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In the world of 24/7 media, events are reported at warp speed, a full news cycle is a few hours, and events of 20 years ago seem ancient. And yet for many, 9/11 feels like yesterday.
It’s in that dissonance that we can seek to understand how the events of 9/11 are directly connected to Donald Trump.
In this week’s special WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.
Ackerman begins by exploring the fundamental idea that America acts abroad the way America acts at home, and the way it acts at home, is the way it acts abroad. In his view, 9/11 opened a door that allowed America’s worst impulses to pour through. It unleashed all the violence, nativism, racism, and authoritarianism that have always been a part of America, and it gave license to unchecked anger.
He points out that many neocons who were the original architects of America’s War on Terror became the leading Never Trumpers — they watched as their efforts were then co-opted by Trump and have now, perhaps unwittingly, set the stage for an even worse Trump to come along in the future.
He details Barack Obama’s significant role in prolonging the war on terror: how he exploited the anti-war anger in America, then later cemented liberal complicity in that war.
He gives us insight into Obama’s authoritarian actions that increased the powers of the national security state — perhaps not realizing that as president, he’d be handing those powers over to the likes of Donald Trump.
And finally, he reminds us that the war on terror, coupled with the patriotic veil of American exceptionalism, did not include “white terror,” allowing it — perhaps even encouraging it — to grow, fester and, in conjunction with Trump’s inherited powers, lead directly to January 6th.
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AJeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In a world where news comes at us 24/7, where technology makes response time literally instantaneous, 20 years is forever. And yet, that’s how long America’s contemporary war on terror has been going on. From 9/11 to the current events in Afghanistan, it seems we have come full circle. And yet what do we have to show for it? Increased fear of the other at a time when American demographics are naturally changing, a greater and misplaced insistence on our own innocence, and in many ways an even greater fear of the world around us. All of which arguably led us to a 20-year war on terror that changed America and to Donald Trump and a more deeply divided and domestically unsafe country.
This is the through line that my guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Spencer Ackerman examines in his new book, Reign of Terror. Spencer Ackerman has been a long-time national security correspondent for The New Republic, Wired, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast. He has reported from the front lines of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, and shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. It is my pleasure to welcome Spencer Ackerman here to the program to talk about Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 era destabilized America and produced Trump. Spencer, thanks so much for joining us.
Spencer Ackerman: Hey. Thank you very much for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. One of the central premises here is that the politics of the 9/11 era transformed America. I want to talk about whether or not those things that changed, those things that were transformed, were things that were lurking prior to 9/11 and were unleashed by 9/11, or did those events fundamentally change the underlying issues? Talk about that.
Spencer: Thank you very much for framing it in that way. It’s an excellent question. The answer that my book offers is that the 9/11 era, the war on terror, is a doorway, a gateway to the path from which all of the ugliest, most violent, and most nativist currents of American history could match through under cover of national emergency and take power. The war on terror doesn’t invent anything. If it does, it invents them in like specific technological development. But fundamentally, the war on terror isn’t a new thing. We see continuity of the war on terror in things like Cold War anti-communism, in things like the first time America waterboards people in a foreign war, it waterboards them in the Philippines in 1898. The first time Americans waterboard other Americans, they do so against native tribespeople. It is an act of settler colonialism.
These are tools that the United States reaches for. Child separation, the term used for official kidnapping to migrant families that happens during the Trump administration. This is one of the most fundamental tools of native genocide, of chattel slavery, and of, as I have found in my reporting in law enforcement around the country, on the carceral state. How America acts abroad is how America acts at home, and how America acts at home is how America acts abroad. These are fundamental continuities that a lot of the typical discussion of the war on terror obscures. And then we find ourselves wondering, “Oh, my God, how did we get here?”
Jeff: And yet, the way it played out it seems was in two very separate ways. One, those that try to exploit the nativism and all those forces that you’re talking about, and that’s personified best by Trump. And the other was the way in which other people and the neocons, in particular, hope to use the events for an entirely different purpose.
