and debt, there is increasingly more pain of social isolation. A major study reported in the American Sociological Review in 2006, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades [21],” examined Americans’ core network of confidants (those people in our lives we consider close enough to trust with personal information and whom we rely on as a sounding board). Authors reported that in 1985, 10% of Americans said that they had no confidants in their lives; but by 2004, 25% of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives. This study confirmed the continuation of trends that came to public attention in sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Underlying many of psychiatry’s nearly 400 diagnoses is the experience of helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization—culminating in a loss of autonomy and community-connectedness. Do our societal institutions promote:

  • Enthusiasm—or passivity?
  • Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
  • Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
  • Empowerment—or helplessness?
  • Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
  • Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
  • Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom?

Research (that I documented in Commonsense Rebellion [22]) shows that those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled; and that ADHD-labeled children are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD.

As I discussed last year in AlterNet in “Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein? How Anti-Authoritarianism Is Deemed a Mental Health Problem [23],” there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities. Thus for many M.D.s and Ph.D.s, people who rebel against this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one.

The reality is that with enough helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, we rebel and refuse to comply. Some of us rebel by becoming inattentive. Others become aggressive. In large numbers we eat, drink and gamble too much. Still others become addicted to drugs, illicit and prescription. Millions work slavishly at dissatisfying jobs, become depressed and passive aggressive, while no small number of us can’t cut it and become homeless and appear crazy. Feeling misunderstood and uncared about, millions of us ultimately rebel against societal demands, however, given our wherewithal, our rebellions are often passive and disorganized, and routinely futile and self-destructive.

When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

For some Americans, no doubt, the conscious goal is to get classified as mentally disabled so as to receive disability payments (averaging $700 to 1,400 per month [24]). But isn’t that too a withdrawal of cooperation with society and a rebellion of sorts, based on the judgment that this is the best paying and least miserable financial option?

[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/bruce-e-levine
[3] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/?page=1
[4] http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-employee-engagement-gallup-poll-20130617,0,5878658.story
[5] http://www.nonopp.com/ar/Psicologia/00/epidemic_depersion.htm
[6] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
[7] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6217a1.htm?s_cid=mm6217a1_w
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/health/04psych.html?_r=0
[9] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6202a1.htm?s_cid=su6202a1_w
[10] http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001190
[11] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/15-new-mental-illnesses-in-the-dsm-5-2013-05-22
[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allen-frances/saving-grief-from-dsm-5-a_b_2325108.html
[13] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml
[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Spitzer_%28psychiatrist%29
[15] http://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Epidemic-Bullets-Psychiatric-Astonishing/dp/0307452425/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354546881&sr=1-1&keywords=Anatomy+of+an+Epidemic%3A+Magic+Bullets%2C+Psychiatric+Drugs%2C+and+the+Astonishing+Rise+of+Mental+Illness+in+Ame
[16] http://www.alternet.org/story/146659/are_prozac_and_other_psychiatric_drugs_causing_the_astonishing_rise_of_mental_illness_in_america?paging=off
[17] http://www.peteearley.com/2013/07/01/nami-convention-coverage-robert-whitakers-case-against-anti-psychotics/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+peteearley+%28The+Official+Blog+of+Author+Pete+Earley%29
[18] http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/162953/tackle-employees-stagnating-engagement.aspx
[19] http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html
[20] http://www.asa.org/policy/resources/stats/
[21] http://sites.duke.edu/theatrst130s02s2011mg3/files/2011/05/McPherson-et-al-Soc-Isolation-2006.pdf
[22] http://www.amazon.com/Commonsense-Rebellion-Taking-Shrinks-Corporations/dp/0826414508/ref=pd_sim_b_2
[23] http://www.alternet.org/story/154225/would_we_have_drugged_up_einstein_how_anti-authoritarianism_is_deemed_a_mental_health_problem?paging=off
[24] http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/social-security-disability-benefits-29686.html
[25] http://www.alternet.org/tags/mental-illness
[26] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

“Your Regular Dose Of Fear”: The Enemy-Industrial Complex & How To Turn A World Lacking In Enemies Into The Most Threatening Place In The Universe

