The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear
The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear is a 2004 documentary series by Adam Curtis, which seeks to overturn much of what is widely believed about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The latter, it argues, is not an organised international network. It does not have members or a leader. It does not have "sleeper cells". It does not have an overall strategy. In fact, it barely exists at all, except as an idea about cleansing a corrupt world through religious violence." --Andy Beckett for The Guardian, 15 October 2004
"As Curtis traced the rise of the "Straussians", he came to a conclusion that would form the basis for The Power of Nightmares. Straussian conservatism had a previously unsuspected amount in common with Islamism: from origins in the 50s, to a formative belief that liberalism was the enemy, to an actual period of Islamist-Straussian collaboration against the Soviet Union during the war in Afghanistan in the 80s (both movements have proved adept at finding new foes to keep them going). Although the Islamists and the Straussians have fallen out since then, as the attacks on America in 2001 graphically demonstrated, they are in another way, Curtis concludes, collaborating still: in sustaining the "fantasy" of the war on terror." 
The central claims are that politicians have exaggerated the scale of the terrorist threat, from which they offer to protect us; that the fortunes of neo-conservatism and radical Islamism are closely connected; and that popular beliefs about these groups are inaccurate. According to the program's introduction:
- In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this, but their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Those dreams failed and today people have lost faith in ideologies. Increasingly, politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but now they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares.
- They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism, a powerful and sinister network with sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a War on Terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It's a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media. This is a series of films about how and why that fantasy was created and who it benefits.
- At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists, who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world and both had a very similar explanation of what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created today's nightmare vision of a secret organised evil that threatens the world, a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.
Part 1 - Baby It's Cold Outside
In the 1950s Sayyed Qutb, an Egyptian civil servant turned revolutionary, and Leo Strauss, an American professor of political philosophy, both came to see western liberalism as corrosive to morality and to society. Qutb had been sent to the U.S. to learn about its public education system but was disgusted by what he saw of its society. They each argued that radical measures, including deception and (in Qutb's case) even violence, could be justified in an effort to restore shared moral values to society, and their arguments heavily influenced radical Islamism and American neo-conservatism, respectively. Senior American civil servants and politicians influenced by neo-conservatism came to believe anti-communist propaganda and saw it as an evil force against which the U.S. should be presented as a force for good. This propaganda included Donald Rumsfeld's over-estimation of Soviet military technology and the William Casey-led CIA assertion that various terrorist organisations were backed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Qutb became influential in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and was then jailed after some of its members attempted to assassinate President Nasser.
This was first broadcast on Wednesday October 20 2004. Its title is taken from a popular song which Qutb heard played at a church-organised dance for young people, which he saw as symptomatic of the immorality of American society.
- Watch on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/v/IAUDcmaJNWQ
Part 2 - The Phantom Victory
In the 1980s the Islamist mujaheddin and the neo-conservative-influenced Reagan administration temporarily cooperated in fighting a common enemy, the Soviet Union and the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. Although the Soviet Union was already on the verge of collapse, both groups came to believe that it was their actions in Afghanistan that had caused it to fall. However, other attempts by Islamists to incite popular revolution failed, and the neo-conservatives lost power in the U.S. as the presidency passed to George H. W. Bush and subsequently to Bill Clinton. Both groups, having failed to achieve lasting political influence, identified new targets to attack: the neoconservatives sought to demonise Clinton while the radical Islamists decided that those who had not aided their cause were legitimate targets for violence.
Part 3 - The Shadows in the Cave
In the late 1990s the Taliban set up military training camps in Afghanistan for Islamist fighters. Most were only interested in fighting in their home countries, but Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and follower of Sayyid Qutb, paid the Taleban to allow them to recruit volunteers from these camps for attacks on the U.S. Prosecutors for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings believed bin Laden organised them and wanted to convict him in absentia by showing that he headed a criminal organisation. Jamal al-Fadl, a former associate of bin Laden, described such an organisation to them, which the investigators called al-Qaeda. While bin Laden apparently aided the attacks he had no organisation through which he could command and control them; al-Fadl seems to have told investigators what they wanted to hear in return for money and witness protection. Similarly, while bin Laden provided funds and volunteers to carry out the September 11, 2001 attacks, they were actually planned by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Following this attack, the neo-conservatives were able to convince George W. Bush to begin a "War on Terror" and to paint al-Qaeda as an international network of terrorists. The war in Afghanistan removed bin Laden's main source of recruits, but the U.S. military and the Northern Alliance also captured and killed many people in the Taleban camps that had nothing to do with him. The story circulated that bin Laden and the core of al-Qaeda had retreated to an underground complex in Tora Bora, but an exhaustive search revealed no sign of this. Al-Qaeda could not be found because it never really existed; Islamist terrorists are connected only by ideology and not by an organisation that can be cut off at its root.
The arrests of various groups of suspected terrorists in the U.S. following the September 11 attacks failed to find any substantive evidence, but did show a lot of imagination of the part of investigators. Similarly, in the UK, arrests under new terrorism laws have resulted in only 3 convictions of Islamists, all for fundraising. Much of the media coverage of potential terrorist attacks is also highly speculative and sensational. For instance, a terrorist attack using a radiological weapon, referred to by the media as a "dirty bomb", wouldn't kill many people from fallout because the radioactive material would be spread thinly by any explosion. However, the neo-conservatives had found they could use the threat of Islamist terrorism, and the claimed possibility of sponsorship by Iraq, as an enemy against which to unite the U.S., and other politicians such as Tony Blair claimed an important role in protecting their countries from attack. Politicians and counter-terrorist agents have decided that they must be proactive in imagining the worst possible attacks and in stopping those who seem likely to carry out attacks.
- The Power of Nightmares – Baby Its Cold Outside (part 1)
- The Power of Nightmares – The Phantom Victory (part 2)
- The Power of Nightmares – The Shadows in the Cave (part 3)
Audio & Transcript
- "The making of the terror myth" The Guardian, 15 Oct. 2004]
- Christian Science Monitor: Politics of 'fear over vision' explored on British television
- The Times: Kept awake by the politics of fear
- National Review: The Power of Bad Television
- Los Angeles Times: Is Al Qaeda Just a Bush Boogeyman?
- Crooked Timber: The Power of Nightmares
- iconoplex: Baby It's Cold Outside..
- samizdata.net: Nighmares about Nightmares
- Commondreams: Thom Hartmann, 7 Dec. 2004