Spencer: That’s correct. The war on terror under the Bush administration, and particularly the neoconservative elements in the administration, but also the Nixonian and frankly oilmen elements of the administration. Cheney and Rumsfeld, most importantly, they see this as an opportunity. They see this as an opportunity to reorient American power in the imperial direction that they believe was the responsible exercise of American power, that previously as they had seen it, there had been a period of lassitude in American empire coming from the absence of a central adversary like the Soviet Union.
And the cold war had provided earlier generations of those elements within, particularly, neoconservative and Nixonian circles, tremendous opportunity and tremendous power to try to portray and use American power abroad under cover of it being in the interests of freedom all around the world.
Now, here came another opportunity to do that. And particularly once as a result of this, in part as a result of this, the Bush administration reaches for an expansive definition of the enemy. The Bush administration doesn’t call this the war on Al-Qaeda. They call it the war on terror with the suggestion that — and they say this again, and again, and again, from in particular 2001 through 2005 — that the enemy is so much broader than Al-Qaeda, that ultimately that provides an opportunity to do things violently in the world that have nothing to do with 9/11, like the invasion of Iraq and the occupation that followed.
Jeff: What should we make then of the fact that as things evolve, and we’ll talk about all the things that happened in the middle particularly with Obama, but then as this evolves, the neocon forces become, in many ways, the strongest anti-Trump forces, what should we make of that in this broader context?
Spencer: The people who run the let-the-wolves-eat-your-face party very often don’t expect the wolves to eat their own faces. And that is what the Never Trump and neoconservative response to Trump has been. That before there was a Trump, they were performing the same kind of cover of nativism. They were just expressing it in more respectable ways. How many times did the neoconservatives respond to 9/11 by pathologizing the Arab and broader Muslim world, by pathologizing Islam itself, by describing the war on terror, describing the act of 9/11, not as the result of a plot by psychotic millenarians, led by a billionaire who were finding religious justifications, religious pretexts in other words, for the violence that they were inclined to commit, and then fueled by the material reality of how violently America acts in the Muslim world for adherence.
Instead of taking that interpretation, they instead pathologize Islam, preserve American innocence, which is to say American exceptionalism, and use that in violent directions. Having unleashed these currents, they were entirely unprepared, particularly when they are discredited, given how disastrously their wars go. For a nativist response that says, in fact, our problems are not just with Muslims, our problems are with immigrants, our problems are with Black people, our problems are with Jews, our problems are with liberals, our problems are with leftists. The neoconservatives are on board for a whole lot of that until it also starts to threaten their own power and discredit them themselves. Neoconservatism is a prelude to Trumpism. It’s not an alternative to it. And when it is portrayed, particularly by them, themselves, as the alternative to Trumpism, it just helps guarantee that there will be more and worse Trumps to come.
Jeff: And the interesting part is that bridging this gap between the opportunism that you talk about of the neoconservatives and the Bush administration and the nativism of Trump, we have eight years of Obama in between. Talk about that.
Spencer: The middle of my book is an extended discussion of the Obama administration and the war on terror. And basically, there are many tragedies of the Obama administration, but this is really a great one. This is great in the sense of meaning grand, not in the sense of being good. The Obama administration and President Obama himself treat the war on terror as something that is unstable at 30,000 feet, like an aircraft that just doesn’t fly very well, flies dangerously at 30,000 feet, but can fly acceptably steadily at 10,000.
What I mean by that is that the war becomes less conspicuous. Obama is elected on a wave of anti-war anger. Anger, not only at the war but at the complicity of the Democratic Party, at the complicity of liberals. The third chapter of the book that introduces this major theme in the book is called Liberal Complicity in the War on Terror, because that’s how we have to understand it. The fact that Obama was such a consistent opponent of the Iraq war when all of his major contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2008 were complicit in it, provided him a viable path to the presidency.