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm
Bomb at Boston Marathon

Oldspeak:”The U.S… is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any moment in the last century. All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a “global war on terror.”  We’ve poured money into national security as if there were no tomorrow.  From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere.  We constantly hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.”… 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…  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… To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major dangers in U.S. life: suicide by gun and death by car.  In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns.  (In the same year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.)  In 2011, 32,000 Americans died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was again on the rise in the first six months of 2012).  In other words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six 9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths.  Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more than 110 planes for vehicular deaths. And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them).  No one has built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal with them.  In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown debate over gun control has made all too clear.  On both scores, Americans have decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.” –Tom Engelhardt. This piece was written 2 days ago. In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Boston, I thought this piece was apropos. We see today, the corporate media doing its job, magnifying fear and threats, we see the attack being framed as a “massacre”,”a national tragedy”, “like 9/11”, “calming the public”, while constantly running video of the explosions and pictures of the aftermath on 24/7 loops. Flags have been lowered nationwide. Moments of silence are being observed.  “Security” is being beefed up. The illusion of safety is being bolstered. Meanwhile, the same day, 37 people died in 20 separate attacks  in Iraq. Coordinated bomb strikes killed 20 in Somalia. Unknown numbers of innocents are killed via randomly executed U.S. drone strikes on a regular basis in Yemem, Somalia, Pakistan, and who knows what other poverty-stricken areas of the world. No wall to wall coverage and analysis of those horrific attacks though.  It’s a sad fact that some lives matter more than others, and if those lives aren’t led in the U.S. of A., they matter that much less. Terrorist attacks in the U.S. matter much more than exponentially more acute threats from guns Americans turn on themselves, and the cars every other commercial is imploring them to buy. This attack perfectly articulates the sad reality, that Americans and most people around the world care about what they’re told to care about. There’s no real discussion of the root causes of terrorism and how addressing them could eliminate it completely. One obvious root cause is poverty. The poverty that find 80% of humanity living on less than 10 dollars a day. If you’ll notice, 99.9% of the areas the U.S. is prosecuting the “War On Terror” are poverty-stricken. It seems logical enough to deduce eliminating poverty would go along way toward eliminating terrorism. As usual though, this event is viewed, wholly de-contextualized. No connection is drawn between, poverty, inequality, structural violence, and the human meat grinding system of capitalism that begets terrorism.  We’re just supposed to be in a perpetual state of fear, anxiety & obedience while we’re told that we’re tough, fearless, and resilient in the face of terror. And that life will go on. Until the next attack provides us with our next dose of fear, and the cycle starts all over again. Terrorism is big business, trillions of  dollars in “security”, “defense”, and surveillance spending depend on it.  Terrorism is the Emmanuel Goldstein of our age, a shape-shifting, nebulous and ever-present enemy we’re vigilantly to focus our attention in the stead of multiple global existential threats. This fear is manufactured and wholly preventable. “Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.” –Noam Chomsky. We need to understand and internalize this basic truth if we really want to end the “War On Terror”. We need to stop acting like the terrorism we experience occurs in a vacuum. We need to stop acting like the terrorism we experience is not a response to the terrorism done in our names. We need to close the gap between illusion and reality. “Ignorance is Strength.”

By Tom Engelhardt @ Tomdispatch:

The communist enemy, with the “world’s fourth largest military,” has been trundling missiles around and threatening the United States with nuclear obliteration.  Guam, Hawaii, Washington: all, it claims, are targetable.  The coverage in the media has been hair-raising.  The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam, deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.

Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn’t count on Guam either.

It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre three-generational family cult.  If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,” we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.

In the previous century, there were two devastating global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins.  There was also a “cold war” between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were capable of destroying the planet many times over.  Had you woken up any morning in the years between December 7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading international candidate for America’s Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.

The same would be true for the other candidates for that number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.

All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a “global war on terror.”  We’ve poured money into national security as if there were no tomorrow.  From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere.  We constantly hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.”  And yet, when you knock on the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.

Few in this country have found this striking.  Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden, threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for (and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody century.

You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us — all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face — I think to myself: Where’s the enemy?  And then I wonder: Just what kind of a dream is this that we’re dreaming?

A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home

Let’s admit it: enemies can have their uses.  And let’s admit as well that it’s in the interest of some in our country that we be seen as surrounded by constant and imminent dangers on an enemy-filled planet.  Let’s also admit that the world is and always will be a dangerous place in all sorts of ways.

