OCTOBER 12, 2021
IN THE LAST chapter of his first book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, Spencer Ackerman reminds his readers of Bernie Sanders’s June 2019 assertion: “There is a straight line from the decision to reorient U.S. national-security strategy around terrorism after 9/11 to placing migrant children in cages on our southern border.”
But Ackerman takes the analysis further in both directions, charting a path from Timothy McVeigh’s April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. The first major work to consider the War on Terror in its entirety, Reign of Terror documents the last 20 years of state-sponsored violence at a blistering pace, creating a near-constant cycle of recollection and frustration for the reader. Ackerman’s real achievement is a commitment to scale, an expansiveness that encourages readers to see the long view. The results are terrifying:
In response to 9/11, America had invaded and occupied two countries, bombed four others for years, killed at least 801,000 people — a full total may never be known — terrified millions more, tortured hundreds, detained thousands, reserved unto itself the right to create a global surveillance dragnet, disposed of its veterans with cruel indifference, called an entire global religion criminal or treated it that way, made migration into a crime, and declared most of its actions to be legal and constitutional. It created at least 21 million refugees and spent as much as $6 trillion on its operations. Through it all, America said other people, the ones staring down the barrel of the War on Terror, were the barbarians.
Calling other people barbarians empowers a worldview that enables the abuse of state power, one in which “we” must do whatever it takes to protect against “them.” Ackerman exposes this kind of thinking without succumbing to it. By fighting an amorphous concept like terrorism, domestic political rivals “would never be able to agree on when it could be won.” Ackerman portrays such imprecision not as a bug but as a feature, perhaps the defining feature, of the War on Terror. This war could therefore never be stopped, and politicians who attempted to limit it could be called weak.
Another blowback: The discount sale of military hardware to local police units accelerated the militarization of American streets. Accompanying the material of war, Ackerman describes how methods were diffused from CIA black sites and conventional battlefields to local law enforcement departments, bringing the war’s tactics, techniques, and procedures to American communities. When cops arrive at the scene of a minor crime, decked out in body armor and driving a Humvee, the material cast off from the War on Terror frames both police behavior and citizen encounters with law enforcement:
Whether at Guantanamo, the black sites, the border, the prisons of ICE, or the streets of Staten Island where the NYPD’s Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death, Trump’s allies, validators, and many of his voters typically saw themselves in the guards, interrogators, or officers, not their typically nonwhite victims.
Such reasoning lends a kind of armchair participatory quality to the War on Terror. Ackerman concludes: “Trump had learned the foremost lesson of 9/11: the terrorists were whomever you said they were.” The same is true for those fighting terrorism. For Trump’s supporters, troops at war, police at home, and the “good guy with a gun” become just variations on a theme, suggesting, perhaps, why Kyle Rittenhouse and the rest of the self-styled “police auxiliary” with him at the Kenosha protest had no fear of confrontation with the police. Supporting a tough-on-terror strongman, adherents believe, approximates wartime service.
In his final chapter, Ackerman considers how the logic of the War on Terror stained the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like the intelligence community distorting its own Iraq findings to please George W. Bush, the Trump White House could not function without approval from a single person. Trump plowed ahead and “proclaimed victory over the coronavirus” on May 11, 2020, his own “Mission Accomplished” moment. For all the business and school closures, the response to the global pandemic was too often local, organized with some CDC and NIH guidance but without presidential direction. Too many bristled at the inconvenience, violating health ordinances to get an overdue haircut.
“Yes, I know this book is incomplete,” Ackerman confesses, in what amounts to an unfair self-assessment — what would complete look like? Reign of Terror is the first book of its kind to consider the long war in its near entirety and begin to unpack its legacy. The official response to 9/11 has not stopped for 20 years. The policies, laws, courts, budgets, armed forces, intelligence services, and the vicious logic of the era persist. Indeed, many of the Biden administration’s most vocal critics responded to the recent humanitarian disaster at the Hamid Karzai International Airport not by calling for accountability or demanding a negotiated settlement but by insisting on a re-invasion, as if more war would surely fix the problem. Such calls from both sides of the aisle reflect one of the most chilling aspects of the War on Terror: political consensus. The calls for more violence, more war, sadly proves Ackerman’s point — this book is incomplete because its topic is.
The security state and its proponents deliberately frame the issue of terrorism to their advantage, as if an expensive surveillance and enforcement apparatus were the only possible way to prevent another major attack. Created in response to a perceived threat from outside the United States, the 9/11 response continually seeks new enemies. Ackerman has sketched a chilling first draft of this part of American history, and he has done so with an implicit challenge: how do we make it right?