Wednesday, August 11, 2021


I respect the journalism of Spencer Ackerman, and I understand that it's presumptuous of me to criticize the thesis of his new book, which I haven't read, based on a review. But the review, by Jennifer Szalai of The New York Times, leaves me quite skeptical. The book is titled Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump; Szalai calls it "discerning and brilliantly argued." She writes:
Ackerman contends that the American response to 9/11 made President Trump possible. The evidence for this blunt-force thesis is presented in “Reign of Terror” with an impressive combination of diligence and verve, deploying Ackerman’s deep stores of knowledge as a national security journalist to full effect....

Ackerman ... shows how Trump clearly understood something about the post-9/11 era that the professional political class did not. Waging endless war — on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on terror — yielded nothing so definitive as peace or victory, and instead simply fueled a “grotesque subtext” to which Trump proved to be remarkably attuned. He may have changed his positions on this or that conflict willy-nilly, but Trump, Ackerman writes, never wavered on one key point — “the perception of nonwhites as marauders, even as conquerors, from hostile foreign civilizations.”
Does Ackerman believe that if 9/11 hadn't happened, Trump wouldn't have been able to sell the notion that Latin American immigrants -- and even American Blacks -- are "marauders"? But right-wing anger at non-whites long predates the 9/11 attacks. The "war" on crime in the pre-9/11 1990s became a war on Black people, and immigration legislation passed in that same era linked crime and border crossing, as an immigration scholar notes:
The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was a momentous law that recast undocumented immigration as a crime and fused immigration enforcement with crime control.... Among its most controversial provisions, the law expanded the crimes, broadly defined, for which immigrants could be deported and legal permanent residency status revoked. The law instituted fast-track deportations and mandatory detention for immigrants with convictions. It restricted access to relief from deportation. It constrained the review of immigration court decisions and imposed barriers for filing class action lawsuits against the former US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). It provided for the development of biometric technologies to track “criminal aliens” and authorized the former INS to deputize state and local police and sheriff’s departments to enforce immigration law.... In short, it put into law many of the punitive provisions associated with the criminalization of migration today.

Legal scholars have documented the critical role that IIRIRA played in fundamentally transforming immigration enforcement, laying the groundwork for an emerging field of “crimmigration” ...
Ackerman contrasts the treatment of 9/11 terrorism suspects with the treatment of Timothy McVeigh. Szalai writes:
McVeigh was sentenced to death after being tried in an open court, before a jury of his peers. Ackerman invites us to contrast this respect for due process with how the entire machinery of the government transformed itself in response to the 9/11 attacks, with deadly wars, proliferating immigration restrictions and an elaborate apparatus dedicated to mass surveillance.

“When terrorism was white,” Ackerman writes, “America sympathized with principled objections against unleashing the coercive, punitive and violent powers of the state.” He continues: “When terrorism was white, the prospect of criminalizing a large swath of Americans was unthinkable.”
Let's imagine a new wave of McVeigh-level terror attacks by white American radicals of the left, at a time when Republicans control the White House and Congress. Do you think Fox News and The Federalist would stick up for due process? Are you certain that liberal and civil libertarian objections would prevent those leftists from being tortured, if that's what the people in power want?

After 9/11, Szalai writes,
A growing popular disgust with both parties reflected how nativists on one side and progressives on the other understood a truth that centrists elided. The fringes on the right and the left could see how the War on Terror was an extension of the country’s history, Ackerman says, with its settler colonialism and fantasies of a race war; the difference was that the nativist right insisted that settler colonialism was part of what made America great, while the progressive left found it morally despicable. By 2016, nativists were rejoicing at the prospect of Trump pursuing (nonwhite) terrorists without any restraints; progressives wanted the War on Terror abolished.
But the key ingredient in Trump's secret sauce wasn't his willingness to torture foreign terrorists -- it was his rage at undocumented immigrants.

I'm not saying that Ackerman is totally off base here. I just suspect that "9/11 gave us Trump" is the kind of provocatively high-concept idea that gets you a book deal but leaves out a lot of the facts.

Rightists have been casting about for some group to define as the embodiment of pure evil ever since the Berlin Wall fell and communism no longer qualified. For a time in the 1990s, the enemy was "superpredator" criminals -- all assumed to be non-white -- along with the supposedly limp-wristed liberals who were regarded as those criminals' enablers. The 9/11 attacks made Muslims the #1 enemy. But all through this period, right-wing politicians and commentators railed against a large supporting cast of additional enemies: "tax-and-spend, blame-America-first" Democratic politicians, gay people, "feminazis," left-leaning college professors, liberal entertainers, and, always, "illegals." Pat Buchanan called for a border barrier in the 1992 campaign that damaged President George H.W. Bush and may have led to his defeat in November of that year.

The rage was always there, increasingly stoked by right-wing radio and Fox News, and Trump understood it intuitively because, like so many of his voters, he was a poorly informed senior citizen radicalized by Fox.

Ackerman writes about war and defense issues. I'm not sure he quite understands how little most Americans in the post-Cold War era have paid attention to news about other countries, except in the years immediately following 9/11. Yes, angry Americans are angry at Islamicists, but they're mostly angry at enemies closer to home. As Frank Rich used to say, they tuned out the War on Terror many years ago. But they still hate you, me, Nancy Pelosi, "gangbangers" (does anyone other than the right still use that word?), and some eleven-year-old who just crossed the Mexican border. And they would have hated us all whether or not 9/11 happened.

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