Still, in American terms, the bloodlettings, the devastations of this new century and the last years of the previous one have been remarkably minimal or distant; some of the worst, as in the multicountry war over the Congo with its more than five million dead have passed us by entirely; some, even when we launched them, have essentially been imperial frontier conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or interventions of little cost (to us) as in Libya, or frontier patrolling operations as in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Northern Africa.  (It was no mistake that, when Washington launched its special operations raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, to get Osama bin Laden, it was given the code name “Geronimo” and the message from the SEAL team recording his death was “Geronimo-E KIA” or “enemy killed in action.”)

And let’s admit as well that, in the wake of those wars and operations, Americans now have more enemies, more angry, embittered people who would like to do us harm than on September 10, 2001.  Let’s accept that somewhere out there are people who, as George W. Bush once liked to say, “hate us” and what we stand for.  (I leave just what we actually stand for to you, for the moment.)

So let’s consider those enemies briefly.  Is there a major state, for instance, that falls into this category, like any of the great warring imperial European powers from the sixteenth century on, or Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union of the Cold War era?  Of course not.

There was admittedly a period when, in order to pump up what we faced in the world, analogies to World War II and the Cold War were rife.  There was, for instance, George W. Bush’s famed rhetorical construct, the Axis of Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), patterned by his speechwriter on the German-Italian-Japanese “axis” of World War II.  It was, of course, a joke construct, if reality was your yardstick.  Iraq and Iran were then enemies.  (Only in the wake of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have they become friends and allies.)  And North Korea had nothing whatsoever to do with either of them.  Similarly, the American occupation of Iraq was once regularly compared to the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan, just as Saddam Hussein had long been presented as a modern Hitler.

In addition, al-Qaeda-style Islamists were regularly referred to as Islamofascists, while certain military and neocon types with a desire to turn the war on terror into a successor to the Cold War took to calling it “the long war,” or even “World War IV.”  But all of this was so wildly out of whack that it simply faded away.

As for who’s behind that door marked “Enemy,” if you opened it, what would you find?  As a start, scattered hundreds or, as the years have gone by, thousands of jihadis, mostly in the poorest backlands of the planet and with little ability to do anything to the United States.  Next, there were a few minority insurgencies, including the Taliban and allied forces in Afghanistan and separate Sunni and Shia ones in Iraq.  There also have been tiny numbers of wannabe Islamic terrorists in the U.S. (once you take away the string of FBI sting operations that have regularly turned hopeless slackers and lost teenagers into the most dangerous of fantasy Muslim plotters).  And then, of course, there are those two relatively hapless regional powers, Iran and North Korea, whose bark far exceeds their potential bite.

The Wizard of Oz on 9/11

The U.S., in other words, is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any moment in the last century.  There is no other imperial power on the planet capable of, or desirous of, taking on American power directly, including China.  It’s true that, on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers with box cutters produced a remarkable, apocalyptic, and devastating TV show in which almost 3,000 people died.  When those giant towers in downtown New York collapsed, it certainly had the look of nuclear disaster (and in those first days, the media was filled was nuclear-style references), but it wasn’t actually an apocalyptic event.

The enemy was still nearly nonexistent.  The act cost bin Laden only an estimated $400,000-$500,000, though it would lead to a series of trillion-dollar wars.  It was a nightmarish event that had a malign Wizard of Oz quality to it: a tiny man producing giant effects.  It in no way endangered the state.  In fact, it would actually strengthen many of its powers.  It put a hit on the economy, but a passing one.  It was a spectacular and spectacularly gruesome act of terror by a small, murderous organization then capable of mounting a major operation somewhere on Earth only once every couple of years.  It was meant to spread fear, but nothing more.

When the towers came down and you could suddenly see to the horizon, it was still, in historical terms, remarkably enemy-less.  And yet 9/11 was experienced here as a Pearl Harbor moment — a sneak attack by a terrifying enemy meant to disable the country.  The next day, newspaper headlines were filled with variations on “A Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century.”  If it was a repeat of December 7, 1941, however, it lacked an imperial Japan or any other state to declare war on, although one of the weakest partial states on the planet, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, would end up filling the bill adequately enough for Americans.

To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major dangers in U.S. life: suicide by gun and death by car.  In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns.  (In the same year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.)  In 2011, 32,000 Americans died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was again on the rise in the first six months of 2012).  In other words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six 9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths.  Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more than 110 planes for vehicular deaths.

And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them).  No one has built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal with them.  In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown debate over gun control has made all too clear.  On both scores, Americans have decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.