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The War on Terror returns home Twenty years of conflict is boomeranging back to an increasingly unstable America

National Guard arrive at the U.S. Capitol on January 12, 2021. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

National Guard arrive at the U.S. Capitol on January 12, 2021. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images


January 28, 2021   7 mins

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.


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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

I thought this was a good article when I started reading it. But the b*lls about Obama ‘never quite solving’ the problem of perpetual warfare was the first hint the author was childish enough to think politicians should be judged by their empty words and not their actions.

Trump started no new wars and neither did he turn his troops on the people, he did not fill Washington with tens of thousands of troops. Yet the author call his supporters political extremists.

Joe Biden and his hysterical cretins have massed troops in Washington to save their own skin, while a few hundred yards down the road a 15 month old black baby was killed in a drive by, gangland shooting, because the troops are only there to protect the elite and black gangs are cool ‘defund the police’. They have fired up the military industrial complex. They have rubbished the 1776 Report, the Trump administration’s noble project to try and unify America by explaining its founding, egalitarian principles. They have arrested a 31 year old journalist (for creating political memes) on all kinds of trumped up charges in which memes are equated with physical violence, he is now facing a 10 year prison sentence. And during all this extremist, authoritarian government action Biden has been speaking about ‘unity’.

Yet in attempting to get to grips with what is happening you call the people who object to this authoritarianism ‘political extremists’ and imply they are sad, screwed up losers. Time to start thinking about reality instead of trying to compromise.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

the same people now feigning such concern were stone silent or close to it during a summer of mayhem that saw one city after another overrun by riots, with dozens killed – almost all black, none of whom apparently mattered – and billions in damage.

Most eye-opening is people I know who are of the left and say nothing about the talk from their side, whether it’s painting half the country as terrorists or “deprogramming.”

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Treat half the country like terrorists and dehumanize them. What could go wrong? At least the piece notes – but does not actually connect the dots – how all the people wringing their hands about this new terror menace are comfortable with terms like “deprogramming” and “send them to Gitmo,” as if their version of the purges is somehow nicer than all the previous versions.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

They’ve learned the routine from somebody. Naturally they think theirs is nicer. There’s an old Yiddish proverb that goes ‘One’s own is bad, but it doesn’t smell.’ Or the other way around.

Chris Miller
Chris Miller
3 years ago

The condition of our veterans is indeed troubling. Prolonged states of mental agitation have left them overwrought, and they’re desperate for a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Instead, they’ve come home to an administrative state run by fundamentally silly people who seem eager to provoke them. They’re subject to a constant barrage of negativity that’s filling them with resentment and paranoia until they become convinced that frantic, self-righteous violence is their only path to happiness.

We must stop repeating the pattern of inflating every conflict and every difference into absolute ideological opposition or we may soon disintegrate into hostile factions bent on destroying one another.

The situation is not hopeless. The forces that encourage rancor and division have a weakness. Friendship and love among people are powers they are unable to defeat. Dedicated to that proposition we may yet shake off their malice and sometime soon find ourselves enjoying peaceful evenings with quiet minds, content to appreciate the beauty of life.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
3 years ago

You cannot have unity if the population hold disparate beliefs with little overlap anywhere. Social media has exposed the truth about wealth and elite politics and that will take decades to resolve even if there was a will to do so. It is obvious that Trump was a symptom not a cause and that pious self righteous politicians will convince themselves that use of force against wrong headed citizens is for the common good. Youngsters with little education or feeling for history walk blindly into the storm.

Irina Vedekhina
Irina Vedekhina
3 years ago

“Social media has exposed the truth about wealth and elite politics and that will take decades to resolve…”

I think it is the entertainment industry that should be first to blame, in particular, series like “House of Cards”, “Succession “, “Billions” etc. They are true works of genius, but, sadly, as a by product, everyone who watched believes he is now an expert on being a president, on workings of a media empire or dealings of Wall Street and, as we know, familiarity brings contempt.

That was how the existing societal balance was disturbed, and the concepts of elites, meritocracy etc have gained negative connotations.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

I’ve found many opportunities to recommend War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, in these Times. Basically the book argues that war is addictive like a drug. I would expand that idea to cold and culture wars. And our addictions to cold wars, culture wars, and real wars seem to be converging to a point in terrifying and unpredictable ways.

I am a reluctant pacifist. I would so dearly love to fight the people who are so foolishly participating in, yes, BOTH sides of this. Knock their teeth out til they learn. But that is exactly the impulse they’re all listening to. And that is exactly what is accomplishing nothing but destruction and despair.

I urge everyone to do two things: first look into your heart and find your hate. It’s okay, go ahead, feel it. It’s okay to admit that it feels good. It always feels good. Keep that feeling in mind. Now take a good look at whomsoever you see as the villain in all this. That is the same feeling that is motivating them. They are why that feeling should not be listened to.

Greg Maland
Greg Maland
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Hate might feel powerful, or righteous, but it doesn’t feel good. However, I completely agree with your larger point. It’s ironic, because I believe the whole “War on Hate” concept (which is deeply self-contradictory) originated on the left, and now Biden’s administration appears driven by this dark emotion. This is tragic, because if anything is clear from history, it’s that adding anger and violence to a situation never works out well in the long run. When will we see a shift where people are no longer so easily inspired by calls for more wars? When will we recognize the ultimate value of wisdom, as the antidote to hate?

