Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump
by Spencer Ackerman
Viking, 2021, 448 pp.
On the heels of the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraqis plundered and burned government offices, banks, businesses, and hospitals. Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, responded:
While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. And I don’t think there’s anyone in any of those pictures . . . [who wouldn’t] accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.
In Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, Spencer Ackerman repurposes Rumsfeld’s words in his chapter on the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. That juxtaposition between post-invasion Iraq and the Black Lives Matter uprising encapsulates the thesis of Ackerman’s sweeping history of America’s early-twenty-first-century wars. Ackerman details not just how the reactionary mindset and methods of the War on Terror have been brought home, but also how U.S.-led militarism diverts liberationist energies abroad while containing or distorting them at national borders.
Ackerman begins his striking prologue with the story of what was at that point “the worst terrorist attack in American history”: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed 168 lives, with hundreds of others maimed or dismembered. Its perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was a veteran of the first Gulf War, a white supremacist, and an associate of a robust far-right network with the Christian Identity movement at its center. His two accomplices, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, were Army pals. Yet journalists and officials were reluctant to explore the significance of these facts and instead tended to treat McVeigh as a curious loner.
The days after the bombing, before McVeigh was identified as the suspect, politicians from both parties, along with FBI agents, blamed the mass murder on Muslims. (They had in mind the culprits behind the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.) One pundit claimed—without any grounding—that Oklahoma City was “probably considered one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East.” Another called for the mass surveillance or assassination of threatening foreigners. Law enforcement recorded an uptick in instances of Islamophobic harassment nationwide. And a year later, in a prelude to the 2001 Patriot Act, Congress passed the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, authorizing the FBI and federal prosecutors to spy on and prosecute any Muslim suspected of association with “international terrorists.”
Ackerman goes on to chronicle the boomerang effects of militarized weaponry, tactics, and culture. In this project, Reign of Terror joins the scholarship of historians like Kathleen Belew and Karen J. Greenberg, along with many other academics and reporters cited by Ackerman. But Ackerman insists on an even more discomfiting verdict: the U.S. security policies that have contributed to the hollowing out of American democracy and encouraged the rise of Donald Trump and the far right are part of a longer story of domination that can be traced back to the nation’s founding as a settler-colonial project and slaveholding behemoth. The title of the book itself, an explicit reference to the French Revolution, is an implicit jibe at how perseverations over the crimes of lowlier challengers can obscure the more lasting cruelties of the Global North.
Ackerman’s career as a journalist spans nearly the entire War on Terror. He has embedded in Afghanistan and toured Guantanamo Bay’s notorious detention camp, interviewed generals like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, and played a central role in monumental scoops like the Snowden leaks. The breadth of his knowledge and experience are evident throughout Reign of Terror, which focuses primarily on political dynamics within the United States. Ackerman moves chronologically from the immediate legislative aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to the bipartisan establishment of more long-term national security conventions in government and media during the Bush and Obama years to a more warped iteration of those conventions with the rise of Trump.
The book maps the granular divides within the pro-war coalition of the past twenty years, from its neoconservative leaders and nativist supporters to its apologists on the left. By tracking the evolutions of its various factions, Ackerman provides important reminders about a number of figures who today claim virtuous opposition to the unreason of Trumpism. Take Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol: before they became Never Trump lodestars, their organization Keep America Safe elevated people like Debra Burlingame, who paired righteous indignation about the death of her brother (the pilot of the hijacked Flight 77) with scaremongering on issues like the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” that would become the bread and butter of Trump’s GOP. Many on the center left joined with conservatives in dismissing dissenters from the War on Terror. In the New York Times Magazine, George Packer lectured antiwar critics on Iraqi support for the war. In the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier proposed that any opponent of the military intervention couldn’t count as a true liberal.
Reign of Terror lays bare the complex relationship between liberalism and illiberalism in U.S. halls of power. Democratic senators like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry provided formalistic cover for what amounted to a blatant war of aggression in Iraq by presenting it as a defense (rather than a violation) of international norms and cooperation. Biden called the lead-up to the invasion a “march to peace and security,” a sentiment echoed by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt in the House. Foreign policy bigwigs like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and longtime diplomatic icon Richard Holbrooke helped convince the Bush administration to go through the multilateral motions with NATO and the United Nations, thus providing a patina of legitimacy to the intervention.
