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A novel of the paranoid US security state


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In Public Books, Travis Chi Wing Lau reflects on the recent novel Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek, which imagines a future America in which Muslims have been herded into concentration camps after a nuclear terrorist attack. The novel, writes Chi Wing Lau, is a chillingly realistic projection of the paranoid “national security” logic that has shaped US foreign and domestic policy since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 9/11. An excerpt:

Since the Second World War, the concept of national security has come to encompass an increasingly diffuse array of what political theorists have described as political, military, and economic projections of power. These projections serve to respond to what nations define as “crises”; most importantly, to counter threats perceived to be both possible and imminent. As such, many of the discussions surrounding national security have often focused on what constitutes a threat and what policies should be adopted to adequately respond to such threats, real or imagined. National security crisis narratives like George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” depend on a fearmongering inevitability: the US homeland has been attacked, is under attack, and will continue to be attacked if we do not preemptively act to diffuse threats. Crucial to the operation of security is its imaginative projections of threat, which then come to justify often extreme means of crisis prevention framed as necessary and ultimately salvific. Security, from the Latin securitas, meaning “freedom from anxiety or care,” seems to be a particularly perverse form of wishful thinking.

Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, But Burning unearths the logics underpinning our conception of security by presciently imagining a paranoid, Trumpian America in 2038, where Muslims have been sent to relocation camps on old Indian reservations in the western US after a nuclear blast detonates over the Golden Gate Bridge. This “8/11” catastrophe replaces 9/11 in this universe, but the sociopolitical aftermath is even more disturbing. The United States has fractured into a collection of loosely bound territories (divided between the “Original Thirteen” Colonies and the “Acquired Territories”) and islamophobia has become de rigueur. The Muslim world has consolidated into an ISIS-like caliphate threatening to wage global war through organized terrorism. The story follows the Wakefield family, particularly through the perspective of 12-year-old Dorian, who discovers he has a new neighbor, Karim, a Muslim orphan recently adopted by a Gulf War veteran named Will. The tension in the novel centers on these two young boys as they navigate a radicalized world that swings between white supremacy and jihadist terrorism. Amidst this climate of violence and xenophobia, the two grapple profoundly with a mutual sense of loss: Dorian is haunted by the memory of his sister, Skyler, who died in the San Francisco terrorist attack and whose existence is afterwards denied by his parents, while Karim becomes increasingly vengeful about his family’s murder by US-sanctioned drone attacks. Yet the two boys lack a space and time to mourn, for they consistently feel the pressure of a cruel world that demands them to be ever vigilant about what dangers may literally lurk around the corner from their homes. “What are we living in now, if not fear?” asks Mitchell Wakefield, Dorian’s father, during a moment of private reflection. An overwhelming alarmism defines Hrbek’s world.