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  Greg Maland

When we all learn to accept the fact that we can’t make everyone agree with us, and we will always have to live alongside those who don’t.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Greg Maland

How could hate originate with the Left? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’d genuinely be interested in the theory.

gregm8644
gregm8644
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Charles Rense – great comment sir.

Christian Filli
Christian Filli
3 years ago

The most important hint in this article is the made-up and misleading term “MAGAstan”. Why on earth are we not even mentioning ANTIFA, and naming it for what it is: a terrorist organization? Perhaps because it is lead by well-educated white collar individuals in the West Coast, never mind their burning desire to overthrow the government. If we continue to think that all threats are coming from one particular side or sector of the country, we’re in for a big surprise.

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago

I am left wondering who the extremists are. Anyone who disagrees with you?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

anyone who disagrees with a leftist. Look at the various figures calling for, depending on the speaker, de-programming or cleansing or reeducation. We have a militarized Capitol, which is ironic because numerous cities were under assault for months and the same people clutching their pearls now were telling cops to stand down then.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Unstable America? Depends largely on where you live. Avoid blue states and especially blue cities and you’ll find very little instability. In fact, most of us watch this blue state activity and just thank our lucky stars that we do not have to live with it. It’s not hard to avoid blue areas.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago

Interesting that those insurrectionists, storming the Capital, came sans weapons to effect their overthrow of the government. Some of course came to make mayhem and did to a degree but actually destroyed little. Nothing at all like the BLM riots. The majority simply wanted someone in power to hear their complaints. They had been told repeatedly by one side of a stolen election and told by another side that any evidence of that claim would not be permitted. Until that evidence becomes public and openly discussed the majority of those convinced will not stop in their beliefs.

If those disaffected veterans decide to arm themselves and decide to join in plots, the worries of the FBI will become true. Public appearances of leaders might become possible issues to guard against. But continued stoking of the divisions does not resolve the issue. Only now the public is learning the evidence that Trump-Russia was a created crisis, well done with support from institutions expected to be non-partisan. That adds to distrust in government itself not at all helped by those who brand people as dangerous insurrectionists when there was no insurrection.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

When one looks back at Trump’s election and inauguration day and compares it to Biden’s own recent efforts, particularly when one looks at the regular protests and violence across the US that characterised the former’s in comparison to the latter’s, one has to wonder why a ‘crypto-fascist’ like Trump failed to have 25,000 troops on the streets of Washington that day in 2016 and quite why Biden thought he might need that many in 2020.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

-still waiting for the first decapitation video from our “domestic terrorists”. This scribe leaves out so much, and includes so many laughably absurd conclusions that it’s hard to know where to begin. Oh, and by the way, Obama’s fictional girlfriend wasn’t impressed because it never happened.

Stephen Hoffman
Stephen Hoffman
3 years ago

It’s easy to practice Foucaultian techniques of oppression on the margins of empire, where “universal brotherhood” is just a slogan that blows away in the desert wind. It’s also easy to enforce totalitarianism in a nationalist European state squeezed in a vice between a hostile East and West (Nazi Germany). But what happens when totalitarianism comes home to the acknowledged center of the world (America)? The novel pressures brought to bear by the world upon itself in such a situation might create the historical conditions for something entirely strange and unexpected”a diamond like true freedom.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Whose side are you on, Will? Are you with Joe? or the Loser?

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

The author has pointed the problem, but not a solution. Because perhaps there is none. Democracy will never escape its nemesis: Populism. Democracy placidly accepts that an imbecile and a well-informed, intellectually capable citizen must be given the same power to select who governs.
Democracy’s only chance to escape populism would be to require pre-qualification from voters, screening for delusionals, blind nationalists, racists, etc. But that would be… well, undemocratic, right?
And so the dance goes on…

Stephen Hoffman
Stephen Hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

I’m sure you would feel right at home, Andre, in a world ruled by educated morons.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

That’s the thing Stephen – there is no such combination (educated + moron) in a scenario where bigotry, racism, xenophobia etc. are treated like the disease that they are…
Anyone sporting such traits is either enlightened or ends up in jail, where it belongs.
You’re welcome.

Stephen Hoffman
Stephen Hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

(Educated + morons) know no race, color or creed, Andre. But after trying to decipher the incoherent mess you call a thought process, I think I mislabeled you as educated.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

So you cannot understand simple sentences – and I am the one missing an education? Or is it simply you getting down to personal attacks when exposed?

Stephen Hoffman
Stephen Hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

“Anyone sporting such traits is either enlightened or ends up in jail, where it [sic] belongs.” I rest my case.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

Good, looks like you ended up understanding the logic after all.

Stephen Hoffman
Stephen Hoffman
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

Keep jibbering.

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

That must be why the Democrats are ushering in all those well-informed peasants from Latin America.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  Karl Schuldes

Hmm, did I spot a xenophobe?
Oh Karl, it must really hurt when they fare better than you do, huh?

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

I don’t mind foreigners, I mind people who vote for socialists.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Karl Schuldes

That would be for votes.