Clicky

Shipping News and Reviews

How the United States terrorized itself

Journalist Spencer Ackerman's new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, advances the vital work of America's global counter-terrorism campaigns with the history of politics and race in the two decades since Attacks of 11. Ackerman's core argument is that the post-9/11 wars helped radicalize the right wing in the United States, driving them towards nativism, Islamophobia, and a paranoid sense of civilizational decline that was a political niche for former President Donald Trump created. It's an important book – but one that sometimes falls within the blanket generalizations that marked the post-9/11 era itself.

Ackerman claims that even if counterterrorism is no longer the governing paradigm of US foreign policy, the United States is still operating in a political era shaped by terrorist response. This open, amorphous conflict became a political resource for various ideologues and office seekers. The campaign network known as the "war on terror" has been used for a number of purposes, many of which have been racialized: limiting immigration to prevent what some have termed "white substitution," liberating American culture from what it is supposed to be Decadence and dissolution and the forging of a narrative of the conflict as the struggle of the West against Islamic civilization. The ideological and political baggage associated with the wars after September 11, 2001 not only made the conflict theoretically limitless, but also encouraged large parts of the country to view Muslims, immigrants, liberals and other groups as enemies.

Trump appealed directly to this complex, demonizing immigrants as a national security threat, spreading the lie that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, banning Muslims from the country, and portraying the US political elite as weak and incompetent . Ackerman reveals that Trump did not seek to end America's sprawling global anti-terrorist campaigns, as his defenders sometimes claim, but to intensify their violence and use their surveillance and law enforcement tools against his domestic enemies. The homeland impact of the “war on terror” mentality peaked in mid-2020 when Trump and his allies used militarized law enforcement agencies against protests against racial injustice, often with the same equipment that the US military used in Iraq and Afghanistan . Ultimately, Trump's rise and the resulting catastrophes such as the travel ban for several Muslim countries, the separation of families at the border and the January 6 uprising cannot be understood outside the context of the radicalizing effects of the wars after September 11, 2001.

Journalist Spencer Ackerman's new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, advances the vital work of America's global counter-terrorism campaigns with the history of politics and race in the two decades since Attacks of 11. Ackerman's core argument is that the post-9/11 wars helped radicalize the right wing in the United States, driving them towards nativism, Islamophobia, and a paranoid sense of civilizational decline that was a political niche for former President Donald Trump created. It's an important book – but one that sometimes falls within the blanket generalizations that marked the post-9/11 era itself.

Ackerman claims that even if counterterrorism is no longer the governing paradigm of US foreign policy, the United States is still operating in a political era shaped by terrorist response. This open, amorphous conflict became a political resource for various ideologues and office seekers. The campaign network known as the "war on terror" has been used for a number of purposes, many of which have been racialized: limiting immigration to prevent what some have termed "white substitution," liberating American culture from what it is supposed to be Decadence and dissolution and the forging of a narrative of the conflict as the struggle of the West against Islamic civilization. The ideological and political baggage associated with the wars after September 11, 2001 not only made the conflict theoretically limitless, but also encouraged large parts of the country to view Muslims, immigrants, liberals and other groups as enemies.

Trump appealed directly to this complex, demonizing immigrants as a national security threat, spreading the lie that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, banning Muslims from the country, and portraying the US political elite as weak and incompetent . Ackerman reveals that Trump did not seek to end America's sprawling global anti-terrorist campaigns, as his defenders sometimes claim, but to intensify their violence and use their surveillance and law enforcement tools against his domestic enemies. The homeland impact of the “war on terror” mentality peaked in mid-2020 when Trump and his allies used militarized law enforcement agencies against protests against racial injustice, often with the same equipment that the US military used in Iraq and Afghanistan . Ultimately, Trump's rise and the resulting catastrophes such as the travel ban for several Muslim countries, the separation of families at the border and the January 6 uprising cannot be understood outside the context of the radicalizing effects of the wars after September 11, 2001.

Ackerman stresses the dangers of building a massive national security state because, as bourgeois libertarians warned in the early years of these campaigns, the apparatus could one day be turned over to an authoritarian demagogue. Obama missed several opportunities to reset the wars, particularly after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and the Democrats continued to support broad executive powers in the fight against terrorism even while Trump was president. Ackerman accuses the Democrats of making the conflict "sustainable" by focusing more on surveillance, special forces and drone strikes than on military occupations, a shift that continued the conflict and retained excessive executive powers.

Ackerman's most important contribution is to incorporate race into the history of the American wars after September 11th. He begins by comparing the US response to the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City with the response to September 11th. Although these crimes were on a different scale, it shows that Oklahoma City has not resulted in a massive increase in government powers to combat anti-government terrorism by white supremacy, which has been downplayed by politicians and law enforcement officials.

In fact, the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act focused on expanding the government's ability to deal with foreign terrorist groups, despite the native status of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh has been portrayed as a lone wolf rather than an actor in a larger movement of white supremacy. In contrast, Islamist terrorism has been explained, particularly, but not exclusively on the right, as a symptom of a wider range of pathologies in Islam that require major military intervention abroad and increased counter-terrorism efforts domestically.

