The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis
I have just finished screening a three-part BBC special by documentarian, Adam Curtis. For those of you who have not yet seen it, I can only say that it can even shake up the worldview of an old radical like me. It is a conspiracy film of sorts, but unlike the Illuminati, Bilderburg, 9/11 demolitionists, this film is backed up by some pretty irrefutable evidence.
The following essay is based upon my screening of the last episode in the series.
“In the past, politicians promised to create a better world. They had different ways of achieving this, but their power and authority came from the optimistic visions they offered their people. Those dreams failed and today people have lost faith in ideology. 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 promised to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism—the powerful and sinister network with sleeper cells in countries across the world—a threat that needs to be fought by The War on Terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world by security services and the international media.
This is a series of films about how and why that fantasy was created and who it benefits. At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives and the radical Islamists. By the late nineties both groups were largely marginalized and out of power, but with the attacks on September eleventh the fate of both dramatically changed. The Islamists after their moment of triumph were virtually destroyed within months, while the neoconservatives took power in Washington. But then the neoconservatives began to reconstruct the Islamists. They created a phantom enemy, and as this nightmare fantasy began to spread, politicians realized the new power it gave them in a deeply disillusioned age. Those with the darkest nightmares became the most powerful.”
By the late 1990s both the American Neoconservatives and the radical Islamists, were out of power and sufficiently marginalized by their own excesses and the events of that decade. With 9/11, the fate of both groups changed. The radical Afghani Islamists (who were virtually destroyed within months of 9/11) became the Neocon’s ticket to political and strategic dominance in the New American Century.
The Neoconservatives saw the nearly defunct radical Islamists as the new evil around which they could reassert their power. The myth of the War on Terror was born. Politicians realized that the promise to protect their people from this phantom enemy gave them a new power in a deeply disillusioned age. Those with the darkest nightmares became the most powerful.
During this period, bin Laden and Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan as their last refuge. Their Islamism had failed as a mass movement. As a result of their near total isolation, a new strategy would be attempted, namely to attack the source of the infection they believed the west was spreading throughout the Muslim world: the United States. This tiny group desperately hoped that the masses could be mobilized by such an audacious move. In 1998 they detonated two huge bombs outside the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The operatives in these attacks were recruited from the training camps in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Zawahiri did not control these camps, which had been set up mainly to train people to foment local revolution, nothing more. These groups had no interest in attacking America. In return for his funding some of the camps, bin Laden was allowed to recruit. Many in Islamic Jihad were opposed to this new strategy. The belief that bin Laden was the head of a large international terrorist organization was a myth invented in America.
Such a belief was developed as part of a legal strategy used to prosecute bin Laden (in absentia) as the ringleader of a massive international terrorist organization whose agents had attacked the embassies in East Africa. At the US v. Osama bin Laden trial in New York on Feb. 13, 2001, the key witness was Sudanese militant, former bin Laden associate and confidence man, Jamal al-Fadl. In exchange for immunity, witness protection and hundreds of thousands of dollars al Fadl was happy to provide the FBI with the lie of a massive, coherent terrorist network, with agents around the world under the command of an absolute leader. No such organization exists or ever existed. What was immerging was a powerful idea that would come to be believed by both groups, the Neocons and the radical Islamists. This idea was to inspire a single devastating act that was to convince the whole world of this myth that was constructed in the Manhattan courtroom.
9/ll was not planned or executed by Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri. Even the name al Qaeda was adopted after the fact by bin Laden who liked the label the Americans had placed on his small group of followers. Even though bin Laden later claimed credit for what was called “The Planes Operation,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his predominantly Saudi operatives were in reality the ones responsible for the planning and execution of the devastating events of 9/11.
The model of a vast, invincible network of worldwide terrorists under the absolute rule of Osama bin Laden had already been cast at the Feb. 13th trial. This myth served perfectly, both as an explanation of the events of 9/11, as well as the need of the Neocons to frame a whole new manifestation of incarnate evil like the USSR, Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein.
The Neoconservatives were back in the saddle again! The new administration of George W. Bush was already infested with a host of Neocons, the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Dick Cheney. Prior to 9/11, their influence and vision was largely ignored by the new president. After 9/ll, the same strategy of disinformation that had framed the Soviet Union as an evil, imperialist organization bent on world domination was now trotted out and applied to al Qaeda. The lie of bin Laden as some megalomaniac, commanding a massive, secretive organized network with tentacles reaching into all parts of the world and even the United States was and is still a lie, no matter if it is believed by George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
Having convinced the world that the heart of this network lay in the mountains of Afghanistan, the US administration, following this reconstructed Neocon myth, set out to destroy al Qaeda. The American forces allied themselves with the warlords of the Northern Alliance who were fighting against the foreign radical Islamists and the Talliban, who controlled Afghanistan. Happy for American support in their struggle, the Northern Alliance was all to willing to play along with the US delusion that this rag-tag group of foreign Arab fighters was indeed al Qaeda terrorists.
The wholesale round up of the Taliban and foreign fighters became a profitable enterprise. The US forces were paying cash dollar for every warm body turned over—no questions asked. As we are finally finding out, none of these were in fact international terrorists (the worst of the worst as the Neocons were eager to call them,) but mostly poor souls caught up in Northern Alliance sweeps of people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were radical nationalists only wanting to create Islamist societies in their own countries. The Islamists were all either killed or taken to Guantanamo Bay and Afghani radical Islamism as a movement ceased to exist. Undaunted by reality, the Americans and the Northern Alliance forces attempted in vain to capture bin Laden and failed to find any evidence of massive underground fortresses supposedly said to exist. The Pakistani military was happy to help a small remnant of bin Laden’s entourage escape into Pakistan.
