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"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."

The Power of Nightmares is the title of a trilogy of one-hour documentaries made by Adam Curtis (The Mayfair Set) that aired on BBC2 in the UK in late October of 2004. The documentaries trace the histories of American neoconservatism and radical Islamicism (that is to say, radical political Islam). A politically charged investigation airing in politically charged times, The Power of Nightmares makes some interesting allegations, and a couple of downright shocking ones, too. It has, of course, drawn criticism from right-leaning pundits and publications, including Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, and the National Review. The purpose of this write-up will be to explain the salient points of the documentaries, analyze the presentation of information, and finally look at some of the reactions generated online.

Salient Points

American neoconservatism and radical Islamicism have similar ideological cores.

As with most political philosophy, American neoconservatism and radical Islamicism were fundamentally ideas about how to make the world a better place for everybody. Interestingly, both seem to have been born in reaction to the same societal problem, and both reach the same sort of solution to that problem.

There was a man named Leo Strauss. Strauss was a proto-neoconservative political philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago. In the far away small town of Greeley, Colorado, USA there was another man, and his name was Sayyid Qutb. Qutb had been sent to Greeley in 1949 by the government of his home country of Egypt so that he could earn his master's degree and research the American education system for possible adoption in Egypt. Both men became heavily disheartened by 1950's American liberal lifestyle. The fundamental problem that they saw was that while the average American seemed happy on the surface, life was ultimately hollow because Americans were taught to ultimately pursue selfish materialism. Inevitably, this would erode the bonds that held human society together. Essentially, that 1950's American pragmatic, materialist liberalism encouraged relativism--that there could be many possible truths at the same time--which would lead to nihilism--that nothing was true at all--and would ultimately be its own undoing. What was needed, realized both Strauss and Qutb, was a way out of this not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper fate.

The solution reached by each of these men was that people needed to be given reasons to unite as societies with shared values and customs. Clear values that would be the bedrock of community, against the destructive power of selfish individualism.

(I would note that it is somewhat ironic that following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush addressed the nation, he claimed that the terrorists attacked the United States because "they hate our freedom." Critics rolled their eyes at this, but, if Curtis' analysis is accurate, President Bush was actually correct; radical Islamicism (at least ideologically) does believe that individuality and personal freedom are dangerous elements and must be controlled by society's leaders for the common good. That American neoconservatism (at least ideologically) shares this idea with radical Islamicism only deepens the irony. --ClockworkGrue)

Al-Qaeda does not exist.

While terrorism certainly exists, Curtis argues that Al-Qaeda, that is to say a world-wide conglomeration of terrorist groups with sleeper cells in dozens of countries, does not. During the Cold War the notion of a Global Terrorist Network was created. The idea was that all terrorist groups, from the IRA to the PLO to the Baader-Meinhof were all secretly being run from the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was learned that none of this was in any way true at all.

If Al-Qaeda, the global terror network coordinating the efforts of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, etc. exists, why is it that after 3+ years of actively hunting terrorist groups and arresting and questioning even the most remotely suspicious possible terrorists, do we have no proof of it? We've found and destroyed terror cells, and detained terrorists, why do we have no proof of a global terror network? Essentially, Curtis claims that Al-Qaeda is an invisible pink unicorn: an extraordinary claim demanding extraordinary proof.

Politicians benefit from the current climate of fear.

The quote I began this writeup with is the thesis of this argument. In the 1960's President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was failing to materialize. Indeed, violence seemed to be increasing, with events like Detroit's 12th Street Riot, assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, the 1968 Chicago Race Riot, and the 1968 Democratic Convention. Confused and depressed by the inability of society's leaders to bring about the awesome futures they had promised us, free from need and want, America moved towards pragmatism, materialism, and self-centeredness evidenced in the Greed Is Good me decade that was the 1980's. When the Cold War finally ended in 1991, American politics had nowhere to turn but inward, with Bill Clinton's 1992 election pointing out that "It's the economy, stupid." Indeed, in 2000 when George W. Bush took the White House because, he believed, God had put him there, it seemed that God must have recently taken an interest in tax reform and trade agreements with Mexico.

