A New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2021
"An impressive combination of diligence and verve, deploying Ackerman’s deep stores of knowledge as a national security journalist to full effect. The result is a narrative of the last 20 years that is upsetting, discerning and brilliantly argued." —The New York Times
"One of the most illuminating books to come out of the Trump era." —New York Magazine
An examination of the profound impact that the War on Terror had in pushing American politics and society in an authoritarian direction
For an entire generation, at home and abroad, the United States has waged an endless conflict known as the War on Terror. In addition to multiple ground wars, the era pioneered drone strikes and industrial-scale digital surveillance; weakened the rule of law through indefinite detentions; sanctioned torture; and manipulated the truth about it all. These conflicts have yielded neither peace nor victory, but they have transformed America. What began as the persecution of Muslims and immigrants has become a normalized feature of American politics and national security, expanding the possibilities for applying similar or worse measures against other targets at home, as the summer of 2020 showed. A politically divided and economically destabilized country turned the War on Terror into a cultural—and then a tribal—struggle. It began on the ideological frontiers of the Republican Party before expanding to conquer the GOP, often with the acquiescence of the Democratic Party. Today’s nativist resurgence walked through a door opened by the 9/11 era. And that door remains open.
Reign of Terror shows how these developments created an opportunity for American authoritarianism and gave rise to Donald Trump. It shows that Barack Obama squandered an opportunity to dismantle the War on Terror after killing Osama bin Laden. By the end of his tenure, the war had metastasized into a bitter, broader cultural struggle in search of a demagogue like Trump to lead it.
Reign of Terror is a pathbreaking and definitive union of journalism and intellectual history with the power to transform how America understands its national security policies and their catastrophic impact on civic life.
Bigotry, loss of freedom, government overreach, and Donald Trump's presidency are the fruits of the endless "war on terror," according to this sweeping indictment of post-9/11 politics. Journalist Ackerman's debut rehashes 20 years of disastrous, abusive policies following the September 11 attacks, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA's torture of terrorism suspects, President Obama's drone strikes and their civilian casualties, and the NSA's warrantless surveillance programs. More deeply, he contends, the demonization of imagined Muslim enemies fueled currents of anti-immigrant nativism and white supremacism that culminated in Trump's MAGA movement. Ackerman's critique of specific elements of the war on terror are incisive, if sometimes lurid "Coked-up naked gym rats on heavy steroidal doses would run onto Green Zone balconies and, screaming, fire AK-47 rounds into the Iraqi night sky," he writes, describing American military contractors in Baghdad and spares neither Republicans nor Democrats. Unfortunately, his promiscuous applications of the trope ("Coronavirus was the public health equivalent of the War on Terror") and blanket allegations of racism ("only white supremacy can truly explain the depth of right-wing fury at Obama") lack nuance. By explaining everything in terms of counterterrorism and white supremacism, Ackerman ends up obscuring more than he clarifies.