Twenty years ago, the United States began waging a “war” on terror, and now we learn that it was War on Terror ideas that fueled Trump’s rise to power.
Today, the NYT’s Ezra Klein interviewed his colleague, Spencer Ackerman, about his a new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. In the book, Ackerman talks about how all of Donald Trump’s most egregious campaign themes were actually War on Terror themes, and how Obama missed vital opportunities to repair the situation. You can read the transcript of Klein’s interview here, or listen to the podcast here.
Klein starts right off by laying out the War on Terror meta-narrative. Here it is:
“America faces an existential threat from an undefined, though implicitly brown immigrant Muslim enemy that must be defeated at all costs. America is innocent in this threat. They hate us for our freedom. They hate us for what makes America America. And they are not just trying to defeat us. They are trying to change us. We are in a war of values, a civilizational conflict.”
Once you’ve spelled it all out like that, it’s easy to pick holes in it, especially when you remember that every time terrorists have attacked Americans, they’ve told us why. It’s not that they “hate our freedom”; it’s to retaliate for this thing, or that thing, that the U.S. government has done to them. A whole lot of it is rooted in our years of interference in the Middle East – the Arabs are angry because of how we’ve let Israel treat the Palestinians, and the Iranians are angry for our role in the overthrow of their democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, back in 1953, which led to decades of rule by the Shah and his scary minions.
I’m not saying terror is justified. Obviously, it’s wrong; it’s evil. I’m saying that the justification we’re claiming they’re making for their acts is not the same as the justifications they’re actually making for their acts. They have grievances, and they’re using terror to try to make us listen, and we’re not.
On the one hand, that means they’re not succeeding in their goals, which is good… but on the other hand, it makes their grievances fester even more. We haven’t resolved them yet. Will that mean more terror?
Another meta-narrative that comes up in the interview is one I hadn’t thought about in quite this way, but it makes a lot of sense:
“…the post-World War II construction of the current international order, or at least the part of it by the United States and its proxies, [is a] story of America coming into its natural position, a global manifest destiny. And, accordingly, what America does is right, what its enemies do is wrong, even if that behavior is fundamentally similar.”
A global manifest destiny! Wow. The original “manifest destiny,” you’ll remember from U.S. history class, was the social movement that gave our East Coast ancestors the belief that the country should stretch all the way to the West Coast. Generation after generation, my ancestors, and maybe yours too, moved further and further west, until finally I was born within a mile or so of the Pacific Ocean. (I’d say walking distance, but there’s a river in the way.)
So now we believe our power should extend over the entire globe. Ackerman goes on to explain the implications:
“That is where the American sense of imperiled safety after 9/11 emerges from. And it also explains why it can never be satisfied. The only way it can actually be satisfied is a position that can’t exist, which is an unchallenged imperial superstructure. Those superstructures all throughout history generate their own challenges. But America chooses after 9/11, and continues through the past 20 years, to interpret those challenges as pathological, and very often, civilizationally pathological, that we have to invade the Middle East, we have to invade the Muslim world in order to teach them, as was often expressed in explicit language after 9/11, civilized standards of behavior. Which is to say the United States reserves the right to inflict limitless violence and, in a limitless way, inhibit everyone else’s freedom in order to make someone else act in a civilized way.”
Klein and Ackerman go on to discuss what this means in terms of U.S. security, which is Ackerman’s area of expertise. I just want to circle back to the beginning, though, this “War on Terror” situation.
I’m not an expert in this facet of U.S. history, so if you are, please speak up. My understanding, though, is that when we declared our War on Terror, the idea was to be able to marshal extra resources and support so that we could then defeat terrorism once and for all. And that’s a position that’s emotionally satisfying but logically false – any one of the five billion adults alive in the world today can become a terrorist at any time. It’s not that hard.
So the “War on Terror” metaphor was great for people who wanted to consolidate their own power and make their constituents happy, but it doesn’t do much for the rest of us besides giving us false hope of a “victory.”
I think it would have made a lot more sense to treat 9/11 according to existing international law, not as an act of war but as a particularly heinous crime. We could have used all the resources of global law enforcement to bring Bin Laden and the rest to justice – with the side benefit of treating other Muslims as our allies in this process, not our potential enemies.
And while we’re at it, I’m not going to wade into the murky waters of Israel versus Palestine here, but I do wish our government were held accountable for, you know, overthrowing democratically elected leaders elsewhere in the world. We’re charter members of Team Democracy – let’s act like it.