Tom Engelhardt comes from a background of traditional journalism, but for more than a decade his work has centered around his website TomDispatch—and it shows. The United States of Fear is written with the casual tone and stream-of-consciousness structure one usually sees in blogs and on websites, because it’s composed of articles published through TomDispatch1. That’s not a fatal flaw: Engelhardt is well-spoken and clearly knows his subject, and his informal style means that he never sounds dry or technical, even if it does come across as more of a ramble than a text.
This is not a reference book, despite the index. Engelhardt doesn’t formally cite his sources (the original online columns do have some linked references). What it is, however, is a reflection on the serious changes in American society since 9/11, and in particular the way American society has allowed those changes, like the frog in hot water, not noticing how radically bizarre things have become. The reflection is given depth by Engelhardt’s comparisons to other 20th century conflicts and their effects on society, which Engelhardt remembers (though sometimes through the eyes of a child). His references include Cold War monster movies and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
Engelhardt covers the current “warscape”, from the formally declared conflicts to the shadow wars in places like Yemen. He is highly critical of the US Republican Party and the warmongering of Republican governments, but doesn’t refrain from turning the same critical lens on the Obama administration, which he maintains has expanded the “War on Terror.”
Reading Engelhardt, I get the same feeling as I did when watching Fahrenheit 9/11: part of my brain is slightly impatient, well aware of the excesses of the American government in this era of the war on nouns; part is fascinated by the ever-expanding stupidity of those excesses, even though they don’t surprise me; and the last part is compiling a list of friends and relatives who need this book. There’s always something new to be learned, and Engelhardt is skilled at fitting concrete (horrifying) trivia into his quasi-memoire.
1 Thirty-one of the thirty-three pieces, and one was previously published in Harper’s Magazine. Engelhardt explains this in his “Note on the Text”.