national security

The War on Terror Is Inescapable

Donald Trump
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Capitol Police officer Michael Fanone sounds as if he’s suffering a crisis of faith. He joined the force after 9/11. He voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Then on January 6, he battled the former president’s most zealous defenders in hand-to-hand combat, a conflict that gave him a heart attack and a traumatic brain injury. Now he finds himself alone. “While there are still some officers that are very supportive of me, I can count them on one hand,” he told Time magazine. “The vast majority of police officers — would they have been on the other side of those battle lines?”

Fanone is becoming “un-Trooped,” to borrow a phrase from journalist Spencer Ackerman. He’s still a police officer, still wears the uniform, but he lost whatever authority he once possessed because he dared question whether cops are heroes. While the right moves to discredit him, liberals have latched on to his story in a desperate bid to prove they are more pro-cop than the GOP. This age-old dynamic shows that, while Fanone’s crisis may be recent, its roots are wide and deep, stretching back not just to the rise of Trump and the radicalization of his supporters but to the global war on terror.

The connection between the rise of Trump and the sprawling post-9/11 national-security state is one of the central themes of Ackerman’s new book, Reign of Terror, which ranks alongside Adam Serwer’s The Cruelty Is the Point as one of the most illuminating books to come out of the Trump era. Ackerman offers a persuasive, exhaustive accounting of a 20-year-old war and its authoritarian consequences. Forget America’s diners: The path to understanding Trump and what formed him lies not through a pathologized version of the white working class but through the architecture of the war on terror.

Ackerman depicts a conflict shaped by endemic xenophobia and knee-jerk jingoism. To question either the military response to 9/11 or the pervasive conviction that America was a thoroughly innocent party was to assume the role of a heretic. “People in uniform, from the military to police to firefighters, were valorized to the point of civic worship,” Ackerman writes, “an impulse most conspicuous in those whose lives intersected with such people rarely.” That valorization was accompanied by the villainization of the war’s early critics and of Muslim Americans, who endured surveillance from the authorities and hatred from the public. Others were also implicated. Ackerman recalls Andrew Sullivan writing about a “decadent left” burrowed within “its enclaves on the coasts” that “may well mount a fifth column.” Because the war had civilizational stakes, according to the authorities and their enablers in the press, dissent had a high cost.

The valorization of the troops and the cops, the fear and loathing of Muslims and other alien elements, the subordination of so much to the overarching project of asserting America’s greatness — all were elements of the Trump juggernaut. Trump himself makes an easy target, but the extremism of his presidency can obscure the bipartisan consensus that helped these ideas and attitudes take shape. If the road to January 6 began years ago, then it necessarily winds through the Obama years.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, nearly all things seemed permissible under the need to protect the homeland. There was STELLARWIND, a secret and warrantless National Security Agency surveillance program, and the PATRIOT Act, which unlike STELLARWIND came into being with the enthusiastic support of Congress. A regime was emerging. “They had not made the War on Terror respect the law,” Ackerman writes. “They had made the law respect the War on Terror.” The regime generated new justifications for itself, and created new norms. Under the ministrations of John Yoo—now on the faculty of the Berkeley Law—the torture memos later appeared.

Many of the more extreme transgressions of the war on terror occurred in areas beyond the reach of the law. Gul Rahman froze to death in a CIA black site in 2002, Ackerman reminds us. Was he a necessary casualty of war? Or was he something else, a human being who was tortured to death without trial, a person whose demise shows a deep rot in the American heart?

Over time, government elites have “recast the overall War on Terror not as Bush’s theological crusade, but as a technocratic, salvageable struggle, guided by the hard-won rationality of its veterans and practitioners,” Ackerman writes. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he not only continued the war but in many ways expanded it. The conceit was that the war had passed into more competent control — or so liberals believed.

Technocracy likes to pretend it has no ideology. As Ackerman puts it, “Obama’s Sustainable War on Terror presented itself as more lawful than Bush’s. That presentation was important to the self-image of the lawyers, from Obama on down, shaping it.” Beneath this professionalized approach, however, is the same old belief in American exceptionalism. America’s civil religion enjoys broad popularity, as heretics know all too well.

In extreme cases, apostasy had legal consequences, and the demonization of dissenters became a bipartisan affair. Liberals and conservatives alike attacked whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. They were “un-Trooped,” their service rendered meaningless by their acts of conscience. “Their service did not invest their whistleblowing with greater public respect,” Ackerman writes. “Instead, their whistleblowing cost them the post-9/11 public reverence accorded to military or intelligence service.”

A judge recently sentenced my friend Daniel Hale to nearly four years in prison for leaking documents about the bloody American drone program. The U.S. government’s investigation and eventual prosecution of Hale spanned three presidential administrations: Obama’s, Trump’s, and now Biden’s. Yet it’s partly because of Hale’s actions that the public knows more of what was done in its name.

Under Trump, the nativism inherent in the war on terror reached its ugly apotheosis. Far from being Donald the Dove, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once christened him, Trump made good on years of xenophobia with his Muslim travel ban, his border-security fixations, and his treatment of ICE detainees. But Trump was no anomaly, and though he might have inspired the uprising at the Capitol, the riot has many fathers. “Neither conservatives nor liberals wanted to face what nationalists and leftists knew,” Ackerman writes. “The War on Terror could sustain itself because of how deeply American it was.” As long as the war on terror persists at home and abroad, democracy itself is at risk. Heresy may not be patriotic, but it is necessary still.

The War on Terror Is Inescapable