Pay Any Price

James Risen
James Risen


Pay Any Price, the title of James Risen’s new book documenting the excesses of the security state that the U.S. has become, has a number of significances, from the ironic to the outrageous.

The irony comes from the title’s origin. JFK’s inaugural address in 1961 is best known for his “ask not” challenge to America, but the speech also contained this passage: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

In Pay Any Price, Risen shows with disheartening detail that much of the price of securing the U.S. against the enemies who brought down the “twin towers” and ended the nation’s illusions of invulnerability has been “the survival and success of liberty.” In the years since 9/11, the U.S. has become a country where security trumps liberty.

Another, more concrete way that the title describes the current state of American affairs is the enormous, almost unfathomable cost of assembling and maintaining the new security state. Risen writes that “By 2014, three years after Osama bin Laden’s death, there was still no sign that the business of fear was slowing down. One research and consulting firm predicted that the global market for homeland security and public safety would continue to undergo dramatic growth for years to come, and would reach $546 billion by 2022.” Direct spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been more than compounded by the billions of dollars that have been distributed to government, military, and (preferentially) corporate entities dedicated to protecting Americans by enclosing them in a fortress of fear, distrust, and surveillance. As Risen writes: “Fear sells. Fear has convinced the White House and Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars more money than anyone knows what to do with into counterterrorism and homeland security programs, often with little management or oversight, and often to the detriment of the Americans they are supposed to protect.”

The third meaning of the phrase “pay any price” is less directly calculable but far more troubling. The public ideals of the United States have been thoroughly violated by drone strikes, rendition, torture, corruption — and, not often discussed but greatly significant, “neocon” politics and market-driven capitalism.

Perhaps Risen’s most telling criticism is the fact that the “war on terror” has become a permanent, self-perpetuating crisis, a never-ending conflict in which Americans accept their loss of liberty, of privacy and freedom of action, as the price of a dubious security. Starting when George W. Bush decided to treat 9/11 as a military attack and not a criminal act, this eternal battle has now become self-propelled and self-justifying. And Barack Obama, who was so quickly and so thoroughly recruited into the culture of conflict in the American government that the prison at Guantanamo, due to be closed as his first executive action, is still open almost six years later, has only perpetuated and strengthened the fear-driven security state of which he is the titular head. Risen writes:

“President Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS in the summer of 2014 raised the potential for a completely new war on terror, without ever having declared an end to the previous one. It also signified a questionable whack-a-mole strategy, in which the U.S. targets Islamic militant insurgencies before they ever attack the United States, just in case they might do so in the future. That strategy would almost guarantee that those groups will eventually turn against us, and that the endless war on terror would remain endless.”

It’s one thing to make claims like these, quite another to prove them. This Risen does, using his journalistic skills and sources to document his charges, working primarily through extensively detailed exemplary cases. Instead of just tossing around the usual liberal complaints against the security state, Risen gives us the nuts and bolts of government documents, court cases, military reports, and interviews with principal players. This rich detailing raises his accusations above protest to the level of the best investigative reporting.

Pay Any Price is an important and troubling documentation of our neighbour nation’s self-harming. It should be read by everyone who wishes to get beyond the hype and the rhetoric and see the true scope of the costs of the permanent “war on terror.”




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