The 'War on Terror' as the launching of an 'American Crusade'
America may be sinking ever deeper into the moral morass of the Trump era, but if you think the malevolence of this period began with him, think again. The moment I still dwell on, the moment I believe ignited the vast public disorder that is now our all-American world, has been almost completely forgotten here. And little wonder. It was no more than a casually tossed-off cliché, a passing historical reference whose implications and consequences meant nothing to the speaker. “This crusade,” said President George W. Bush just days after the 9/11 attacks, “this war on terrorism…”
That, however, proved to be an invocation from hell, one that set the stage for so much of the horror to follow. The Crusades were, of course, a centuries-long medieval catastrophe. Bush’s Global War on Terror, in contrast, has already wreaked comparable havoc in a paltry 17 years, leading to almost unimaginable mayhem abroad and a moral collapse at home personified by President Donald J. Trump.
Despite the threads of causality woven together as if on some malignant loom that brought about his election -- the cult of reality-show celebrity, the FBI director's last-minute campaign intervention, Russian mischief, Hillary Clinton’s vulnerability to self-defeat and misogyny, electoral college anomalies, Republican party nihilism, and a wickedly disenchanted public -- the ease with which such a figure took control of the levers of power in this country should still stun us. Some deep sickness of the soul had already played havoc with our democracy’s immune system or he wouldn’t have been imaginable. Think of him as a symptom, not the disease. After Trump finally leaves the Oval Office, we’ll still be a stricken people and the world will still be groaning under the weight of the wreckage this country has brought about. How, then, did we actually get here? It might be worth a momentary glance back.
A Fever Dream of a War
“This is a new kind of evil.” So said the president that September 16th, standing on the South Lawn of the White House. “And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” In that way, only five days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush elevated a band of petty nihilists to the status of world-historic warriors. “And the American people must be patient,” he continued. “I’m going to be patient.”
He, of course, is long gone, but what he initiated that day is still unspooling. It could have been so different. September 11th was a tragic moment, but the initial reactions of most Americans to those collapsed towers and a damaged Pentagon were ones of empathy and patriotism. The selflessness of first responders that day had its echo in a broad and surprising manifestation of national altruism. The usual left-right divides of politics disappeared and the flag, for once, became a true symbol of national unity. The global reaction was similar. From across the world, including from erstwhile adversaries like Russia and China, came authentic expressions of support and sympathy, of grief-struck affection.
Two days before invoking the Crusades, for instance, he presided over a religious service, which, though officially defined as “ecumenical,” took place in the neo-Gothic National Cathedral. “Just three days removed from these events,” he said from that church’s pulpit, “Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil… This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”
In a specifically Christian setting, that is, George W. Bush answered the criminal attacks of 9/11 not by calling on international law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, but by a declaration of cosmic war aimed at nothing less than the elimination of Islamist evil. Labeling it a “crusade” only underscored the subliminal but potent message conveyed by television cameras that lingered on the cathedral’s multiple crucifixes and the bloodied figure of Jesus Christ. Held up for all to see, that sacred icon sent a signal that could not be missed. A self-avowed secular nation was now to be a crusader, ready to display the profoundly Christian character of a culture erected on triumphalist pieties from its Pilgrim roots to the nuclear apocalypticism of the Cold War.
Bush’s message was received in the Arab world just as you might expect. There, his reference to “this crusade” was rendered as “this War of the Cross.” Even then, many Muslims knew better than to regard the president’s characterization of the conflict to come as purely accidental and of no import, just as they would later disregard the insistence of America’s leaders that their country’s violent intrusions across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa were not “religiously” inspired in any way. Today, of course, Donald Trump’s brazen denigrations of Muslims have made clear just how on target observers in the Islamic world were about what lay behind Washington’s new “global war.”
At the time of Bush’s cavalier use of crusade, I was one of the few here to take offense and say so. I feared even then that stumbling into sectarian strife, into -- in the argot of the day -- a “clash of civilizations,” could set in motion, as the original Crusades had, a dynamic that would far outrun anyone’s intentions, loosing forces that could destroy the very principles in whose name that “war of choice” was declared. Little did I know how far short of an accurate damage assessment my thoughts would fall.
In fact, Bush’s use of that term wasn’t a stumble, however inadvertent, but a crystal-clear declaration of purpose that would soon be aided and abetted by a fervent evangelical cohort within the U.S. military, already primed for holy war. With what Bush himself called “the distance of history,” it’s now possible to see the havoc his “crusade” is still wreaking across much of the globe: Iraq and Afghanistan are in ruins; Syria destroyed (with Russian, American, Israeli, Turkish, and Iranian warplanes testing one another in its airspace); Yemen gripped by a war-induced famine; the Turks at the throat of the Kurds; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process dead; Libya a failed state; U.S. Special Ops garrisons in Somalia, Niger, and across Africa; and Europe increasingly politically destabilized by refugee flows from these conflicts. Meanwhile, Bush’s crusade became the American disease now peaking in the fever dream of President Donald Trump.