Al Qaeda ceased to exist. The absence of evidence is never evidence of absence for the Neocons however. They now set out to “discover” this phantom enemy in the rest of the world, especially in the United States. Innocent Arabs were arrested and detained across America. Hidden sleeper cells of al Qaeda terrorists under the leadership of bin Laden, were unearthed in abundance across the length and breadth of the land. Buffalo, NY, Tampa, FL, Seattle, WA, Portland, OR and Detroit, MI were home to terrorists. The evidence for the existence of these domestic sleeper cells was as bizarre as it was flimsy. These indictments were always announced by Bush with flamboyant headlines while the subsequent failure of the prosecutors to produce even a shred of real evidence to back up the cases rarely even made it to the back pages. A similar disinformation campaign against terrorists was also conducted in Great Britain under Tony Blair.
There are real dangers from terrorism in our world. The misleading fantasies that hysterical police and security services have produced as projections of their own fears have served to render us less safe and less able to cope with the real threats we face. We are far less likely to be the victims of international terrorism than the victims of the disinformation we have bought from our leaders bent on using fear to enhance their power. It is not only our own megalomaniacal politicians who have learned to feed off these lies.
Islamists too have learned to exploit this expanded vision of their own power and influence to their advantage in recruitment and fundraising. These Neocon fantasies have helped terrorists to cast large and threatening shadows back at us. These shadows are far out of proportion to the actual size of the threat. Our government seems more eager to enhance and amplify the false threats and the unnecessary panic they might spread than they are in keeping their populations properly informed. One example is the misinformation concerning the detonation of a “dirty nuclear bomb” that our leaders are loath to tell us would produce little damage and no loss of life apart from the panic it would produce. Our leaders seem to be far more interested in keeping a firm grasp on control than even providing safety or security. In the area of foreign affairs and the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even Obama seems unwilling or unable to break this mold.
The Neocons now had captivated nearly the whole world with their apocalyptic vision of a vast terrorist network and their dream of the United States and Great Britain as the ones in the white hats ready to do battle against the forces of evil in the world. With bin Laden vanished and no real results having been produced in their domestic hue and cry, they needed a new face of the evil one to place before the people. Their candidate: Saddam Hussein. With the help of a compliant media, they set out on what was to be their greatest, most outrageous attempt yet to stretch the credibility of world opinion: the Saddam/al Qaeda connection and the Iraqi program of nuclear and conventional WMD.
In our time we have seen politicians retreat from their role as purveyors of idealistic dreams of progress and light that would produce a better world, to the status of mere managers of programs and people. The electorate had come to think of them in small terms as mere bureaucrats, pencil pushers with all the romance and glamour of accountants. With the success of the terrorists on 9/11 they latched on to a new model for themselves as heroes with the power and vision to protect us from nightmares.
“For a society that believes in nothing, fear becomes the only agenda. Much of the twentieth century was dominated by a conflict between a free market right and a socialist left. Even though both of those outlooks had their limitations and their problems, at least they believed in something. Whereas what we are seeing now is a society that believes in nothing. And a society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by people who believe in anything. And therefore we label those people as fundamentalists or fanatics. And they have much greater purchase in terms of the fear they instill in society than they truly deserve. But that’s a measure of how much we have become isolated and atomized rather than their inherent strength.”
Bill Durodie, Director International Centre for Security Analysis, Kings College.
Ironically the Neocons took a page from the ecology movement who claimed that, by the time the scientists had final, definitive evidence for Global Warming, it would be too late to stop it. Preemptive, universal scenarios had to be acted upon by governments to head off what, at the present moment, only appeared to be true rather than wait until all the evidence was in and it was too late.
To paraphrase Rumsfeld again, not having evidence for a threat should not be a reason for a failure of acting as if it was real. The leaders with the worst, most horrifically imaginative visions were the ones whose programs became the most compelling. Who dared say they were wrong? It now became the calling and the duty of the government to literally scare the pants off us. In the process they were able to reach for near absolute power and control. One of the most pernicious employments of this vision was called “the precautionary principle.” Not unlike a scenario from a Philip K. Dick Sci-Fi novel, this principle held that people could be locked up for what they might do.
This amazing film by Adam Curtis, completed five years ago, attempted to end on an upbeat note and the belief that the system of lies and deceptions concerning international terrorism seemed to be unraveling with a resultant return to rationality on the part of western people and their governments.
Near in the middle of this year of our Lord 2009, I still remain skeptical of our ability to disengage ourselves from this tar baby the Neocons have us stuck in. Obama’s reluctance to indict the many Bush&Co criminals and his characterization of many of Bush’s strategies that gave us domestic spying, torture, murder, immoral/illegal wars and war crimes as anything other than “mistakes” that he would like to put behind him, concerns me deeply.
Whether we will recover from the destruction these policies have had on our freedoms has yet to be seen. I have too often noticed the faces of our government change and yet the malicious goals and programs remain. The metronomic history of Neocon resurrection resembles zombies who will not die and cannot be killed. I fully expect them or their young disciples, so full of righteous certainty and religious fervor to arise again, galvanized by some new crisis or opportunity. Meanwhile their legacy of fear shows no sign of abating in the near future. As long as this fantasy of an organized international terrorist network remains in place, all the excesses and abuses we have witnessed under the presidency of George W. Bush will remain with us. Even an apparently wise, and benevolent president cannot escape the gravitational pull of this black hole the Neoconservatives have enshrined in the political and social life of our nation.
"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 we shall survive al Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime that it was, threatened the life of their nation. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community"
British Judge, Lord Leonard Hoffman