A Day that Never Ended
America thought it left the War on Terror behind, but the emergency never stopped expanding
Twenty-two years ago jet planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. Within two hours they fell, starting fires that still burned eight days later, on September 19th, when Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for a sweeping expansion of executive power, telling congress on a Wednesday to have a bill by the end of the week. “We need every tool available to us,” Ashcroft said, and congress quickly delivered with “roving” wiretaps, warrantless searches, “trap and trace” searches, law enforcement and intelligence access to grand jury information, use of FISA monitoring for non-foreign situations, reduction or elimination of predicate requirements for FBI investigations, and elimination of judicial review for most of these activities, among many other things in the USA PATRIOT Act. It all passed on October 26th, marking just the beginning of what turned into a long period of radical change.
From 2001 to 2008 the U.S. internationally became the world’s Death Star, constructing the most fearsome military-intelligence state ever seen. Between 1.9 and 3 million Americans served in wars after 9/11, as the open-ended 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force led not only to invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but deployments in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Niger, and parts unknown, the list of foes covered by the AUMF remaining classified. Passage of new military commissions law made Guantanamo Bay the face of an anything-goes secret justice system, kept filled with “combatants” by troops from a swelling archipelago of 750 foreign bases. A “targeted killing” program headed by a fleet of CIA-run drone programs was likewise kept busy by a vast global surveillance net, newly consolidated after the creation of the 240,000-person Department of Homeland Security, the largest federal reorganization since the Defense Department’s birth in 1947.
It’s forgotten, but Barack Obama was sent to the White House in what a lot of the voting public at the time considered a referendum on the security state. The genteel Obama played up “constitutional lawyer” credentials, announcing in a national security address at the Wilson Center in 2007 his opposition to the “color-coded politics of fear” and “a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized.” Candidate Obama added it was time to “turn the page” with more peaceful means of “drying up” support for terrorism, a strategy that hurtled him past favored Hillary Clinton in primary season. Privately however he’d already met with people like Richard Clarke, who told him, “As a president, you kill people.” This is who Obama would actually be in office, an “idealist without illusions” who expanded the buildup, institutionalized the “kill list,” and in one of his last major acts, created a new counter-disinformation authority that helped birth the censorship state.
The 5th Circuit Court’s decision in the Missouri v. Biden case last week, which allowed the Department of Homeland Security (and its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA) to squirm free of an anti-censorship injunction, underscored the central delusion of post-9/11 America. Voters thought they shut down the War on Terror in 2008, but American citizens were instead swallowed up by it, made subjects of the global dragnet. From the Towers to Trump to Covid to today, the emergency state not only never receded but tried continually to expand, looking to make the panic of twenty-two years ago a forever thing. How do we end this day?