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In the spring of 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt advised Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” His prescient warning sums up the argument Joseph Masco extends in The Theater of Operations, a compelling account of how affective Cold War politics transformed the US into a security state whose existence and annihilation hinge on a volatile sentiment: fear.
Roosevelt’s predicament may have been a world removed from the exigencies of the Cold War and the global War on Terror, but his definition of fear as a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (as quoted in Friedman, Harper, and Preble 2010:242), eerily resonates with the institutional and policy failures that have dictated security strategies across a planetary “theater of operations.” This book’s title, which alludes to the military term pertaining to an area of intervention, also signifies a public stage upon which the dramatic destruction of both the US and the earth is continuously imagined, rehearsed, and reinforced. The captive audience, interested in self-preservation and survival, thus legitimizes, often unwittingly, the institutional fear-mongering that characterizes the new normative state of volatility and crisis. Masco’s exposition is guided by two central questions: How did the US come to be governed by fear-based decision making? And how do Americans, as constituents, support and perpetuate a regime that has, in many instances, run afoul of its own democratic principles?
To answer such questions, Masco introduces the centrality of existential threats and the affected state of a security-conscious public from the Cold War until the present. Chapter 1 provides foundational logic for the [End Page 823] security discourse and policies that emerged from the development of the atomic bomb, in which America’s impending nuclear holocaust was constantly reinforced through visual media campaigns by the US civil defense program. In Chapter 2, Masco looks at the affective bio-politics linking nuclear war with planetary destruction. Again, he details the indiscreet and indiscriminate campaigns launched by Hollywood and the national media in producing films such as Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004)—evocative fictions that terrorized with the fear of possibility. Chapter 3 focuses on the role of state secrecy in giving de facto privilege to government agencies to assess and respond to perceived threats—dangers that can be neither fully disclosed nor explained to the public, but which nonetheless constitute an ever-present rationale for the government and/or military to intervene on behalf of the public’s safety. This is demonstrated more clearly in Chapter 4 as Masco uses the concept of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and biosecurity threats to show the extent to which knowledge and expertise are sidelined, revised, or produced as a means of ensuring the existence of the security state. In his concluding chapter, “Living Terror,” Masco provides an account of the first decade of the global War on Terror, the national security infrastructure it has enabled, and the evolution of American life into a battle for survival.
A critical aspect of Masco’s analysis centers upon the government’s use of resources, such as war-gaming and mass media, to nourish the belief that the planet is constantly besieged by nuclear and biosecurity threats. This perpetuates a fear that emanates from the days of the Cold War, a period that altered America’s security policy from one of preventative deterrence to one modeled upon reactive pre-emption. In a simple, yet striking, statement Masco contends that “for it to be possible to declare war on terror, terror must be made manifest as a structure one can feel with some regularity; for an emotion to be an enemy, it must be made ever present” (25). And it is. From security requirements at national airports to televised nature shows featuring “Doomsday Preppers” and “Killer Ants,” the implication that society is immersed in peril has become so normal that it is hardly noticeable. Masco draws...