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How the war on terror changed America

The US has spent the 20 years since 9/11 surveilling, policing and terrorising people within its own borders.

By Emily Tamkin

The “theatre of war” is a term used to describe the area in land, sea or air that becomes a site of military operations. Carl von Clausewitz described it in On War (1832) as denoting “a portion of the space over which war prevails as has its boundaries protected, and thus possesses a kind of independence”.

On the evening of 11 September 2001, a few hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the downing of United Airlines 93, President George W Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. “The search is under way for those who were behind these evil acts,” he said, warning the world that the US would make “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them”. Just over a week later, Bush struck a similar note in a speech to Congress: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.” It was a declaration of war on terror itself. 

But there is no theatre of war that can contain a war on terror, which possesses no kind of independence and has no boundaries. Terror can be enacted and felt everywhere, and so the theatre of war post-9/11 became the entire world. 

The war on terror included the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. That adventure culminated 20 years later with the US withdrawing its troops and the Taliban returning to power. The war on terror also included the invasion and occupation of Iraq, despite a lack of credible intelligence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime to the 9/11 attacks. The war in Iraq punctured America’s self-image as a benevolent empire, “whose grace notes,” according to Michael Ignatieff writing in 2003, “are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” 

A war against terror would not only be fought abroad; it was also fought in the homeland against its own citizens. The US has spent the past 20 years surveilling, restricting, policing and terrorising people within its own borders. 

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[See also: The new age of American power]

As the years since 9/11 have passed, the war on terror has gone from being the organising mission of American life, to the mood music against which other phenomena have wrought the nation. As New Yorker writer Evan Osnos shows in his book Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury (2021), the years between 11 September and the siege on the Capitol in January 2021 were defined by rising inequality and the gilded revolving doors between government and the corporate sector. There was the disconnect between life at home and the wars we fought abroad, and the people we sent off to fight them. There was our mistreatment of the land and, by extension, the people who live on it – blasting the tops off mountains to mine coal in West Virginia, enriching companies and lobbyists. There was racism. All of this has been a part of American life for the past two decades, and remains with us.

Amid all this, the war on terror – its laws and legislation; its surveillance programmes and extraordinary rendition protocols; its military-industrial procurements and cheerleaders in the press; its sense of imminent threat and its creation of deeper suspicions – seeped into our lives. As Spencer Ackerman writes in Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilised America and Produced Trump (2021), “Fundamentally, the war was always home.”

This was most immediately felt by American Muslims. “After 9/11, the US practically changed overnight into a country that mistrusts, surveils and detains Muslims, or even people who look like Muslims,” said Farah Brelvi and Asifa Quraishi-Landes of Muslim Advocates to the New Statesman

Civil liberties were enthusiastically trampled in the name of national security. The 2001 Patriot Act authorised broad new surveillance policies. As Ackerman describes, after 9/11 the National Security Agency decided that every single phone call between the US and Afghanistan could be intercepted, and developed a programme, called Stellar Wind that collected “Americans’ internal communications data, from phone records to email and browser history, as well as domestic call records, in bulk”.

In addition to the warrantless surveillance carried out by the state, there was the Islamophobia that remains a feature of US politics. Anti-Muslim violence in America predates 9/11, but according to Brelvi and Quraishi-Landes, “9/11 turbocharged anti-Muslim hate and mutated it into a political weapon. This event not only inspired record numbers of hate crimes against American Muslims but it also gave birth to an enduring cottage industry of politicians, pundits and other hatemongers who peddle anti-Muslim hate for financial and professional gain.”

As Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump didn’t bother to hide his Islamophobia. He falsely claimed that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered while watching the Twin Towers fall. But instead of a full-throated rebuttal, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, said, “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines.” Rather than defending the humanity and inherent dignity of Muslim Americans, she turned them into soldiers in the war on terror, implying that they would be best-placed to inform on terror in their own communities. 

All of this was accompanied by violence perpetrated by American citizens against their Muslim neighbours, emboldened by a political class that told them Islam was the enemy. As Brelvi and Quraishi-Landes put it, “It’s certainly not a coincidence that the two highest recent spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes happened around 9/11 and when Trump ran for president.” Even as Trump was voted out, new politicians, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who suggested the 2018 midterm was an “Islamic invasion of our government”, were elected into congressional office. 

Also notable during the war on terror were attacks on American Sikhs, who were often confused with Muslims. Bias against Sikh Americans wasn’t new – there have been Sikhs in the US for over 125 years, and they have always been subject to violence and prejudice – but there were over 300 incidents of bias in the month after 9/11, Sim Singh, senior policy and advocacy manager at the Sikh Coalition, tells me. Just four days after 9/11, a 49-year-old Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed. When the police approached to arrest the man who shot him, the shooter said, “I’m a patriot and an American.” In 2012, a 40-year-old man shot and killed six people and wounded four others at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. There are still cases of bias and violence and employment discrimination against Sikhs, Singh said. “It hasn’t really gone away.” 

[See also: How the war on terror led to the forever wars]

After 9/11, the entire immigration system was changed, transforming certain populations into security threats in the process. Prior to 9/11, immigration in the US was handled by the Department of Justice. After 9/11, it was handled by a new agency: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). All immigration functions were administered under DHS. But the securitisation of immigration wasn’t only accomplished by the advent of new agencies, as Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, explains to me.

Before 1996, immigration was generally considered an issue overseen by the federal government. In 1996, when Republican Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House, Congress passed an amendment that stipulated state and local law enforcement could be deputised to implement immigration law. The law lay dormant for years – until after 9/11, when the first agreement between federal and local police was signed between the government and the state of Florida (the governor at the time was Jeb Bush, the president’s brother). It wasn’t only Muslim immigrants or people from South Asia or the Middle East who were targeted: by 2007, there were about 80 agreements, and mostly with jurisdictions in south-western states on the US-Mexico border. With Secure Communities, a programme through which databases were integrated, officers whose day-to-day jobs previously had little or nothing to do with immigration enforcement were tasked with carrying out immigration law, and had access to people’s immigration history. “You make a wrong left turn, you can get deported,” Chishti says. (The Secure Communities programme was discontinued in 2014, restarted by Trump in 2017, and shut down again by Biden in 2021.) 

Local law enforcement was changed in another important way too. As Ackerman writes, in 2014, when Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, they confronted a police force armed with surplus US military equipment. Counterterrorism grants were also endowed by the DHS to police precincts across the country. A 2007 law said that officers had to spend “not less than 25 per cent” of that money on “law enforcement terrorism prevention activities”, which, as Ackerman writes, encouraged a “cottage industry marketing anti-Islam training to them” so that police could meet their quota. Even outside the quota, they were able to greet protesters – people marching against state-backed violence against black Americans – armed like they were soldiers deployed to a foreign war zone.

But in a way, they were in a warzone. In 2001 Bush declared a war on terror. Terror is everywhere. Some say, now, when watching tanks roll down American streets to quash protests, that US foreign policy came home. But it was always here, at home. It’s still here. Media figures such as Tucker Carlson now talk about the threat Afghan refugees pose to homeland security; politicians are wondering how many of the Covid-19 infections are coming from undocumented immigrants; mosques are damaged and protesters pepper-sprayed. The theatre of war is everywhere and the curtain can never fall. And so, the play goes on and on. 

[See also: Why the Biden administration should not sanction the Taliban]

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