Power of Nightmares Re-awakened

January 16th, 2005 - by admin

Adam Curtis / BBC – 2005-01-16 21:56:41


The BBC was inundated with correspondence, some critical much of it very positive, and here I try to answer some of the points raised.

Are you saying that there is no threat?

No, the series did not say this. It was very clear in arguing that although there is a serious threat of terrorism from some radical Islamists, the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.

As the films showed, wherever one looks for this “al-Qaeda” organisation – from the mountains of Afghanistan to the “sleeper cells” in America – the British and Americans are pursuing a fantasy.

The bombs in Madrid and Bali showed clearly the seriousness of the threat – but they are not evidence of a new and overwhelming threat unlike any we have experienced before. And above all they do not – in the words of the British government – “threaten the life of the nation”. That is simply untrue.

OK, so al-Qaeda does not exist as a highly organised and structured group. But it is a terrifically powerful ideology, which makes it even more dangerous.

No — the extreme Islamist ideas are dangerous, as Madrid, Bali and 11 September showed, but to portray them as a terrifying new viral form of terrorism is also part of the politics of fear.

If one looks at the history of the Islamist movement and its ideas it is clear that its high point came in the late 80s when it seemed on the verge of success across the Muslim world.

But then in the 1990s Islamism failed dramatically in its attempts to create revolutions because the ideas failed to inspire the masses. They did not appeal to the majority of people.

The attacks on 11 September were not the expression of a confident and growing movement, they were acts of desperation by a small group frustrated by their failure which they blamed on the power of America. It is also important to realise that many within the Islamist movement were against this strategy.

The films were biased.

The films were far less biased than the overwhelming majority of media reporting of the al Qaeda threat over the past three years.

Almost all of this reporting was based solely on unsubstantiated briefings from government and security sources.

As with politicians, the media also stumbled on a way of reasserting their authority because they could portray themselves as powerful figures who knew about the terrifying hidden world of “al-Qaeda”.

In this way a fantasy became the received wisdom. Just because one is challenging the received wisdom on the basis of historical facts and journalistic investigation does not make one biased.

How can the BBC broadcast the Dirty Bomb programme and transmit the Power of Nightmares?

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them. But I am really pleased they were so supportive of the Power of Nightmares. It shows the BBC is a strong and confident public service broadcaster.

Haven’t the actions of the Americans and British in the “war on terror” turned the fantasy into reality? In particular with the emergence of Islamist foreign fighters in Iraq.

I think one has to be very careful about this. The anti-war movement and the Left is just as capable as other politicians of playing the politics of fear.

There is very little hard evidence of foreign fighters in Iraq, the majority of the insurgents are Iraqis and despite claims in Washington, the Commander in Chief in Iraq, General Casey, recently said that as far as he could discover foreigners were playing a minimal role in the insurgency.

It starts with conclusions and makes up the evidence to support it. The neo-Conservatives didn’t come to power in the US as a result of 9/11. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were already in the Defence Department before 9/11.

The neo-Conservatives were part of the administration but if you talk to the neo-Cons, which I did, they will tell you candidly that they had very little influence during the early part of the Bush administration, particularly in foreign affairs.

It was the events of 11 September that showed the president, they say, that what they had been warning of since the early 1990s was correct – that America faced dangerous threats in a new unipolar world, and the need for America to fight pre-emptive wars. This, as the programme said, brought them back to power in America. They would agree with this.

Are you saying it’s a conspiracy?

No. The use of fear in contemporary politics is not the result of a conspiracy, the politicians have stumbled on it. In a populist, consumerist age where they found their authority and legitimacy declining dramatically they have simply discovered in the “war on terror” a way of restoring their authority by promising to protect us from something that only they can see.

I don’t think it will last. Already senior parts of the Establishment are beginning to question the very basis of the politicians’ argument – that “al-Qaeda” is a threat like no other which “threatens the life of the nation”.

In the recent House of Lords ruling which said that the indefinite detention of foreign nationals without trial was illegal, one of the Law Lords – Lord Hoffman – publicly challenged the government’s justification.

He said: “This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life.

“I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation.

“Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive al-Qaeda.

“The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it.

“Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.”

Was the programme trying to change anything?


Can the programme be compared to the red pill offered by Morpheus in The Matrix?

Thank you very much. But remember always to read the label before taking the medication.

Adam Curtis is the series producer of The Power of Nightmares. The Power of Nightmares will be broadcast over three nights from 18 to 20 January at 2320GMT on BBC Two. The final part has been updated in the wake of the Law Lords ruling in December that detaining foreign terrorist suspects without trial was illegal.

The BBC makes it a policy to solicit and post comments on its controversial broadcasts. A sampling of responses to the program follows:

Right or wrong, its good to see some challenging the word of politicians. The worst thing that can come of this is that more people start asking questions, something urgently needed in the current political climate.
RB, London

In recent history, the UK lived with a very real terrorist threat from the IRA. This organisation was organised and did bomb our towns and cities. In comparison as-Qaeda does not seem to have the same capabilities. If it has, where is the evidence. There has certainly been no bombings in the UK on a sustained basis. The programme makers are right. The threat is a fantasy.
Barry, London, UK

Great to see the BBC still has the courage to screen programmes like this in the post-Hutton environment. I can only hope the people who see it have the courage to accept that they have been had.
Tom, London, UK

“Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community”, may be true but another programme recently screened by the BBC showed a hypothetical scenario of terrorism blowing up Saudi oil installations which destabilised the world financially. That is what worries me more than being killed by a bomb.
Richard, London, UK

I saw the Power of Nightmares when it was first shown and it is brilliant. I commend the BBC for programmes such as this. But who is going to see it this time at close to midnight on BBC Two? It gives the impression of tokenism. Pam Gill
Pamela Gill, Bristol UK

I disagree that al-Qaeda is not a threat to the life of our nation. Just look at 9/11: thousands of normal citizens going about their daily business, wiped out. 9/11 showed that al-Qaeda do not care about innocent civilians, we are all targets to them, therefore the life of anyone in this country is at risk, so they are a threat to the life of our nation.
Mat P, Sussex

It is refreshing that someone can stand back and take a balanced and well informed view of the world, where all around the mainstream media and high ranking politicians paint a picture of immeasurable danger to all.
Martin Nercessian, Bolton, UK

“Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive al-Qaeda.” One nuclear weapon in London may cause 10 times the casualties the UK suffered fighting Hitler. We haven’t survived yet.
Bert Preast, Malaga, Spain

Is there any factual evidence that attacks of recent times are in fact not orchestrated by an organisation controlled by a central figure in terms of statistics? If so, are there any changes in the patterns of the attacks?
Dave, London

This programme along with the earlier Century of the Self show that the BBC is still willing to commission seriously thoughtful and intelligent programmes. Much of what was contained in the programme was not new and I was aware of many of the facts. But to see them put together with a philosophical inquiry was simply stunning.
Charlie Blacklock, Bristol

Though I agree with your analysis in so far as you describe politicians manipulating the threat of terrorism to their advantage, I think you have left out one crucial point. If a terrorist group of any ideological persuasion was to acquire nuclear or even substantial biological capability then there would be clearly a real “threat to the life of the nation”. Life as we know it would be very different if London suffered a nuclear attack.
Saul Herman, Oxford

In response to the question “How can the BBC broadcast the Dirty Bomb programme and transmit the Power of Nightmares?” my answer would be that the BBC – determined to ask questions and look at many points of view – in years gone by, has also transmitted The War Game and Threads, but we haven’t been nuked either.
Jonathan Cash, Brighton, UK

It is good to see the BBC showing such an excellent documentary. I am personally tired of the scaremongering by the government and right-wing press, especially when it comes to curtailing our civil rights. It seems that there are very few people in this world who agree that life is a risky venture and you cannot mitigate all these risks.
Vish, UK

It’s nice to see the BBC showing both sides of the story. Many in the Muslim community and in the journalistic world have known for a long time that al-Qaeda has never existed. Just because governments say something exists doesn’t mean it does – take weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as another example. The media has a very important role to verify the facts and to present the truth but as we all know the media is influenced by many factors and does not or cannot always do this.
Haroon Surma, Preston, England

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