Edited by Sam Thielman
REIGN OF TERROR: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump is available today. If you’re here, even to hate-read, you’ll enjoy or hate-enjoy the book. This newsletter is The Silmarillion to REIGN’s Lord of The Rings.
I’m grateful to have four excerpts from the book published as well. Naturally, the Daily Beast got the book’s introduction essay, which is designed to showcase the thesis of the book and demonstrate a bit of its narrative. If you’re wondering “what exactly does he mean by the title?,” read the end.
The way I craft this narrative is deliberate – it emerged from 18 years of reporting – and it’s inextricable from the thesis. You can see my attempt at developing the thesis narratively in the excerpt Vanity Fair published. That one focuses on a moment that revealed the soul of War on Terror, a point when I believe a Trump-like president became inevitable: the invention of the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
The first scene I saw clearly for REIGN turned out not to work. But the second scene I saw for REIGN became the prologue, which is where the narrative properly begins. It’s a conceptual choice not often made when discussing the War on Terror, and I think it’s landed well, since most of the first wave of interviews I’ve done for the book have asked about it. LitHub has the heart of it.
I have seen exactly one act of genuine battlefield heroism in all my years of reporting on the War on Terror. It occurred when a U.S. platoon sergeant refused to let his Afghan police partners loot a house of poor women who had sheltered a Taliban suspect. The outlet I wrote this story for, the Washington Independent, no longer exists, and so every year on Memorial Day I tweet a version of it. But eventually Twitter won’t exist, and I was the only reporter accompanying the platoon that day, so if I didn’t put the story in REIGN it would be lost to history. Task & Purpose has that excerpt. You should just be reading Task & Purpose in general.
Hopefully those are enough REIGN testers for you to choose to purchase the book. As well, the book is getting the type of reviews that I thought were reserved for my daydreams. Patrick Iber vindicated me in the pages of the magazine that fired me over expressing the viewpoint that would eventually become REIGN. You’ll also hear me on enough podcasts to irritate you. Please buy the book before that happens.
I’M INTERESTED IN THE REACTIONS to come from the Security State and those who identify with it. They are anything but a monolith. (REIGN Chapter 6…) But several weeks ago, in a manner I didn’t anticipate, factions within that cohort raised an objection over historical memory.
When Donald Rumsfeld died, the Daily Beast asked me to write an obituary. I decided to attempt a very conservative tally of people who died as the result of decisions he made, executed or defended. Limited only to Iraq and Afghanistan, and relying on the (again) very analytically conservative Cost of War Project at Brown University, Rumsfeld is meaningfully responsible for the deaths of at least 400,000 people. It’s surely a higher total. But when someone causes that much death, and they then die, their death is about their infamous works, not their own life.
Reader, I thought that would be pretty uncontroversial. But a vocal faction within certain “national security” spaces that I am in had feelings about it. They called my piece an ill-informed calumny. There were a lot of nasty adjectives sent my way, but little in the way of concrete factual dispute. The most coherent objection claimed that in focusing on Rumsfeld I was somehow overattributing the wars to him, when my whole thing – particularly in REIGN OF TERROR – is that complicity for the War on Terror amongst elites is broad, deep and structural. One person, whom I did not specifically call out, said that, by my logic, they must also be responsible for Rumsfeld’s butcher’s bill, too.
Then I remembered that the typical way Washington “national security” circles work is by diffusing responsibility throughout their membership. If complicity in a disaster is structural – if it’s bipartisan, spread across multiple branches of government, etc. – then responsibility disappears in a cloud of self-congratulation. No one in these circles was really more wrong than anyone else, and so the whole enterprise can move on to the next disaster without undue reflection.
That made me see the aggrieved individual’s objection, that they too must similarly have blood on their hands, in a different light. The heart of their problem, I think, is that I was saying that the wars killed hundreds of thousands of people, probably more; and that specific people, people with names, are responsible for that; and that history should remember those people as being soaked in innocent blood. If certain people see themselves in that, then their conscience is telling them something. I didn’t make their conscience do that. I just put them in the frame of mind where it could. In that light, the Rumsfeld piece may be a skirmish telegraphing the battles to come. Ap Bac to REIGN’s Vietnam.
So that’s one reaction to REIGN OF TERROR I am very interested in observing. There has been no accountability for the post-9/11 reign of terror, so I had to do it myself.