The War on Terror has transformed America. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Spencer Ackerman explores the lasting effects in “Reign of Terror.”
The culture of 9/11 echoed the jihadism it sought to destroy: brutal, messianic, aggrieved, censorious, and eschatological. Conservatives had long used New York City as a synecdoche for the cosmopolitan decadence they saw corrupting America. But now that New York could serve as a rallying cry for war, it was a city of martyrs.
On “the Pile,” as the ruins of the World Trade Center became known, Bush stood beside rescue workers and shouted through a bullhorn, “The people who knocked down these buildings will hear us all soon.” The response was not only political. Americans drove hundreds of miles to Manhattan to stand in solidarity with New Yorkers, donating whatever skills they had to an impromptu rescue effort. Their embrace contrasted conspicuously with how Bush treated New Yorkers’ basic material needs.
The fires at Ground Zero burned for one hundred days, filling the air over lower Manhattan and beyond with carcinogenic toxins for locals, and particularly firefighters, to inhale. Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who ran Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency, blithely assured residents and rescue workers that “air samples we have taken at all levels … cause us no concern.” The residential deep cleaning that was recommended to mitigate the risk by health experts was left by the government to be performed by landlords, who did the sort of job familiar to generations of local renters.
New Yorkers mattered less than did enlisting their suffering for a war that possessed an ominous spiritual component. The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan marveled at “God Bless America” sung on Park Avenue and concluded, “God is back. He’s bursting out all over.” Subway trains put on American flag decals that would remain twenty years later. The flag was now a shroud. It also became a border, segregating those who were authentically American from those who were not.
A thirty-three-year-old Palestinian-born woman raised in Chicago, Lina Elayyan, told reporter Tram Nguyen that people who wore hijab, like her mother, felt as if “they had a bullseye on their forehead.” Hate crimes against Muslims — or those, like Sikhs, perceived to be Muslims by whites uninterested in distinctions — skyrocketed from 28 incidents in 2000 to 481 in the final months of 2001. A generation of Arab and Desi children were called “Osama” by white classmates.
With racism came conspiracy. False rumors spread that Jews who worked in the World Trade Center warned one another to stay home on 9/11. A durable conspiracy theory called 9/11 trutherism, which took root on both the far left and the far right, held that the towers were destroyed by a treasonous globalist government that sought to gin up an imperial war. “Larry Silverstein, the owner of the WTC complex, admitted … that he and the NYFD decided to ‘pull’ WTC 7,” wrote a rising conspiracist named Alex Jones, who twisted Silverstein’s words. More respectable versions of the post‑9/11 fury were no less vicious.
Commentators, and hardly only conservative ones, pathologized Arabs and Muslims, whose critiques of America were proof of their conspiratorial thinking. Within days of 9/11, the right-wing radio host Dennis Prager told the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, “It is very sad to say, but a significant percentage of the Muslim world hates us.” Before September ended, O’Reilly urged, “I think we should put troops on the border right now.”
Enemies were everywhere. A Palestinian man named Adham Amin Hassoun worked at a Miami technology company. Born in Lebanon, Hassoun had lived through the horror of the Lebanese civil war. A youth spent surviving bombings, beatings, and even kidnappings taught him both the fragility of civilization and the resilience of humanity. Hassoun was active in his mosque, quick to open his wallet to Muslim refugee charities, and he found inspiration in the solidaristic community aid efforts after Hurricane Andrew demolished much of South Florida in 1992.
“All that bullshit I used to hear” in the Middle East about the perfidy of Americans lay in ruins, he recalled, since “these people were like us.” After 9/11 Hassoun knew that there would be a backlash against Muslims—the lessons Lebanon taught were indelible—but he couldn’t accept the enormity of what was coming. “I got phone calls from overseas, ‘Leave the country.’ All the time I would say, ‘No, no, no, they’re wiser, it’s not like with the Japanese,’” Hassoun recalled.
