At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”
Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.
“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.
Hagel wasn’t so much fear-mongering as he was fear-tending. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne observed a century ago. When at war—or about to go to war—the state craves greater acquiescence from its citizens and greater powers, and granted that acquiescence and those new powers it grows ever larger. Every now and again a foe like the USSR appears, one with 12,000 nuclear warheads ready for delivery, which makes the job of fear-tending simple. At other times, as was the case last week at the Pentagon, it takes a supreme act of rhetoric to instill exploitable fear in the public. The textbook example of this came several months after the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address amalgamated Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and North Korea, and “their terrorist allies” into a unified “axis of evil.”
When Hagel poured his “beyond and everything” summation last week, he did so into an emotional cauldron. Less than two days before, the Islamic State had released its execution video of journalist James Foley, terrorizing the people who wouldn’t watch it and mortifying those who did. In that environment, the secretary of defense could have said U.S. intelligence had determined that the Islamic State was kidnapping orphans and loading them on a streetcar-to-hell it had built in its spare time, and the American public would have believed him. I might have believed him!