Film
cover art

The Power of Nightmares: the Rise of the Politics of Fear

Director: Adam Curtis

(Independent Feature Project; US theatrical: 9 Dec 2005 (Limited release); 2004)

In the Valley of Nightmares

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Sheaves of terrorist plans found in Kabul reveal that al-Qaeda terrorists were behind a string of atrocities including the Heisel stadium disaster in 1986. A ballpoint pen drawing of a squashed football with a brick on top of it shows how the Muslim extremists planned every detail of the horrifying crush of spectators—believed at the time to be the work of hooligans. The documents are just part of a huge cache of terror tools shown to blindfolded Western reporters. One describes how he also “felt a system of levers which control all major volcanoes and tectonic faultlines on earth.” A White House spokesman said: “We have no reason to doubt that these apocalyptic savages conceived their children to recordings of passengers screaming in the Lockerbie air crash.” The discoveries come just days after looters offered a Wall Street Journal reporter “a tidal wave in a suitcase” big enough to destroy the entire U.S. eastern seaboard.
The Observer [UK], 17 March 2002


The above “report” is satire, penned by Christopher Morris and Armando Iannucci. The freedom haters do not yet have the technology to cause earthquakes or unleash tsunamis. But like all good satire, it reveals something about its subject, in this case the fear caused by the specter of international terrorism.


Adam Curtis, in The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear argues that the seeds of our current global situation were sewn 30 years ago. Two ideologies, one incubated in Egypt, the other in Chicago, have become intertwined, leaving us a world where, in Curtis’ words, “Those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.”


Curtis first takes up the story of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual who studied in the U.S. in 1948-50. Qutb, a Muslim, saw America as shallow, corrupt, and vulgar, a country of people living, in one commentator’s phrase, “isolated lives, surrounded by their lawns.” Around the same time, University of Chicago philosophy professor Leo Strauss came to a similar conclusion. In the rise of American liberalism, Strauss saw weakness and decay. The selfish consumerist society promoted the worship of individuality and threatened any sense of community.


Deciding that liberal “progress” was the cause of the moral decline, both men appealed to older traditions, Qutb to a strict reading of the Koran, Strauss to the political theories of Plato, elevating reason and civic duty above hedonism. Curtis identifies Qutb and Strauss as the fathers of radical Islamism and neoconservativism. It’s a compelling if not entirely convincing parallel. Curtis has an easier time with Qutb, who inspired Ayman al-Zawahiri, mentor to Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri has re-interpreted and radicalized Qutb’s teaching, especially his concept of Jahiliyya. Originally referring to the ignorance under which ostensibly Muslim Arab leaders allowed pro-Western ideas to proliferate, Jahiliyya was eventually understood as a disease, emanating from the United States, seducing Muslims away from their faith. It also became justification for killing them.


Strauss’s ideas lack such apostolic succession, making it harder to draw a line between his ideas and those of the neoconservatives. Paul Wolfowitz attended perhaps two of Strauss’s lectures; Donald Rumsfeld has never claimed any Straussian influence. Curtis focuses on Strauss’ reading of Plato, who encouraged philosopher-kings to spread “noble lies” in order to bind the masses to a common morality. The rulers, of course, knew these controlling myths had many practical applications. Curtis suggests the Cold War was one such myth, motivating U.S. patriotism. But suggesting that this approach came directly from Strauss is dubious; more likely, Strauss’s philosophies reflect the views of powerful neoconservatives rather than shaping them.


In Curtis’s formulation, the radical Islamists and proto-neocons first teamed up against the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan. U.S. policy makers, believing their own fictions about a powerful Russian-backed terror network, convinced President Ronald Reagan to authorize covert aid to Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. A decade later, when Moscow pulled its troops, both the Islamist fighters and the U.S. Cold Warriors took credit, then met again September 11th. Radical Islam, desperate to become more than a self-styled revolutionary vanguard, had declared war on the source of Jahiliyya, the United States.


It’s not quite as simple as all that, but Curtis’ documentary draws provocative parallels. One anecdote from Part One illustrates its tendency to exaggerate Soviet military capacity. As Secretary of Defense under President Ford, Donald Rumsfeld was unhappy with CIA reports about Soviet power. He assembled his own intelligence team, lead by Richard Pipes, an expert on the Russians’ “hidden mindset.” Remarkably, the team found exactly the intelligence they were looking for, though they had to make a slight paradigm shift to do so. Curtis narrates,


Team B made an assumption that the Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated they were undetectable. For example, they could find no evidence that the Soviet submarine fleet had an acoustic defense system. What this meant, Team B said, was that the Soviets had actually invented a new non-acoustic system, which was impossible to detect. And this meant that the whole of the American submarine fleet was at risk from an invisible threat that was there, even though there was no evidence for it.


This same idea—absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but evidence of our enemy’s skill and sophistication (a truly Rumsfeldian formulation)—reappeared almost 30 years later, with the United States fighting a war on monolithic “terror.” (One clip illustrates the flaw in this kind of mythological thinking: a police officer on an overpass surveys the road beneath and comments, “We don’t really know what a terrorist looks like, what kind of car they drive or anything else.”)


In the third chapter of The Power of Nightmares, Curtis details the case of four Arab teenagers arrested in Detroit following 9/11. Accused of being an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, the teens were bewildered to discover their vacation footage being used as evidence against them. Government experts testified that it was the obviously benign nature of the tape that indicated its hidden agenda. A shot of a trash can in Splash Mountain became directions on where to place a bomb. A brief glimpse of a tree outside a hotel window showed where to set up a sniper. Doodles found in the teenagers’ apartment became plans for a terrorist attack on a U.S. military base in Turkey. Exasperated at these runaway interpretations, the teenagers’ lawyer said, “If you build assumptions upon assumptions, you can go anywhere.” Assuming malicious intent in everything around you soon leads to paranoia, and a conspiracy-theory politics.


Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Myths are public dreams.” The Power of Nightmares argues that in the absence of public dreams, we’re left with only nightmares. It’s this kind of apocalyptic mythology—religious or political—that undermines our ability to think critically.

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