Then there was the case of Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, who spearheaded the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, rehabilitating the word “homeland” from its nationalist roots in Europe. Lieberman stopped caucusing with the Democrats after he endorsed John McCain for president in 2008, but it was McCain’s victorious opponent who ended up normalizing many Bush-era immigration and security policies. Obama’s willingness to speak against the “fear and resentment of newcomers” signaled a welcome instinct, but he also operated within the post-9/11 framework of reconceiving immigration policy as a national security emergency by ramping up deportations at the border (he praised the policy’s enforcers on horseback for looking “pretty tough”). A similar pattern held in other arenas. Obama condemned torture while tapping John Brennan for CIA director and Michael D’Andrea for the chief of his unmanned air war, two men implicated in the very practice the president had now brought to a formal end. His administration was likewise elated to work with the filmmakers Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty, a blockbuster that falsely credited torture for facilitating Bin Laden’s assassination. That inaccuracy was compounded by the reluctance of both Hollywood and the White House to confess to the true enabler of the raid: a fake vaccination campaign that, while confirming Bin Laden’s location, gravely stymied disease prevention in Pakistan. This elision spoke to a disregard for the war effort’s actual consequences—a disregard that would only intensify after Obama’s presidency.
If Obama represented the War on Terror’s superego, Ackerman argues, then Trump embodied its id. The first was a Harvard Law graduate who stacked his team with like-minded lawyers who tried to humanize American militarism at the margins. The second was a brawler who surrounded himself with those who insisted that the U.S. ruling class reserved the right to send a message, to anyone anywhere, whenever it damn well pleased. The Trumpist devolution had roots in the politics of the War on Terror. In a world where the leadership of both parties agreed that complicity in the torture of religious or ethnic others should sometimes be rewarded, unaccountable killer drones should continue to stalk millions in the Middle East, and migrants fleeing the havoc U.S. policies helped create should remain criminalized and terrorized, Ackerman argues that we shouldn’t have been surprised when Trump said the quiet part out loud.
There were notable exceptions to the War on Terror consensus. Representative Barbara Lee was the only congressperson to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan, which she rightly argued would become a blank check. She urged her peers to “think through the implications of [their] actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.” On the other end of the political spectrum, xenophobic antiwar writers at Patrick Buchanan’s magazine the American Conservative saw neoconservative expansionism as a deformation of a more restrained American nationalism.
“Neither conservatives nor liberals wanted to face what nationalists and leftists knew,” Ackerman writes near the end of Reign of Terror: “the War on Terror could sustain itself because of how deeply American it was.” For Ackerman, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the exclusions of migrants from our borders, were not a break but a continuation of an old pattern:
The reign of terror that America launched after 9/11 was familiar to nonwhites across four hundred years of American history, in both its violence and its insistence that such violence was for the ultimate benefit of civilization. It ensured that America would pay any price for what would prove a futile, self-destructive war. Paying that price, in blood, was what America had always valorized, what it had always justified.
Reign of Terror begins with an excerpt from Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, where the French poet implored his readers to see Nazism as a return of barbaric colonial methods from the periphery to the metropole. Ackerman scatters acknowledgements of this inheritance throughout his book, as well as making clear that these methods mark more of a return than a mere import. He notes that Trump’s family separation policy, for example, was spearheaded by General John Kelly, a man who rapidly rose through the ranks amid the putative wars against terror. But he is also quick to emphasize that this policy itself had “deep American roots in chattel slavery and native genocide.”
For decades, these historical contexts have rarely been present in the national discourse. But there have been hopeful glimmers in recent years of something different emerging out of widespread dissatisfaction with the War on Terror. The days of assuming American virtue as a point of departure, and legal tinkering or strategy as the only legitimate grounds for debate, appear to be passing. This shift can even be discerned in Congress, where a surprising number of Democrats are reviving a language of leftist critique on military spending, Israel/Palestine, and exploitation in Latin America and Africa that hasn’t been heard within those chambers for well over a generation. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s reminder that Latin American migration follows U.S.-imposed economic policies and Senator Bernie Sanders’s warnings about repeating the “colonialist/imperialist history [that] impoverished Africa” hark back to the words of Senator Frank Church, Representative Charles Diggs, and other seventies-era politicians. These developments have been accompanied by increasing distrust of military and intelligence bureaucracies on the right—forms of distrust that have done more to corrode the body politic than to heal it (like the January 6 insurrection, inspired by conspiracy theories about Deep State meddling in the election). What all this means for the future of the United States and the world is yet to be determined.
If Rumsfeld’s consideration for the “pent-up feelings” of Iraqi rioters in 2003 has become a shorthand for the political hypocrisies of our time, more recent comments from General McChrystal about the driving forces behind Jihadism suggest a path beyond American myopia. For the general, it isn’t just enemies of his enemy that deserve our understanding. It is also the enemies themselves, many of whom have been reacting to a “geopolitical phenomenon” where they believe they have “gotten dealt a bad hand from the West.” As a board member of defense contractors and other multinational corporations, McChrystal continues to make the best of the hand he’s been dealt, and it’s doubtful he and the military brass are serious about reshuffling the deck. But uttering such a thought at all speaks to a potential opening in the popular consciousness. McChrystal said this to Ackerman in May 2020—around the same time he conceded the whole War on Terror wasn’t worth it, and a few weeks before George Floyd died under Derek Chauvin’s knee.
Lyle Jeremy Rubin is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He is currently writing a book about masculinity, the military, and U.S. empire.