Reign of Terror

By Spencer Ackerman

Most of the time, when people speak of American exceptionalism they mean it as something to be proud of, if not an outright boast. This positive brand of American exceptionalism refers to the sense of the United States as having a providential purpose and providing a light unto other nations.

There is, however, a darker side. This is what Spencer Ackerman explores in Reign of Terror. The light of nations is only an “exceptionalist euphuism that mask[s] a boundless, direful ambition.” What exceptionalism really refers to is the U.S. being an exception to moral and legal norms, which it feels free to enforce without having to follow. It refers to racial exceptionalism, of the kind that says white nationalist terrorism isn’t real terrorism and can’t be dealt with in the same way (the “foremost lesson of 9/11” would be “the terrorists were whomever you said they were”). And it refers to actions being free of consequences, the idea that jettisoning principle and the rule of law would all work out in the end and that the War on Terror would always be fought “over there” and have no impact on lives at home.

What Ackerman wants to underline is not only the falsity of this belief, but that counterterrorism may in fact be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. It would be the War on Terror that would pose the greatest threat to the fabric of American life, not terrorism itself. American exceptionalism, however, suggested a state of perpetual innocence: no loss, no consequences, no responsibility. Or, in the language of Trump: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

On the question of whether Trump marked a break with the past or a continuation or logical progression of a rightward political drift Ackerman comes down more on the side of the latter. Not just Republicans but the whole apparatus of the technocratic security state, the military-industrial-information complex, had its fruition in Trump. The so-called “Resistance” to Trump would cheer on the “Adults in the Room, without considering that an earlier set of adults, the adults they esteemed, had already prepared the room.” Trump only took the varnish of the good exceptionalism off. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he would ask, rhetorically. His “great insight was that the jingoistic politics of the War on Terror did not have to be tied to the War on Terror itself.” Instead, he could just plug directly into a racial “war of civilizations” and talk about destroying the Middle East in order to take its oil. Many people found this refreshing.

While there’s much to take note of here, I had the feeling that Reign of Terror was a bit rambling, covering a lot of ground but in need of greater focus. There were times when I thought a long essay might have done the trick. But something is added to the argument for there being a through-line or continuity in American foreign and domestic policy over the course of the last twenty years, contributing to a period of endless, often invisible wars that would “achieve neither peace nor victory, only prolonged violence.” A result that everyone would complain about, but which might have been the goal all along.

Review first published online February 21, 2022.

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