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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 | 4 Comments

The Universal Appeal of Black Panther

This is a reaction piece, not a full review. It will be most sensible to those who have seen the film, but only low spoilers due to some things just should not be spoiled.

I went to Black Panther determined to write an objective review. This isn’t one. Within a few minutes of the film’s start, I had tears on my eyes, and when King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returned home to Wakanda, they just started streaming down my cheeks.

The sets, costumes, and city are a great example of “show, don’t tell.” Though there is plenty of exposition of the nature of “as you know” or flashbacks and visions as well.

I have read a lot of reviews saying how this is a black movie, and it is, through and through. But it is more than that. Black Panther pulls you in and I felt like this was my family, my people, my African nation as it should have been without colonization and neocolonialism. This isn’t the world as it is, but in some sense, a vision of the world as it could be.

The fictional nation of Wakanda, being the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, shares many of the dilemmas which the US faced when it was technologically advanced compared with other nations. “If we allow in immigrants, they will bring their problems with them,” as one character tells King T’Challa. Similarly there are issues of arms exports and bringing justice through superior firepower. An interesting and thought-provoking mirror.

Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is certainly the best of the Marvel villains, an area where they have been notably weak in characterization and motivation in the past. A Shakespearean family drama ensues. As well as Killmonger and T’Challa acting as proxies for the African diaspora v. mother Africa.

It’s funny how critics run in packs. I’m curious why the neoliberals aren’t screaming about cultural appropriation because this movie is all about that.

Wakanda is supposedly in East Africa more or less where real life Rwanda and Burundi are today. But people speak isiXhosa, a South African language. And the hairstyles, fashions, and architecture and textiles are a mishmash from all over the continent. All overlaid on what is now retro-futurism dating back 50 years to Jack Kirby’s illustrations for the comic.

Of course, Wakanda doesn’t exist in the real world, and more’s the pity. So they had to use inspirations from somewhere. And everything is so beautiful and awe-inspiring that I guess every reviewer in the world is giving them a pass on this and I’m no exception. Of course I tend to be a “world citizen” and “all one people” person so I am prone to want to encourage people to learn and use and do the best of everything, and to make it their own anyway. But that’s another story.

Wakanda is kind of a Pan-Africa melting pot and hodepodge in the way it is portrayed, even though it is presented as severely isolationist. The backstory for this in the comics is that the Rift Valley where Wakanda is situated is the Ur-seat of all human civilization, and African civilizations in particular.

Very strong cast. Chadwick Boseman seems to be channeling a young Nelson Mandela in his regal bearing as a newly-crowned king, his accent, his cadence, and his badassness (Mandala was a hereditary prince of his tribe, and a boxer as well as a lawyer before he was imprisoned on charges of murder and terrorism.) His nemesis, Killmonger, played by Michal Jordan is a Shakespearean anti-hero who almost steals the movie.

There are many strong and independent female characters. Notable is Leticia Wright as T’Challa’s snarky younger sister and master of Wakanda’s vibranium-based technology, Shuri. Danai Gurira as Okoye, general of Wakanda’s Royal Guard, the Dora Milaje, is ferocious as the guardian of the throne. And Angela Bassett brings a regal presence to the role of Queen Mother Ramonda.

There were a couple moments which were immersion breaking for me. One early one which I will spoil involves CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) interrogating South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having great fun chewing all the carpet in sight in his own skin instead of mo-cap), who replies with questions of his own. I suddenly realized I was watching a game of riddles between Bilbo (Freeman) and Gollum (Serkis). As a meta-callout this is amusing but also distracting for me. The second weakness is some rather sloppy CGI which would frankly be better served with Wuxia-style wirework or even simply cutting those few seconds.

The third act suffers from too much action, falling into the typical problem where every Marvel movie has a setpiece battle where they try to top all the previous movies. Not up to the standards of Civil War, but special bonus points for (spoilers) armored rhinos! Remote piloted space ships! Personal force-shields and sonic blaster vibranium spears! Heel-Face Turn and The Cavalry. All in one rather chaotic battle. The narrative and characterization is somewhat lost in the festival of badassness which ensues. But this is a genre standard and the movie can be praised for opening so many new avenues it can be forgiven for the rather predictable final battles. I’d say more but big spoilers there.

Overall, a most lovely movie which will stand the test of time, better than I expected after reading 30+ positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and a rollicking good time. The movie seems too short at 2:14 so I am looking forward to a director’s cut and one hopes, one or more sequels, including perhaps a spinoff for some of the interesting secondary characters. Wakanda Forever!

5 of 5 stars. Bring a friend so you don’t talk your Lyft driver’s ear off as I did on the way home. :)

Copyright © 2018 Henry Edward Hardy


16 February, 2018 Posted by | Andy Serkis, Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, media, Michael Jordan, scanlyze, Wakanda | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“War on Christianity” meet “War on Islam”

“War on Christianity” meet “War on Islam” (using the US, and Afghanistan and Iraq as the templates)

People say things about you and your religion which you don’t like.

Both: Yes.

A nation of the other religion conquered your country and had executed the former leader.