For entire months afterward, when cable news wasn’t rebroadcasting footage of the towers collapsing or the burnt facade of the Pentagon, it documented a cascade of disasters following 9/11. Powderized anthrax spores were mailed to the U.S. Capitol, and around the country, bearing the message You cannot stop us; the FBI never did.
In December, a college student, Monique Danison, noticed that a fellow passenger aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami attempted to ignite a fuse in his shoe, but the passengers and crew restrained him. Reports about the fear gripping American Muslims, like Elayyan and her mother, received less emphasis and made little impact on the direction of the country. Particularly in New York, people retreated indoors and watched the unfolding violence on TV in a kind of catatonia. It augured a phenomenon that would last for a generation.
The overwhelming majority of Americans — the ones who did not serve in the military or the security services; the ones who were not pursued by the security services — experienced the 9/11 era as a media event. Those Americans could disengage from it when it grew unbearable. An America in a fugue state went looking for heroes. Vanity Fair dispatched Annie Leibovitz to photograph Bush’s war cabinet. New York’s reactionary mayor, Rudy Giuliani, not three years removed from the police slaying of Amadou Diallo, was apotheosized on the cover of Tina Brown’s latest venture, Talk magazine, as the mayor of America.
Giuliani had catastrophically placed his command center in the World Trade Center, the only place in New York known to have been a terrorist target. He echoed Whitman in insisting that the air was safe to breathe — elbowing federal agencies out of the way to get workers back on the job, regardless of the health risks — and passed through Ground Zero with his face protected by what Village Voice journalist Wayne Barrett recalled as no more than “a dust mask on his mouth.”
Brown was hardly the only media figure to wash Giuliani’s brutal mayoralty in the blood of 9/11. Giuliani had always been a media creation, propelled by journalists who might have found him incorrigible but generally treated him as a necessity to control an out‑of‑control city — something that, in practice, meant repressing Black, brown, and poor New Yorkers.
In short order the Fox network began airing a smash hit TV show about a counterterrorist who each season combated another imminent apocalyptic attack by torturing its perpetrators. Jack Bauer’s more resilient enemies on 24 were the bureaucrats, lawyers, and politicians attempting to prevent him from saving America. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the right’s guiding legal light, used the show to champion impunity for torture. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles,” Scalia told an Ottawa legal conference. “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Never had a people thrust into an avowedly epochal conflict been asked to do less in response to it. The NFL paused its week-two games the Sunday after 9/11, then resumed.
Bush urged people to go shopping as a way to stimulate a wartime economy. Vice President Dick Cheney invoked the “wrath” of the United States emerging and, simultaneously, hoped Americans would not “let what’s happened here in any way throw off their normal level of economic activity.” It was a decisive message that the wealthy would not have to make any sacrifices — Bush pressed on with cutting their taxes in wartime — while the working class would, as ever, be a different story. Manhattan plastic surgeons marveled that rich New Yorkers viewed a tummy tuck as therapy for 9/11‑induced stress. One cosmetic surgery consultant explained, “Some of them are telling me, ‘I may not have a face-lift this year, but whether there is a bomb or not, I’m going to be a blonde. And I’m not going to give up my Botox.’”
Wall Street made sure to hang a giant flag outside the New York Stock Exchange. The flag was an intellectual border as well, and it would be policed. Within days of the attacks Susan Sontag, a titan of American literature, wrote in The New Yorker that bin Laden had shown that America’s global domination sowed the seeds of atrocities like 9/11. She warned that the country was choosing martyrdom over understanding the bitter lesson of the attack. “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq?”
In three paragraphs Sontag summarized the emerging “Soviet Party Congress” mode of American politics that would shape a generation: a faith in the righteousness of violence and a deliberate ignorance of both its origins and its effects. The vilification Sontag reaped lasted until her death in 2004. Joan Didion recalled reading three separate denunciations of Sontag on a single page of the neoconservative Weekly Standard.
