Lasting Cruelties

Lasting Cruelties

Reign of Terror situates the War on Terror as part of a longer story of domination that can be traced back to the founding of the United States as a settler-colonial and slaveholding behemoth.

Donald Rumsfeld in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2005 (Jim Young-Pool/Getty Images)

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 wit...