January 28, 2021

Towards the end of the Cold War, a top advisor to President Gorbachev warned Americans: “We are doing something really terrible to you — we are depriving you of an enemy.” After the Capitol riot this month America discovered it had a new enemy — itself, or those Americans who would rather cross the Rubicon with Trump than take their chances with Joe Biden. What is to be done with them?

First, a surreal copy of Baghdad’s Green Zone was built in central Washington to prevent any of them ever taking selfies in Nancy Pelosi’s office ever again. Then a consensus began to develop among America’s elites — a “Domestic War on Terror” must be launched against the Trumpists.

Michel Foucault would have been amused by the situation. In 1976 the Frenchman delivered a lecture, Society Must be Defended, about the relationship between war and the state. What stigmata, he asked, does warfare leave on the national body?

In the case of European colonial powers, Foucault identified a unique type of scar tissue. Colonial practices had a “boomerang effect” on Western states; Europeans experimented with “techniques” of control on the Imperial periphery, which went on to influence “apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power” in the West itself. You must not forget, Foucault told his audience, that one result of colonialism “was that the West could practise something resembling colonisation, or an internal colonialism on itself.”

It was not quite an original thought. Foucault may have been inspired by Hannah Arendt, who, in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), draws a fairly straight line between Cecil Rhodes’ activities in South Africa and Adolf Hitler’s in Eastern Europe. Arendt was the first to use the phrase “imperial boomerang effect”, whereby authoritarian forms of social control, developed in colonies, are eventually turned on oppressed groups in the homeland. Totalitarianism was the consequence.

Imperialism, Foucault and Arendt thought, whirls back on itself. Given the right pressures, a Green Zone in Baghdad can become a Green Zone in Washington. The War on Terror comes home.

In the days after 9/11, Foucault wasn’t being consulted much by the architects of the new war. “Never again” was the phrase on their minds, not “imperial boomerang effect”. The Bush administration was laying the groundwork for policies like enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, mass digital and telephone surveillance, arrest without warrant — and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Partly from disgust with these policies, Americans elected Barack Obama in 2008 to end them. Here was someone who had read Foucault — in a failed attempt to get a girlfriend — in college, sitting in the Oval Office. In a 2013 speech, Obama warned that force could not be deployed everywhere extremist ideologies took root. Perpetual war would “alter our country in troubling ways.”

As was so often the case, Obama eloquently outlined a problem, and never quite solved it. The War on Terror rippled out into new frontiers — Yemen, Syria, Libya, Niger. He deployed his special forces in at least seventy countries. Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, was killed by a drone strike in 2011. This execution without a trial — even if it was ordered by the former president of the Harvard Law Review — was an extraordinary violation of the Constitution.

Americans wanted a reduction in the number of terrorists who intended to do them harm. But blanket judgments based on pervasive fear took them somewhere else, and the scope of the anti-terror leviathan is enormous: nearly a million contracted security personnel; at least 33 facilities for these top-secret intelligence workers with the floorspace of three Pentagons; technology that can hack Angela Merkel’s phone and launch four Hellfire missiles at a Yemeni marriage procession from 60,000ft in the air. The US government appears to have given up on building infrastructure for its citizens — but it can spare $1.7 billion for the National Security Agency to build a data storage facility in Utah the size of seventeen football fields. When completed, it will store the virtual equivalent of 500 quintillion pages of text.

Panopticon doesn’t do that justice. The administrators of America’s security state have engineered a hideously overgrown octopus, entangled in everything digital, that can stretch and sniff in all directions, that can ooze into every crack and crevice of society. The NSA knows what porn Muslim radicals watched, and nobody but Edward Snowden and a few difficult journalists really seemed to care.

Perhaps these “apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power” could be justified if they prevented further terrorist attacks on US soil.  As President Bush was so fond of saying throughout his first term: “We are fighting them over there so that we won’t have to fight them here at home.” And at least the hardest edges of it fell on the borderlands of the Empire.

But following 6 January the boomerang is arrowing back to the Imperial centre. The atmosphere at the FBI earlier this month, according to Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s program on extremism, was like the aftermath of 9/11. Across American media War and Terror analogies flourished.

A former Chief Prosecutor at Guantanamo called one Republican congressman who supported the “Stop the Steal” rally more guilty than “95%” of his old detainees. “It’s time we start a domestic war on sedition by American terrorists,” he tweeted. Former FBI director James Comey declared that homegrown terrorists were a bigger threat to America than Islamic extremists. His former deputy, Andrew McCabe, compared those who stormed the Capitol to the Americans who trickled into Syria to join ISIS. Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal had his own analogy. The rampaging Trumpists were an insurgency — just like Al-Qaeda in Iraq. John Brennan, the ex-CIA chief, agreed: this was a homegrown insurgent movement.