Eminent conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer devoted a Washington Post column to Sontag’s “moral obtuseness.” The neoliberal New Republic, which saw its role as policing a left it considered indecent and unreliably American, sneered at Sontag’s “self-flagellation.” Sontag was correct that 9/11 was about American power, conceded the magazine’s Lawrence F. Kaplan. But rather than dismantling it, the time had come to “wield it effectively in the coming struggle.”
Rejecting Sontag ensured that no one could respectably argue that stopping the next 9/11 required relinquishing American hegemony. Anything resembling that suggestion would be considered not only anti-American but morally deficient. “In the wake of a massacre that killed more than 5,000 innocent Americans in a single day,” Krauthammer sniffed, “one might expect moral clarity.”
That funneled American responses to 9/11 down a bellicose and censorious path. The country star Toby Keith released an anthem heralding the epic ass-kicking coming “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” It captured the national mood. People in uniform, from the military to police to firefighters, were valorized to the point of civic worship, an impulse most conspicuous in those whose lives intersected with such people rarely. To criticize the national mobilization was to disrespect the troops, to disrespect the 9/11 dead.
The Strokes, on the cusp of contending for the title of the city’s dominant rock band, pulled their September debut album to remove a song whose chorus went “New York City cops, but they ain’t too smart.” Being Muslim in public was treated as a disreputable political act. Harvard’s 2002 valedictorian, Zayed M. Yasin, was compelled to change the title of a speech about justice from “American Jihad” to “Of Faith and Citizenship”; students protested Yasin anyway.
In the months after 9/11, Didion, taking the banner from the canceled Sontag, wrote that “inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced … was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy … Pathetic fallacy was everywhere.” One such fallacy concerned the Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite news channel Al Jazeera. In the months following 9/11, al‑Qaeda issued its communiques through the channel. Osama bin Laden even granted its Taysir Allouni an interview in October 2001.
For years afterward, American political and media classes treated Al Jazeera, a news organization, as little more than al‑Qaeda’s amplifier, providing critical aid to an enemy. That meant treating Al Jazeera not primarily as a forum where the War on Terror was treated more critically than most, but as a combatant. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in November, it bombed Al Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul and said it had indications that the building was “a known al‑Qaeda facility.”
The next month, Pentagon communications chief Victoria Clarke claimed that the U.S. did not have indications that the channel operated out of the building, though Al Jazeera had said it provided the Americans with their location. During the apogee of American geopolitical supremacy in the 1990s, national politics had devolved into a culture war. Now elites, needing to make 9/11 meaningful, treated the trauma as a path to a longed-for national unity.
Commentators spoke of a frivolous “holiday from history” coming to a close, as if the country were a young man recognizing the need to put aside childish things. “One good thing could come from this horror,” wrote Roger Rosenblatt in Time, “it could spell the end of the age of irony.”
Now it would be an age of iron. It was in this context — outwardly receiving deference from a frightened public; threatened with scapegoating for 9/11 by fearful politicians; expected to act as an instrument of both vengeance and deterrence — that the Security State constructed what became known as the War on Terror. Its name reflected what both Sontag and Didion had diagnosed: exceptionalist euphemism that masked a boundless, direful ambition.
From “Reign of Terror” by Spencer Ackerman, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Spencer Ackerman.
For nearly the entire War on Terror, Spencer Ackerman has been a national-security correspondent for outlets like The New Republic, WIRED, The Guardian and currently The Daily Beast. He has reported from the frontlines of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. He shared in the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism for Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks to The Guardian, a series of stories that also yielded him other awards, including the Scripps Howard Foundation’s 2014 Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting and the 2013 IRE medal for investigative reporting. Ackerman’s WIRED series on Islamophobic counterterrorism training at the FBI won the 2012 online National Magazine Award for reporting. He frequently appears on MSNBC, CNN, and other news networks.
Editor’s note: This is a book excerpt and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.