But what often went neglected was how Obama defined the Iraq war — and this is the case for a lot of, at that point, like more progressive foreign policy analysts — as a departure and a danger to the war on terror, rather than a manifestation of it, and a perhaps an extremist case that shows why the whole thing is more like the Iraq occupation than unlike. And once Obama proposes rather to withdraw from Iraq, a commitment he kind of tempers once he becomes president, as he compromises with the military, and forces the CIA to close its black site torture prisons. That is another element of the war on terror that just appalls Obama. He seeks to get rid of Guantanamo Bay but loses that fight, and for most of his administration just decides it’s like too potentially toxic a fight to really wage. Outside of that, the rest of it, he maintains, he expands drone strikes to the point where he is synonymous with them overseas.
I, in the book, tell the story of Obama’s first drone strike through the prism of a young man named Faheem Qureshi, who I interviewed, who’s a survivor of it. And I would encourage people to listen, not to my words, but to Faheem Qureshi as he describes how he sees Barack Obama. He maintains NSA surveillance. He becomes just an unbelievable deporter of migrant people in this country, undocumented people. And does that in the simply like jaw droppingly naive belief that if he just deports enough people, the Republican party will accept a grand bargain on expanding access, not just to immigration, but to American citizenship for undocumented people currently in the United States.
Instead what Obama does is allow the machinery of the national security state to mingle and to give additional opportunity to nativist currents that are unleashed by the war on terror, but very often are not described as part of the war on terror in, in particular, elite liberal circles. This was an enormous mistake because, very quickly, Barack Obama learns that he is not handing off the war on terror to a successor who sees it like he does. He’s handing it off to Donald Trump. And now all of these authoritarian possibilities are in the hands of Trump.
Jeff: And that really was the other contribution from Obama, that it really increased the surveillance state and it set the stage in a much stronger way for the authoritarian impulses of Trump.
Spencer: Very much so. As much as people like Obama and the more respectable elements of both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as senior leadership in the military, senior leadership in the intelligence services and law enforcement, the state department, and so on, want to say and say quite explicitly throughout the whole thing, ‘This is not a war on Islam, that’s not what we’re doing. We don’t believe we should be fighting a war on Islam,’ they are nevertheless giving those who want a war on Islam every motive, every opportunity, and every tool that the war on Islam could possibly want. And once it comes into power under Trump, it doesn’t just want to fight a war on what Trump calls radical Islamic terror, it wants to fight a war against other Americans and learns that the mechanisms of the war on terror, the Department of Homeland Security, the expansive surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act and facilitated by the NSA, all of these tools are really, really valuable for sorting conditional Americans from real Americans and treating them accordingly. That is the essence of the danger that the war on terror poses to American citizens.
Jeff: And the thing that makes it all so much stronger is that the argument that the hosts that have pushed this make is that it kept us safe, that there were no new attacks. And that becomes really the glue that holds it all together.
Spencer: The fact of the matter is that 9/11 is an exceptional event. It is not an endlessly repeating phenomenon. A study that the Rand Corporation does, I guess, about the point nearly 10 years ago, reminds people, people who have been accustomed because of the way elite discourse portrayed 9/11 as a juncture in history, when in fact, Americans experienced in the 1970s, in living memory, much higher degrees of terrorism at home, of political violence at home than they experience now. The fact of the matter is Al-Qaeda had astonishing capabilities. The thing we don’t often talk about is that Osama Bin Laden is a billionaire and billionaires are notable for how callously they play with other people’s lives. Bin Laden and his clique have a lot of tools, they have a lot of means, they have a lot of opportunities. Mostly they exercise them against other Muslims in the Muslim world.
The ability to attack the United States is on the one hand going to be kind of an exceptional event. And on the other hand, the more the United States acts violently in the Muslim world, the greater the impulse will come for Muslims to violently seek to avenge it, and for increasingly other generations of combatants to arise in the ashes of America’s wars. And that’s a really consistent story throughout the war on terror. There would’ve been no ISIS without the war on terror, because if there would’ve been no Al-Qaeda in Iraq if there had been no occupation and invasion of Iraq. This is a direct case in which the United States’ wars, its war on terror, don’t make anyone safer, they make us more in danger.
