The War on Terror and how it failed us
Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump
Spencer Ackerman 2021
From 1945 to 1989 the United States saw itself in a global war against communism, and the Soviet Union was our mortal enemy throughout that period. Even with World War 2 over, defense budgets skyrocketed and the world was taken to the brink of nuclear annihilation in the cause of protecting the American Way. Proxy wars were fought in Korea, Vietnam, and other countries and millions of lives were destroyed by this 40 year standoff. And then the Soviet Union broke up and Americans were unsure who the "enemy" was anymore.
In comes Osama Bin Laden, a rich Saudi extremist who planned the fateful September 11th, 2001 attacks, and all of a sudden we knew we had a new enemy who could strike terror into our very heart. The problem was, we didn't understand who, where, or why we had such an enemy, and we wasted 20 years fighting a new war, the Global War on Terror, that made us worse off than we were before.
All of the depressing aspects of the War on Terror are detailed in Spencer Ackerman's new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 era destabilized America and produced Trump. Ackerman is a journalist who specializes in security issues and has written for Wired, The New Republic, and The Daily Beast. The book tells the story from right before 9/11 through the Covid epidemic of 2020, and is a great recap of the lengths that the US went through to protect itself from a villain it couldn't completely understand or identify.
To summarize, the War on Terror resulted in two costly invasions, Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have by now kicked out most Americans. Five other countries were bombed and/or had their citizens killed by drone strikes- Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya. An estimated 800,000 people were directly killed by these wars and over 20 million became refugees. Granted, some of this fighting would have gone on whether the US got involved or not, but the enormous amount of weaponry and money that the US added to this volatile area made things worse, not better.
Over six trillion dollars were spent on the War on Terror- money that could have made a huge difference had it been spent on schools, infrastructure, climate change, health care, or almost anything else that helps rather than kills people. Ackerman points to something he calls the Security State, an alliance of generals, defense contractors, and politicians who justified their existence by looking for bad guys and asking for more and more money. Money had a lot to do with the War on Terror, and it will continue to rule decisions on national security going forward.
The biggest problem in the entire War on Terror is how loosely it was defined. No one could exactly define who the enemy was, where they lived, or what they wanted. No one had any idea what victory would look like or when to declare it. Mostly Saudi citizens were among the hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center, but Saudi Arabia was never targeted. Osama Bin Laden, the organizer of the attacks, was targeted and eventually killed, but the war kept on going even after Bin Laden's death. Al Queda, Bin Laden's organization was targeted and scattered with the invasion of Afghanistan, but the war kept on going and Al Queda was able to live in the shadows only to take back the country in 2021. So who exactly was the enemy in the War on Terror, and how could we fight them?
The book details this ongoing struggle during four different presidencies. One side pretty much believed that Islam was the enemy and all Muslims had to be looked at with suspicion and/or hatred. Another side tried to delineate Islamic extremists from peaceful Muslims and go after only the worst organizers of global terrorist attacks. (There were also violent attacks in Europe during this period that confuses and scared people even further.) The reality ends up being that it isn't Islam that's the problem, it's extremism in all forms. Ackerman details events leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Initially Muslims were blamed for that too, but it soon turned out that an American extremist, Timothy McVeigh carried out the attack. The United States, it turns out, is home to many extremist groups who don't like where things are headed and are willing to kill to make their point. But because of a serious blind spot, we only look for Islamic extremism, (even where it doesn't pose a threat) as the source of many of our problems.
Reign of Terror chronicles many depressing episodes that we'd rather not have to recount, but the story of the War on Terror isn't complete without looking at them. Such as:
1- Torture was widely and illegally used on a variety of suspected terrorists. The techniques used are too grisly to recount here, but there is much debate about whether any good intelligence comes from physical and mental cruelty. The location of Bin Laden wasn't produced by torture according to this book, but by surveillance of key people in his inner circle.
2- The rights of American citizens were likely violated by a surveillance state that arose thanks to the Patriot act. Phones were tapped, emails were intercepted, and privacy rights were violated in many cases because of racial and religious profiling.
3- Immigration became a hot potato for both political parties, as a deal fell through to fix the broken system. Legal requests for asylum were met with resistance and small children were separated from their parents at the border in an attempt to use cruelty as a deterrent. Many valuable potential American citizens were turned away because of the fear drummed up by supporters of the War on Terror.
4- The US invaded Iraq on the justification that its leader had chemical weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be true. The Iraq invasion turned into a quagmire for years after its beginning, spawning a new group of terrorists, ISIS, and leading to global embarrassment when torture programs were discovered.
5- Unwanted junk was disposed of in burn pits, and US soldiers today still suffer from the toxins that were released in these poorly thought out trash fires.
6- Thousands of innocent people were likely detained in prisons, black sites, Guantanamo, and secret CIA locations without any rights or ability to prove their innocence. The book details one such victim, Adham Hassoun, who was taken prisoner in 2002 and convicted of supporting terrorism based on a broad statute that could implicate millions because of who they know or do business with. Hassoun spent 15 years in prison but was detained another 3 years after that for national security reasons that were unexplained. Only with support from the ACLU and other groups was he finally released in 2020.
This book blames both political parties, Republicans and Democrats for prolonging the war year after year. But it is the right wing of the spectrum that has particularly fanned the flames of fear and Islamophobia to win donations and elections, and the American public and press has followed along unquestioningly. Donald Trump rode into the presidency on the heels of fear of Muslims and anti-immigrant hatred (especially from Latin America), and he expertly manipulated the worst instincts of Americans to gain power.
One would hope that books like this would lead to some way overdue reflection on America's place in history and a more sober and realistic foreign policy. But if the disaster in Vietnam didn't change very much, it's hard to see how the Global War on Terror has produced many lessons for those who pull the strings and control the narrative. Sooner or later, you would think that the public has to get tired of the lies, deception, cruelty, and magical thinking.
There are plenty of things to fear these days. Climate change, crime, terrorism, and pandemics to name a few. What we've been doing hasn't been working, and I can't help but think of the wasted lives, money, and opportunities that the War on Terror has produced. I've met plenty of Muslims in my life and don't see them as any scarier than anybody else. Extremists of all colors scare me a lot more, because they see themselves as above the rest of us and the sole possessors of truth, which gives them the right to impose their views on the rest of us. The United States has a strong and powerful minority that sees the country as an arbiter of truth and goodness for the world, immune from consequences for any mistakes it might have made, and that needs to end.
This book made me mad, sad, and depressed at our inability to learn from our mistakes. Ackerman does a great job recounting the things we'd all rather forget, but I wish he would have had some suggestions at the end for how to improve things. Hate and fear are powerful tools. How do we protect people from those who would abuse those tools for their own profit? How can we feel safe in an insecure world? How is it possible for people of different races, religions, and traditions to share a planet that's more and more interconnected and fragile every day? And why do we keep falling for wasteful, stupid wars that lazily paint us as the good guys when much better, safer, and more productive options are out there?