As Ackerman points out, the violence of white supremacy continued to be minimized in the decades that followed, even as that violence increased and was legitimized by Trump, culminating in Charlottesville in 2017 and the 2021 Capitol Uprising, both of which Trump defended or apologized. Race and religion have clearly shaped the way the United States has diagnosed and handled various threats, and the void in their responses has created a massive vulnerability for democracy. Despite all the horrors of September 11th and subsequent attacks around the world, al-Qaeda has never been able to threaten constitutional and democratic processes as a radicalized white nationalist right has done in recent years.

Despite these valuable contributions, this book has several problems. Numerous statements require qualification, such as the claim that "patriotic vengeance fueled the war on terror". This may be true for many Americans, but the United States had a solid moral and legal foundation in prosecuting the perpetrators of 9/11 as an act of justice. In another case, Ackerman claims that the United States "killed at least 801,000 people" in its interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and four other countries. While the United States may share responsibility for creating these conflicts, most of the actual killings were committed by sectarian participants in the Iraqi civil wars and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ackerman's overall arguments are important, but his occasionally overheated rhetoric risks limiting the appeal of this book to those who already share his policies.

Ackerman thoroughly documents the expansion of detention, surveillance and war powers for counter-terrorism at home and abroad and proposes that this apparatus be dismantled. This criticism is justified, but it would be stronger if he investigated the extent and nature of the terrorist threat since 9/11. The United States has been beaten by mostly domestic terrorists on multiple occasions since 9/11, although many of these actors have been inspired by foreign groups. There have also been attempts by terrorists trained abroad, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Many attacks, such as Faisal Shahzad's attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010, were only prevented by citizen intervention and the incompetence of the terrorists themselves. A study by Erik Dahl of the U.S. 2011 Naval Postgraduate School found there were 176 unsuccessful terrorist attacks against the United States between 1987 and 2010, 73 percent of which Dahl describes as being foiled by intelligence and / or law enforcement.

The underlying assumption of this book is that Islamist terrorism is an overrated threat that makes America's global counter-terrorism campaigns a massive and unnecessary overreaction. Undoubtedly, terrorism has monopolized US foreign policy and politics to a disproportionate degree, especially given the massive overshoot of the Iraq war, as terrorism has caused relatively few casualties in the United States since September 11th. However, to prove this argument requires a clear account of the magnitude of the threat, not only in terms of successful attacks, but also in terms of the total number of attacks attempted, especially those that went without the action of law enforcement or the U.S. military would have been successful. Just because this problem is exaggerated, as scientists like John Mueller and Mark Stewart have argued, doesn't mean it is insignificant.

This problem leads to another: the lack of clarity as to whether or not the entire US counter-terrorism effort after 9/11 was a mistake. Ackerman advocates that “the entire war on terror should be abolished” but does not specify what that means. Should the United States return to a law enforcement counter-terrorism paradigm while reducing the role of the military? Was the initial advance in Afghanistan a mistake despite the presence of core al-Qaeda? Should all violent empowerment and executive powers be reset to September 10, 2001? Ackerman's book seems to condemn all military interventions, but it doesn't exactly do it.

Furthermore, Ackerman's portrayal of these conflicts as being one of racism and Islamophobia motivating the recent history of conservatism too much. They were largely motivated by an ambitious moral universalism, particularly during the first invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol had maintained since the end of the Cold War that human rights and democracy were universally applicable to all peoples and that the United States had a responsibility to overthrow tyrants and spread democracy.

The Iraq war, the main flaw in American conflicts after September 11th, was also rooted in a naive universalism and messianic notion of US power such as Islamophobia or racism, views that reject universalist obligations. The George W. Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq was based on the idea that democracy, human rights and capitalism could thrive in Arab and Muslim societies, and that the spread of democracy in the region would address the root causes of extremism. In February 2003 he made this connection explicitly: "The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed murder ideologies." After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush relied more on rhetoric democracy, which was an important part of the government's mindset before the invasion. Bush declared in June 2002: “The requirements of freedom apply unreservedly to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as the people in every nation. "

In contrast, anti-universalist paleoconservatives such as political scientist Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan and authors of the American Conservative Magazine were more likely to oppose the Iraq invasion, partly because they believed that liberal democracy was an exclusively Western value that would not be transferred to Islamic societies. The Iraq war may have been a product of US idealism rather than prejudice, although both factors must be considered.

In addition, Ackerman overlooks the extent to which Bush and many other conservatives have tried to refute Islamophobia and enforce post-9/11 Muslim equality. Bush appeared with Muslim leaders shortly after 9/11 claiming that "these acts of violence against innocents violate the basic tenets of the Islamic faith".

A more precise formulation would be that the wars after September 11th began as a moral universalistic crusade in which Bush tried to marginalize members of the conservative camp who wanted to portray him as a civilizational struggle with capitalized Islam. The failure of this project then shifted the momentum to the nativist, proto-Trumpist right that wanted a brutal war against terrorists without any democratic or human rights agenda. Overall, this book could have benefited from a greater recognition of fractionalism and the diversity of the modern US right.

The Taliban's victory in Afghanistan makes this book particularly timely as the United States rethinks its global role. The cost of American wars after September 11th is usually counted in US lives, resources, and global standing, but Ackerman rightly counts the weakening of democracy and the fueling of racism as an additional cost. The comprehensive nature and adequate scope of this book make it interesting to those who know little about these conflicts, and its innovative reasoning makes it important reading for scholars and policymakers alike. Despite some problems, Ackerman's analysis remains a touchstone for future research and warns of how ill-defined, overly ambitious foreign policies often return home with dire consequences.

Comments are closed.