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In These Times - September 9, 2021

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, carried out 20 years ago, also inaugurated the era of the War on Terror — a brutal, ill-defined war that has now lasted longer than World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. The War on Terror isn’t discussed much these days. Even President Biden’s recent pullout from Afghanistan only dominated headlines for a few weeks (and mainstream coverage was often critical of the withdrawal). At a time of mass death from the Covid-19 crisis and record inequality across the United States, Americans’ immediate day-to-day concerns tend to overshadow whatever our military is doing abroad.

But in his new book Reign of Terror: How the 9⁄11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking, 2021), Spencer Ackerman argues that, while it’s fallen out of public focus, the War on Terror has reshaped American politics and society as we know it, at the same time as it has wrought havoc throughout the world. From the hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed throughout the Middle East, to the undemocratic nightmare of prisoners captured and held in institutions like Guantanamo Bay, to the virulently xenophobic and racist currents that took hold in domestic politics (most successfully and horrifically by Donald Trump), to the use of hand-me-down military weaponry by local police departments against peaceful American activists, we are living in a world remade by the War on Terror.

Ackerman is a longtime national security correspondent, now reporting for The Daily Beast. He shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s leaked revelations about the National Security Administration. In These Times contributing editor Micah Uetricht spoke with Ackerman about Reign of Terror.

Micah Uetricht: Let’s start with the basics. I don’t think it’s intuitive for some people how the 911 attacks helped produce the Trump presidency. How did that happen?

Spencer Ackerman: I wrote the book because it seemed, at the start of the Trump administration, like this connection wasn’t intuitive to a lot of people. There were a lot of explanations for the rise of Trump and the Trump phenomenon — some compelling, some less than compelling — but all of them overlooked something that didn’t necessarily replace those explanations, but instead joined them together. And that’s the fact that we have been at war for an entire generation, a war that has gone terribly, a war that the great mass of Americans have understood as disastrous, while simultaneously watching their political and media elites either lie about it or obscure it.

The creation of the War on Terror after 911 and the maintenance of the War on Terror has torn at the truth itself. It has been so racialized from the start. Something like $6 trillion has been taken from public funds and redistributed upward to the defense sector.

All of these factors together unleashed the most barbarous currents in American history, putting them on the march against a racialized ​“other” that’s never defined and is portrayed as a threat to civilization — something that doesn’t simply exist abroad, but is coming into the United States and undermining what we understand as, from an overclass perspective, ​“traditional America.”

Before we get to Trump, we have the panic of the early 2010s over the idea that Sharia law was creeping throughout the country. A lot of that was not taken particularly seriously, because it was so outlandish. And yet in more than a dozen states, legislatures wrote bills outlawing Sharia law. What does that really mean in practice? It means constraining the civil rights of Muslims and reinforcing the idea that there are alien others inside the country who are threatening you.

Throughout American history, when such currents are unleashed, they don’t tend to stay focused on only their targets. They become a wildfire — a wildfire that has been legitimized for an entire generation.

This happened not only in the ​“unrespectable” currents of American politics, but the deeply respectable ones. Those respectable currents not only helped create and nurture that bloodthirst and that sense of internal subversion, and not only crafted this broad atmosphere of untruth about everything from the Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction to the supposed al Qaeda connection, but also attacked the institutions of American democracy.

Inevitably, a figure would come along who would harness all of those currents. ...
Read full interview at In These Times