Jeff: But, of course, the sense of American exceptionalism and this refusal to see anything but our own innocence makes it so difficult for people to understand that.
Spencer: I think there has been because of American exceptionalism, which is no more than what white innocence is, just applied globally. The idea that we are the good guys, we’re the guys who deliver you freedom, we’re the guys who stick up for freedom around the world. Because of that, that infects the ways in which the discourse around this thing occurs, and accordingly, shapes the reality that politicians act within, where it is more politically dangerous to roll back the war on terror and the broader imperial structure that the United States maintains globally, basically the mechanisms of being a global policeman, than it is to construct it. It’s basically a lesson that we learn again and again and again in the war on terror. It’s easier to get in than it is to get out, but it is impossible to get out.
Jeff: And finally, talk about whether January 6 is the inevitable result, the bookend if you will, of 9/11 and where it goes from here.
Spencer: One of the things that is so conspicuous about the war on terror, I literally start the narrative of the book with this, is how consistently it exempts white terror from its operations. We see that in the aftermath of the response six years before 9/11 to Timothy McDay, where the architecture of white supremacist violence in the United States is left untouched in a way that once terrorism is committed by non-white people, the mechanisms of criminal association will expand so greatly as to catch people who are not committing acts of violence, who are only committing acts of things like donating what they think of as charities, or not even doing something like that at all.
All of this intense focus on non-white terrorism allows white terrorism to fester, to normalize. And then when Trump takes over, now it has the general force army and it reacts with increasing boldness. Precisely the same thing that our leaders in our media figures were constantly saying would be how Islamic terror would work, that it only responds to strength. Basically, there’s just a ton of projection in American political discourse, just an absolute massive ton of it. All of these operations together have kind of a fundamental similarity, which is that they tell people that a white man with a flag and a gun is a counter-terrorist, he can’t be a terrorist. The war on terror is also an era of extensive lying. There is a ton of official unreality under this patriotic veil allowed to fester to obscure what the war on terror really is.
It comes as no surprise that people become accustomed to dealing in conspiratorial explanations for events, particularly disasters that they can’t explain. And we see the fruits of all of this in an insurrection to overturn a democratic election, after being told by incredibly powerful people that the previous four years’ criminal and political investigations of Trump to go into his own really baroque criminality are no more than an attempt at a soft coup to overturn the 2016 election as a justification for a violent coup to attempt overturning the 2021.
And we’re seeing that manifestation, not just on the day of January 6, but in the response to January 6, where the Biden administration and the security state are not challenging the people who called for the insurrection. They are pursuing criminal and law enforcement and homeland security actions. They’re still figuring out the extent of them against those people who answered the call. People who actually committed criminal action ought to be dealt with in criminal context here. But the broader network of associations is now something that the Biden administration is looking at to respond to, not politically, and that’s out of fear, but instead through the machinery of the security state. And that’s going to be a disaster foretold because the exception to the war on terror is always going to be white terror.
What will happen instead, is that eventually there will be another Republican president and that President will seek retribution against his or her political enemies as they would see them inside the United States, using the very same pretext of going after terrorists that we saw Trump use during the summer of 2020. And now if Biden goes in that direction as well, it will be yet another both rallying cry for revenge and opportunity using the tools of the enterprise.
Jeff: Spencer Ackerman, you can read him regularly on his substack Forever Wars. His new book is Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. Spencer, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Spencer: Hey, thank you so much.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: caskets (US Air Force), George W. Bush (The U.S. National Archives / Flickr), Donald Trump (Trump White House Archived / Flickr), Barack Obama (Obama White House Archived / Flickr), fighter jet (Expert Infantry / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), armored vehicle (US Marines), and Pentagon (Picryl), and January 6th (Lev Radin / Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire).