Adam Fleming Petty
How to characterize the last two decades of history? The Age of Online, maybe? For journalist and author Spencer Ackerman, the past twenty years of U.S. hegemony can be construed as a coherent historical process. The title of Ackerman’s new book offers a shorthand for this darkening 21st-century zeitgeist: Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.
Ackerman is a national security reporter for The Daily Beast. He has made a name for himself covering the excesses of the U.S. security state. Ackerman’s coverage of the global surveillance disclosures made in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations won him a Pulitzer Prize. Just as Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” perceived discrete, seemingly isolated events as a single catastrophe, Ackerman relates a story in which all the players—Republican and Democrat, public sector and private—play roles in one ongoing tragedy. He writes a totalizing narrative of the War on Terror; far from reductive, the panoptic view is clarifying.
Since 9/11, every administration has perpetuated the War on Terror. Some accelerated it, some tried to quell it, but none have managed to win it. According to Ackerman, this was inevitable. From the very start, the War on Terror lacked a definition, a rough draft for international conflict. What, exactly, was terror? How does one wage war on terror? And, perhaps more to the point, what would victory even look like? The war’s vague parameters and poorly defined objectives will offer “neither peace nor victory.” This is the refrain of Ackerman’s book, summarizing the resulting stasis in which the U.S. has been mired for two decades.
Ackerman opens his book slightly earlier. As a prologue, he relates the defining act of terror of the ’90s: the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1994. Timothy McVeigh, following his capture, was portrayed as the proverbial lone wolf. This obscured McVeigh’s connections with white supremacist organizations, including Elohim City in northeastern Oklahoma, where a man calling himself Grandpa Millar proselytized “Christian Identity” ideology. Viewing white men as innately superior, Christian Identity presented a genuine threat. But Congress failed to appreciate this threat. Legislation that would have curbed white supremacist terror was watered down. Why? As Ackerman writes, “When terrorism was white—when its identity and its purpose claimed the same heritage as a substantial amount of the dominant American racial caste—America sympathized with principled objections against unleashing the coercive, punitive, and violent powers of the state.”
But when those committing terrorism were not white, the violent powers of the state were fully brought to bear.
9/11 effectively gave George W. Bush carte blanche to wage war wherever and however he pleased. His administration’s declaration of a “War on Terror” sounded good on TV. But in addition to being damningly vague, the term rankled those it was meant to please. Those to the right of Bush saw Islam, a global religion with more than one billion adherents, as the enemy. That was the war of civilizations that they wanted, and they grew frustrated with Bush for failing to name the adversary, specifically, as “radical Islamic terror.” Years later, Trump would use that very term, “appeasing the right wing who thought Bush had been too soft,” Ackerman writes. The War on Terror, as a term, also rankled the security state, for different reasons. A war with no clear objective and no precise combatants would almost certainly drag on.
A war where anyone with an Arabic-sounding name could be the enemy led the U.S. into some world-historical crimes. One plank of the Iraq War’s rickety justification platform held that there was potential collusion between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “You can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the War on Terror,” as Bush said. But this was, of course, laughably false. Hussein and bin Laden despised one another. Hussein, a nationalist authoritarian, rightly saw bin Laden’s brand of stateless, transglobal fanaticism as a threat to his own power. During the Gulf War in 1991, bin Laden even tried to declare war on Hussein. Incensed that Western powers were trampling the sacred ground of Kuwait to oust Iraqi forces, bin Laden unsuccessfully petitioned Saudi officials to grant him an army that would rout Hussein. But the Bush Administration had no patience for such internecine nuance.
As we all know, what was supposed to be a victory lap turned into a quagmire. But the U.S. was not deterred. Victory, nebulous in the first place, was continually redefined. Their efforts resulted in the collapse of Iraqi infrastructure and indiscriminate loss of life. But a key part of the story that Ackerman tells takes place back home. The nativist far right chalked up the war’s failures to what they saw as the administration’s squeamishness. Radical Islamic terror was an existential threat, and refusing to treat it as such would surely doom the American hegemon. Bush stoked these nativist elements, believing a speedy victory would cement their support for him. When victory didn’t arrive, they began looking for someone to blame. They wouldn’t have to look far.
As Ackerman notes, in 2008, Obama looked like a savior to the antiwar left, not without good reason. Elected to the Senate in 2006, he wasn’t even around to vote on the Iraq War. Democratic luminaries like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden all voted in favor, whether out of political expediency or a genuine belief in the American exceptionalist project of nation-building. (Bernie Sanders, notably, voted against going to war.) But Obama had no such albatross around his neck. He seemed like an emissary from the tolerant, diverse future, when tribal divisions would be set aside in favor of reason. He was elected on promises to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and end the war in Iraq. His promises went largely undelivered.
It’s hard to say how much of Obama’s failure in the War on Terror is owed to his own actions, and how much to the recalcitrance of a resurgent nativism. The qualities that endeared him to liberals—his cosmopolitanism, his multiracial background, his professorial air—terrified many on the right. Immediately, the conspiracy meme of “birtherism” took hold, claiming that Obama was a foreign-born alien, ineligible to become president. And he was a communist. And he was a Muslim. And he would install Sharia law. During the 2008 campaign, no one articulated these fears better than Sarah Palin. “As ignorant as she was rabid, Palin knew how instinctively how to wield the War on Terror against Obama,” Ackerman writes. It was a formula that Trump would go on to perfect.
But even considering the obstacles in the political landscape, Obama proved to be an immense disappointment to those who had seen him as a savior. As Ackerman notes, “…by virtue of who he was—prone to interpretive nuance, allergic to ideology, liberal—Obama was disinclined to take an abolitionist approach to the War on Terror.” He did scale back the excesses of torture that occurred under Bush. But he ramped up the war in other disturbing realms: chiefly, drone strikes. Obama ordered hundreds throughout his administration, resulting in an estimated 10-20,000 casualties, thousands of them innocent civilians.
Obama also infamously targeted an American citizen. Anwar al-Awlaki, born in the U.S., had moved to Yemen to join al-Qaeda. (Later, a CIA drone also killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old American-born son.) Summarily executing an U.S. citizen without due process was a chilling escalation. The Obama Administration’s whole approach to the War on Terror was marked by moral cowardice. They didn’t try to win it. They didn’t even try to end it. Instead, they managed it.
Democrats, having largely turned their backs on labor constituencies to become the party of the liberal elite, approached the war as an HR problem. They rebranded it for public consumption. Even when Obama delivered arguably the most decisive victory in the war—executing bin Laden in 2011—he declined to dismantle the war machinery that had been amassing over the last decade. And perhaps he couldn’t. Perhaps, at that point, the machine was too large, too unwieldy, for anyone to shut it off.
Which is not to say that there weren’t those who tried to do so. Just about the only heroic figures in Reign of Terror are, essentially, low-level war machinists who threw wrenches into the very cogs they operated. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Dan Jones brought to light the gross overreaches of the Forever War. Manning publicized the unlawful killings of Iraqis by American soldiers; Snowden documented the invasive practices of the surveillance state, which had grown exponentially during the war. Jones attempted to show that torture practices were far more brutal, and futile, than originally portrayed. For their troubles, they were hounded, imprisoned, demonized, exiled, and threatened by every last agency in the Beltway. As Ackerman writes, “Their revelations did more than any previous activism to usher in an era of exhaustion with the War on Terror. In that manner they reinvigorated the moral imagination of a left that would demand a politics of abolition.”
The right grew exhausted with the War on Terror too, for different reasons. Ackerman writes:
“Their grievances channeled the politics of the War on Terror toward a new destination, a place more viscerally satisfying than the foreign wars, which had proven agonizing, humiliating, and disillusioning. There was an expanding set of enemies at home, and now there were new tools to confront them.”
The War on Terror was coming home, and Trump welcomed it in.
It seems almost quaint to recall that, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was portrayed as an isolationist, one who wouldn’t mire the U.S. in yet another losing war. “Donald the Dove,” in Maureen Dowd’s memorably insipid phrase. The mainstream media simply couldn’t make sense of a presidential candidate, and a Republican one at that, speaking ill of the war effort. But Trump was simply harnessing nativist hostilities to his own end. Ackerman points out that, “His great insight was that the jingoistic politics of the War on Terror did not have to be tied to the War on Terror itself. That enabled him to tell a tale of lost greatness: ‘We don’t win anymore.’”
Brutality was nothing new to the War on Terror. But even during Bush’s first term, when enthusiasm for the war was at an all-time high, there remained a certain amount of circumspection when it came to the hideousness that the war entailed. Writes Ackerman, “The brutality at Abu Ghraib in some measure provided release for the frustrations of a war that did not unfold as its architects had promised.” Such brazenness shamed many in the Bush Administration. But Trump would revel in the brutality.
Throughout Reign of Terror, the vast arsenal at the hands of the U.S. security state, from drones to surveillance programs to ICE, exists as a kind of Chekhov’s gun. The gun has gone off again and again, whether in the form of ICE deportations or the police squads that terrorized the protesters in Ferguson, MO in 2014, during the Obama Administration. But in the third act of Reign of Terror, none other than Donald Trump strides onto the stage and picks it up from the mantel. If there is a difference in the way Trump wielded the gun, it’s that he did so onstage, as it were. Earlier administrations blanched at and obscured some of the brutality waged in the name of fighting terror. But for Trump, the brutality was the point. When he fired the gun, he made sure everyone saw it.
His targets, however, were not abroad. They were here, at home. His two primary domestic enemies were immigrants and the Black Lives Matter movement. The full force of the surveillance state was used to deport immigrants, separating entire families at the border. Activists protesting police violence were met with flash grenades, officers with assault rifles, and military-grade armored vehicles. Indeed, vehicles used in Iraq were sold to U.S. police departments under the auspices of combatting terror on the home front—a process of militarization that had actually been initially fostered by Obama. As Ackerman writes, “Trump had learned the foremost lesson of 9/11, that the terrorists were whomever you said they were.”
It is this novelistic sense of sweep, of the mistakes of one generation being visited upon the next, that distinguishes Reign of Terror from other writing on the subject. Books about Trump often treat him as a singular figure, a discontinuity with American exceptionalism. But in Ackerman’s telling, Trump is a culmination of a process decades in the making, in which the fears unleashed by 9/11 cause the U.S. to see terrorists everywhere. At home, the Trump Administration followed the logic of administrations past, raining the full force of the security state down upon immigrants and activists. That such a ploy was pulled while the white supremacists who constitute the true terror threat often remain free from state repression points to the irony of the United States’s real motivations in responding to terror.
Trump is gone now, and Joe Biden is president. As Ackerman astutely notes, Biden was an early architect of the War on Terror, and voted for the War on Iraq nearly twenty years ago. But the problem is far larger than the whims of individual leaders. The gun is back on on the mantel, awaiting use by Republicans and Democrats alike. The War on Terror, a conflict that offers neither peace nor victory, will only end when the U.S. disarms itself.♦
Adam Fleming Petty is the author of a novella, Followers. His essays have appeared in Vulture, Commonweal, Real Life, and other venues. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.