Then, of course, all hell broke loose.

To put it mildly, September 11, 2001 freaked out the entire Western world. Suddenly, though, our politicians mattered to us a whole lot more than they used to. As we learned about newer, even more insideous ways that a determined fanatic could kill us, it became increasingly important that our elected leaders work tirelessly to make sure that would never happen. Curtis notes that this is regardless of whether these threats are real, or just imagined.

Analysis of presentation of information in The Power of Nightmares

Overall

Visually, The Power of Nightmares uses mostly a collection of interviews, stock footage, and film from the CNN News Archives. Some of the stock footage comes from old anti-soviet propaganda films, providing a small amount of dark levity with their naive duck-and-cover simplicity.

While the films have been compared to the recent work of American director Michael Moore, there is very little connecting them, save that they do not show the current administrations of the United States and United Kingdom in a very good light. Director Adam Curtis never appears on camera, though he can sometimes be heard faintly just off camera asking an interview subject a question, but these questions tend to be fairly standard interview questions, and nothing like the emotional, confrontational style for which Moore has become known.

The Power of Nightmares is an expository piece, and Curtis seems content to let his interviewees tell his story for him, while a voice over connects interview to interview, news file footage to news file footage.

Part 1: Baby It's Cold Outside

This film covers the rise of American neoconservatism and radical Islamicism, starting with Sayyid Qutb's arrival in small town Colorado in 1949, and ending in 1981 with neoconservatives finally getting major positions in American politics, due to their involvement with the Reagan administration.

In the early part of this film, when Qutb's, and Leo Strauss' philosophies are covered, it is easy to get the feeling that Qutb and Strauss must have some how influenced each other. Curtis never says anything of the sort, but he switches back and forth between the men, explaining how one reached a conclusion, and then switching to explain how the other reached a similar conclusion to the same dilemma. It's not hard to feel that a connection is somehow being implied, although it is almost certain to say that the men never met, let alone discussed political philosophy together.

Part 2: The Phantom Victory

This film begins in 1982 with President Ronald Reagan dedicating the launch of the space shuttle Columbia to the resistance fighters of Afghanistan, and ends in 1998, with the American neoconservatives failing to impeach President Bill Clinton, and the largely crushed radical Islamicists returning to Afghanistan after failing to inspire popular Islamicist revolution with a shock and awe campaign of terrorist attacks on civilians throughout the Middle East.

This episode marks the first appearance of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. Some might feel that Curtis is humanizing bin Laden, especially when interviewee Abdullah Anas (General Commander Afghan Arabs, Northern Afghanistan, 1984-1989) says that it is possible that a group of radical Islamicists from Egypt lead by Zawahiri may have actually duped bin Laden into joining his movement so that they could use him for his money. Unfortunately, Curtis presents no facts either way, only the conjecture of an Afghan General.

Part 3: The Shadows in the Cave

This film begins in Afghanistan in May of 1998, with Zawahiri and bin Laden giving the interview in which they declair their jihad on America, and ends in the "present day" (shortly before the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election).

In this film, Curtis reveals his argument for the non-existence of Al-Qaeda, as explained above. It also contains graphic footage of the second plane impacting with the World Trade Center, accompanied by on-lookers screaming variations of the word "fuck," possibly making this the most difficult episode to watch.

A look at Reactions to The Power of Nightmares
After watching The Power of Nightmares, I engaged in several Google searches, looking for reviews, opinions, and--most importantly--debunkings. It is all very well and good to make a documentary, but as with Fahrenheit 9/11, I wanted to see what the internet's sleepless legion of political fact-checkers had to say about Curtis' work.

I have to report that, thus far, the legion of fact-checkers has said very little.