Some ideas of how to extirpate it were less bloodthirsty than others. Katie Couric, former co-anchor of NBC’s Today, only wanted to “deprogram” the rioters. Instagram’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez merely wanted to “reign [sic] in our media environment” to combat “disinformation and misinformation”. On ABC’s light entertainment chat show, The View, Meghan McCain admitted that she wasn’t against sending the Trumpists to Gitmo. “They should be treated the same way we treat Al-Qaeda.” Her father — who loved war — would have been proud.

There was action as well as talk. Trump was muted while he was still President. Parler was removed from the internet entirely. The largest gun forum in the world was taken offline. Corporations ranging from AirBnB to JP Morgan paused or blocked donations to Republicans who queried November’s election result. The Biden administration made passing a law against domestic terrorism a priority on January 7th. Career liberals, progressives and questionable men who gave the approval for “black sites” in Pakistan cheered all this on. The boomerang wasn’t heading towards them. “Techniques of control” — the kind of digital purging that was a feature of the war against ISIS — were flowing back home.

Had Americans forgotten where secrecy had taken Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan? Did they remember the blowback that administration had generated by underwriting a jihad against the USSR, or the generation of radicals (and the flow of migrants to Europe) that were the dividend of Bush’s War on Terror?

No, apparently not. The connection between actions and their consequences is still thinly perceived. “Sweep it all up” Donald Rumsfeld had mused the night the towers fell, “things related and not.”

The MAGA rioters, the QAnon cultists, the whole Trumpian miscellany, was, according to one (unsympathetic) terror academic, “waking up” the actual Deep State, not the one in their conspiratorial nightmares. All those billions and all that hardware may be trained on them. “Terrorism is terrorism” one official familiar with the Biden administration’s security plans told Politico. QAnon will get the Al-Qaeda treatment. The final irony is that those who are being swept up are themselves a legacy of the War on Terror.

Five people died in the Capitol riot. One of them was Ashli Babbit. She’d served fourteen years in the Air Force, and in the livestream she made as she walked towards the Capitol, referred to Trump supporters as “boots on the ground.” She stands for the rest — nearly one in five of those charged after the riot had a military history — far better than the “Q Shaman”. Among the arrested were an Army veteran with sniper training, and a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. A retired Navy SEAL boasted about storming the Capitol on Facebook. Fluttering above the crowd on January 6th were multiple United States Marine Corps flags.

Other banners — and they are too easily dismissed as kitsch — showed an incarnation of Trump as John Rambo, the character from Sylvester Stallone’s action movie franchise. Rambo is a veteran, broken in Vietnam, who travels to a town to pay his respects to a fallen comrade. He is hounded by the police and unable to find a job. Rambo starts to see the society he fought to defend as corrupt, decadent, and vile. “For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honour… Back here there’s nothing!”

The veterans of small, pointless wars are vulnerable to feelings of betrayal. Trump knew how to speak to them. “We’ve destabilised the Middle East,” he said in South Carolina in 2016, “they lied.” Or as he put it in a later rally: “We’re all victims. Everybody here… They’re all victims.” It is not difficult to imagine how groups of unsettled veterans, estranged from their society, hardened with the knowledge that scandalous abuses are commonplace, could come to believe that their government stole an election from them.

The historian Katherine Belew, author of Bring The War Home, a study of the growth in White Power movements after the Vietnam war, told an interviewer that the Capitol riot was a “ricochet of warfare.” There is a resonance too with the 20th century, when numerous European revolutions were stimulated by the return of unhappy soldiers to disintegrating polities.

What will happen if MAGAstan is treated like Afghanistan? Both the development of a networked armed anti-government underground, and the methods legislators, former spooks and talking heads want to use to destroy it, are boomeranging consequences of the War on Terror. Two decades and unlimited means did not end Islamic terror, which flourishes from French suburbs to Nigeria’s border with Cameroon.

Going after Trumpists with no-fly lists and secret prisons, dressed up in vague and open-ended rhetoric, will not be an effective treatment. It’s trepanning a skull to lift the “stone of madness” from the patient’s head. If there was an effective salve for political extremism, it would have been found a long time ago. Above everything, there is a wider sense that in America history is returning, and means to collect its debts.