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The Power of Nightmares: Film-maker Adam Curtis Uncovers the Truth (and Lies) About Terrorism

The Power of Nightmares:
Film-maker Adam Curtis Uncovers the Truth (and Lies) About Terrorism

by Henry Edward Hardy

Americans are voicing growing concern over the progress of the war in Iraq. A 37-year Marine veteran and chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative John Murtha said in November 2005, “The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” British film-maker Adam Curtis explores the use of illusion and deception by American neo-conservatives and the Muslim extremist jihadi to inflate the threat of terrorism in The Power of Nightmares. This timely BBC documentary has not been widely distributed in the United States, but is currently available on the World Wide Web.

Curtis presents a startling thesis. Throughout the Cold War, politicians on both sides maintained their popularity and legitimacy through promises of a better life. Those promises failed, however, and leaders found their authority hampered by public mistrust and cynicism. In the post-9/11 climate, politicians revisited another way of powerfully motivating public attention and obedience: fear — terror from an invisible enemy, an “Al Qaeda network” whose operatives could be anywhere and everywhere. Curtis claims that this terrorist super-organization is a fantasy, an illusion deliberately manufactured and maintained.

Hebrew University Professor of Political Science and American Studies David Ricci currently (2006) teaches about American political conservatism at the University of Michigan, and he agrees with Curtis about this illusion. “There are some elements in the world of Islam who are extremists. There are people who are trying to revolutionize Islam, no less attack the United States. But I don’t see them as this enormous conspiracy. I am inclined to see them as particular groups which have some common interests and therefore cooperate with each other,” says Ricci. “For some publicity purposes, it helps to talk about ‘Al Qaeda’ as if it’s this enormous monster.”

Ricci suggests that the language used to frame the war is misleading. “The idea of talking about a ‘war on terror’ is unrealistic. The real war is against ‘terrorists,’ not ‘terrorism.'”

The Power of Nightmares was first shown on BBC television in the fall of 2004, and an edited version was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005. It was also scheduled for New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival and on CBC television. Curtis says, “Something extraordinary has happened to American TV since September 11. A head of the leading networks who had better remain nameless said to me that there was no way they could show it …. He added, ‘We would get slaughtered if we put this out.'”

The three-part series traces the evolution of two groups which have manipulated the image of “Islamic terrorism” for their own ends. In Egypt followers of the Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb were impressed by his revulsion of Western decadence. After series of attempted coups and assassinations failed to produce popular revolutions, Qutb and his followers decided that the infidel West and the decadent Muslim leaders weren’t the only ones who had fallen into jahaliyah, or a state like that of the world before Muhammad. The Arab masses had also become unsanctified and essentially non-Muslim, and they could now be killed. Among those influenced by Qutb were Islamic Jihad figure Ayman Al-Zawahiri and later, a financier of the U.S.-sponsored Afghan resistance, Usama bin Laden.

In the West, another influential figure was also revolted by the laxness, immorality and cynicism of liberal Western culture. At the University of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, philosopher Leo Strauss taught that sometimes a “noble lie” is justified in order to provide society with unifying myths.

“Strauss was a refugee from Nazi Germany,” says Ricci. “He, who had just fled from one of the worst manifestations in the modern world, was offering this view to his students. And they were very, very good students, and they went out into other universities and into the world of public affairs.” Among the followers of Strauss’s school of political philosophy are U.S. neo-conservatives such as Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute Scholar Michael Ledeen, and Richard Pearle, former chair of the Defense Policy Review Board for President George W. Bush.

“Neo-conservatives are a very loosely knit group of people,” says Ricci. “They were being turned off by the counterculture of the 1960s and the early 1970s.” He says, “They wanted to conserve the American way of life.” They saw themselves more as revolutionaries than conservatives, however.

The series follows the origin of the neo-conservatives and the jihadi in the 1950s, their coalition in the CIA-supported resistance to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the subsequent breakup of the U.S.S.R. and events leading up to and following 9/11.

This thoroughly researched documentary uses authoritative primary sources. Curtis interviews at length the head of the Arab Afghan resistance. He also interviews several of the most prominent neo-conservatives. The editing is fast-paced and montage-like and contains a lot of oblique commentary in clips and stock footage presented in a light, sarcastic vein.

There has been considerable dissent within the U.S. military and bureaucracy against the undermining of traditional American values by the “neo-cons” in the administration. On October 19, 2005 first-term Bush State Department Chief of Staff and retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson said, “What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made. And then when the bureaucracy was presented with the decision to carry them out, it was presented in a such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn’t know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.”

The Power of Nightmares does a fine job of laying bare the ideology, structure and history of this “cabal.” Where Curtis errs is in saying that before 9/11 there never was an organization called “Al Qaeda.”

Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who died suddenly in August 2005, wrote in the July 8, 2005 Guardian that “Al Qaeda, literally ‘the database,’ was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahedeen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.” A key figure in the mujahedeen was Usama bin Laden. Cook observed, “It never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organization would turn its attention to the West.” He also wrote, “So long as the struggle against terrorism is conceived as a war that can be won by military means, it is doomed to fail.”

The Power of Nightmares tears down walls of myth and obfuscation — myths which are used to sell products from “Homeland Security” to “home security.” No wonder commercial networks and the Republican-eviscerated PBS won’t show it. In explaining why the BBC has run this program, BBC Director of Factual and Learning John Willis reminds us of the words of former CBS News President (and Edward R. Murrow producer) Fred Friendly: “‘Our job is not to make up anyone’s mind but to make the agony of decision making so intense you can only escape by thinking.'”

The Adam Curtis documentary The Power of Nightmares has been available free as streaming or downloadable MP4 movie files at the Internet Archive’s Internet library at

A longer excerpt from the interview with Professor David Ricci will be available on the Web at .

A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on .

Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy

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19 January, 2007 - Posted by | Afghanistan, archives, covert operations, intelligence, Iraq, media, movies, Pakistan, politics, reviews, scanlyze, torture, war


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