Although The Power of Nightmares was often derided by right-wing pundits, they were not terribly forthcoming with any refutations. David Asman of Fox News' Asman Observer dismisses the films for making incredible claims, missing the point that Curtis is making: politicians carry the burden of proof that the things they tell us we need protection from actually exist. To be fair, Asman seems to be writing based on reports of the contents of Curtis' film, as it had not been aired yet.

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,136089,00.html

Clive Davis of the National Review is similarly dismissive, but having had the virtue of acutally seeing the first of the three programs, specifically attacks three points: the implied link between the origins of neoconservatism and radical Islamicism, overemphasis of the importance of Strauss' philosophies to the American neoconservative ideology, and Curtis' coverage of Paul Wolfowitz' and Richard Pipes' Team B Cold War CIA project.

http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/davis200410211043.asp

The implied link between Qutb and Strauss, or neoconservatism and radical Islamicism I addressed above. The viewer may or may not believe Curtis is truly implicating this, but in any case, he never says anything directly. At best, this seems to be a straw man argument.

The overemphasis of Strauss' ideas is a bit of a stronger argument. Indeed, there were other early political philosophers who influenced the young disillusioned liberals and democratic socialists of the '50's and '60's who would eventually become America's neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol, and Max Schachtman, both of whom Curtis essentially ignores. However, Strauss is considered to be an influence on neoconservatism as an ideology, and many of Strauss' theories do seem to present themselves in the way neoconservatives have done things, from their use of nationalism to their courting of America's fundamentalist Christians. Nevertheless, yes, Curtis is presenting a somewhat simplified version of neoconservative political philosophy, and the viewer may be advised to do some research on their own.

Whether Curtis is being deceptive about the results of the work of Team B, I am not qualified to say. What research I did in the short amount of time I allowed myself did not turn up any great successes of Team B, but rather that they seemed to assume the worst based on any evidence at all, and were very wrong about a great many things. I note that I was unable to find a node about Team B at the time of this writing, so some enterprising noder may want to give that one a shot.

Surprisingly, some good arguments against facts presented in The Power of Nightmares showed up in a comments thread on left-wing news site Plastic.com. These are that Al-Qaeda first shows up on a terrorist watchlist in 1999, while Curtis claimes the term was invented by Americans after the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; and, again, an overemphasis on the importance of Strauss in neoconservative thought.

http://www.plastic.com/article.html;sid=04/11/05/14403949

I admit to not being an expert on terrorism, however another comment in the Plastic thread (also somewhat critical of Curtis' films) points out that

Bin Laden opened the "bureau of services," the Maktab Khadamat al-Mujihideen, in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1980 to help battle the Soviets in Afghanistan. This bureau of services was renamed Al Qaeda in 1989, and while it isn't clear who did the renaming and for what purpose, to claim Al Qaeda was some sort of invention for the convenience of investigators in 2001 is ridiculous.
If true, this would mean that the name "Al-Qaeda" was associated with bin Laden in some way since 1989. However, "Al-Qaeda" can exist. It can even be the name of a terrorist cell. Curtis is arguing that what it is not is an organized terrorism network with operatives and sleeper cells in over 60 nations. Rather, Curtis argues, the terrorists are probably disorganized, poorly supplied, and just as subject to Murphey's Law as the rest of us.

Resources: Don't Get Mad, Get Educated
BitTorrents of DivX-encoded .avi files of all 3 documentaries (you'll want a high speed connection)
http://del.icio.us/ClockworkGrue
Related BBC summary article for each film
  1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/3755686.stm
  2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/3951615.stm
  3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/3970901.stm

Unofficial transcripts of the first two films

  1. http://www.acutor.be/silt/index.php?id=572
  2. http://www.acutor.be/silt/index.php?id=575

Praise

Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/terrorism/story/0,12780,1327904,00.html
Derision and/or Debunking
Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,136089,00.html
National Review: http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/davis200410211043.asp
Further Reading
The Economist on the relationship between Leo Strauss and American neoconservatism: http://www.economist.com/people/PrinterFriendly.cfm?Story_ID=1859009

Wikipedia entries

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