Islam: Yes.
Christianity: No.

The media considers the name of your religion to be synonymous with “extremism” and “terrorism”.

Islam: Yes.
Christianity: Not so much.

Your country is being occupied by a superpower which is predominantly of the other religion.

Islam: Yes.
Christianity: No.

Civilians in your country are subject to illegal assassination carried out by remotely piloted aircraft.

Islam: Yes.
Christianity: No.

Your religion is subjected to occasional terrorist attacks.

Both: Yes, but in the case of the victims of the other religion, each religion’s fanatics blames the victims.

The terrorist attacks on your religion are reported as a major world news event.

Christianity: Yes.
Islam: Not so much.

Your country possesses, and asserts the right to strike first with nuclear weapons.

Christianity: Yes.
Islam: No.

What do you think of my analysis?

Copyright © 2015 Henry Edward Hardy

7 May, 2015 Posted by | Christianity, Iraq, Islam, peace, politics, scanlyze, war | , , , , | 1 Comment

What I think about Guantanamo

What I think about Guantanamo

I think President Obama has been thrown off-stride by the Karl-Rove-orchestrated assault on his perceived strengths (a very Clausewitzian and typical Rove strategy if you follow him).

With Guantanamo Obama had hoped to solve the issue by attrition and by devaluing the issue to the point where he could wrap it up with spending little or no political capital.

But now the issue is forced by the hunger strike, now in its official 100th day.

I think he must spend capital on this and if he does he will be rewarded.

The legal basis for holding these guys without charge or trial is that they are taken under the Hague and Geneva conventions in a war zone.

This runs into problems right off the bat because you are not supposed to exfiltrate prisoners of war or interned civilians from whatever country they were captured in except to return them to their country of origin.

For the same reason, the idea of returning these folks to some third country should be a non-starter.

Here is what is should be done.

Continue to hold military tribunals, but only for the purpose of status determination: prisoner of war or interned civilian.

Those who were captured under arms, had a command structure, some kind of uniform, may be found to be prisoners of war. The remainder of these folks will be found to be interned civilians.

Prisoners of war cannot be charged for fighting the enemy so long as they themselves obeyed the laws of war. The UN has also recognized the right of civilian people under arms to fight for national liberation, but that is not as well-ensconced in international law as is the rights and responsibilities of nation-states.

Civilians can be charged with criminal offenses, but they should be tried in theatre by local judges under local law (which can't be done since they have been illegally exfiltrated out of theatre) or else in their country of origin or by an international tribunal. The military commissions cannot be allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner. When military tribunals have been allowed to exceed their proper scope in the past, such as during the Civil War, the result has not been pretty.

As soon as is practicable, these men must be returned to their countries of origin, whether or not their tribunal proceedings are closed or complete.

Our intelligence should keep tabs on these guys in an open manner but otherwise let them lead their lives as best they can. It is very much in everyone’s best interest to help these folks with compensation for time during which they were improperly held or mistreated, and they all should be given enough to live and to receive medical and psychological assistance on an ongoing basis.

We are going to pay a price for letting these guys go. Here's 166 guys who are going to be very messed up and not feeling like Uncle Sam is their friend. That is the price we will pay for kidnapping, assassination, rape, torture, war crimes, running concentration camps, and 10 years of low-intensity conflict, which is what we call terrorism when we do it.

But you have to consider there’s already a lot more than 166 guys out in the world who don’t like the US.

By bringing this very real scandal front and center and highly publicizing the commissions and the procedures to return the prisoners of war and interned civilians, the ginned-up Rove scandaloids will be driven off the TV and front pages perhaps indefinitely.

What’s the reward? The issue is so corrosive of the moral authority and therefore of the power of the United States. Quite simply, it makes the US the bad guys and that’s not good. Time to end a bad situation which only festers as time goes on.

Copyright © 2013 Henry Edward Hardy

17 May, 2013 Posted by | Iraq, media, military, news, peace, politics, scanlyze, war | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

More Shoes Dropping about Benghazi Attack

Okay more shoes are dropping about the “Consulate” and “safe-house” in Benghazi where a total of four American personnel were killed.

The “Consulate” was not a Consulate. The Libyans just called it that. “What is clear, however, is that those who arrived at the mission — not officially a consulate, though Libyans call it that informally — came intending to inflict maximum damage on the building.”

The “safe-house” was not a safe-house. The Libyans just called it that. “Neither was heavily guarded, and the second house was never intended to be a “safe house,” as initial accounts suggested. “The seven un-uniformed, but very heavily armed men who broke through the two ambushes awaiting them and rescued the remaining US persons along with our allied militia? They were never there. “At no point were the Marines or other American military personnel involved, contrary to news reports early on.”

The first incoming mortar, in the dead of night, hit square on the “alternate location’s” gate and killed the two ex-Seals. Terrorism? You bet.

Did Ansar Al-Sharia have support from a state or states with significant HUMINT, SIGINT and satellite capability? Almost certainly.

Copyright © 2012 Henry Edward Hardy

23 September, 2012 Posted by | covert action, Libya, media, military, news, peace, politics, scanlyze, war | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment