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  'The Power of Nightmares': Underwear vs. Reason


'The Power of Nightmares': Underwear vs. Reason

Adam Curtis' "The Power of Nigtmares" (2004)

reviewed by Chris Knipp

It's useless to point out that the "underwear bomber" failed. The response to terrorism in the US is all about what "might happen."

The three-part, three-hour polemical documentary series "The Power of Nightmares," written, produced, narrated, and directed for the BBC by English filmmaker Adam Curtis, goes to the heart of world affairs post-9/11 and remains extremely relevant today.* In his introductory words, repeated with slight variations at the start of each hour, Curtis states his theme:

"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 ideologies. Politicians are seen simply as managers. 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. 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 of sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a 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, the 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 neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world, and both had a very similar explanation of what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created today's nightmare vision of a secret organized evil that threatens the world, a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful."

In a BBC Interview, Curtis answered the conservatives' accusation that he was only selling conspiracy theories. He said politicians didn't plan to use fear of terrorism to wield power but merely "stumbled on it." This defends him against the charge of smearing mainstream politics. In fact he well demonstrates that certain neo-conservatives in high positions in multiple US administrations have been willing to invent threats and tell lies to undermine liberal leaders, further their ends, and generate fear. Doubtless many western leaders, Obama among them, have merely "stumbled on" the strategy of stirring up fear of al-Qa'ida to keep the public cooperative and justify the next war. Politicians often believe their own lies, as George W. Bush may have believed in Saddam's hiding "weapons of mass destruction."

The now-passé "communist threat"

In the story Curtis tells, the fading power of liberal ideology led two forces to emerge, both seeking a substitute ideal: the neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. And ultimately they squared off, each one needing the other as an opponent in their self-styled battle of Good and Evil. In this world, Ayman Zawahiri and Paul Wolfowitz are like twins, because they feed off each other.

Curtis' narrative leaves out earlier fear-mongering. It is obvious that well before the time when Curtis claims western ideologies grew stale, power was wielded through fear of the "communist threat." In the 1950's it was a hostile country's nuclear attack rather than a terrorist group's malevolent mischief-making that was the thing most feared. Up to the fall of the Soviet bloc, the western "ideologies" Curtis says have gone stale claimed to be locked in at titanic struggle with "communism." This was power politics based upon fear as well. When the Berlin Wall went down, fear of the "communist threat" had lost all potency as a motivator. There is plenty of evidence that the US used that "threat" to justify wars, like Vietmam. Al-Qa'ida and "terrorism," virtually synonymous in US and British media, have replaced "communism" as the fearful threat, the evil outside that could "bury" us or make us slaves. The irony is that while the power of the Russian bloc and its will to dominate the West were greatly exaggerated, they were more real and powerful than the threat of terrorism now. Yet terrorism is already making us slaves: the US government removes more and more freedoms to fight an invisible enemy. And there is no end in sight. What will be the "fall" of "terrorism"? Terrorists will always exist.

The idea that al-Qa'ida is a powerful and highly organized worldwide terror network with sleeper cells everywhere is largely an American invention. The US under Barack Obama continues to wage wars in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan under the banner of rooting out al-Qa'ida. Even if there were a true network, this strategy is doomed to fail, since (as has often been noted, even by Obama) the brutalization of Islamists, and along with them innocent Muslims, is a powerful and ongoing recruiting device to bring in new would-be bombers, underwear or otherwise.

Adam Curtis' "The Power of Nightmares" concludes with a grim reassurance: "But the fear will not last, and just as the dreams that politicians once promised turned out to be illusions, so, too, will the nightmares; and then our politicians will have to face the fact that they have no visions, either good or bad, to offer us any longer." Well, we may hope that Curtis' long-range predictions don't turn out to be true, but he provides a logical description of what has been happening and continues to happen. There will continue to be terrorist attacks. It's not that they are a fabrication, just that their actual danger has been exaggerated, and will continue to be. But their effect will be great, not because of the actual physical damage they do or the lives they destroy, but because terrorism by its very nature generates fear, and that fear is still growing and will grow as long as the US overreacts. Curtis' picture of the creation of the current fears and the forces behind them has much truth in it, and much irony, because both groups, the radical Islamists and the neo-conservatives, exist on the fringes of societies. Most of us are just caught in the middle, but we are the victims.

The power of burning underwear

No better proof of the swift magnification of trifles into threats could be brought to bear than the case of the "underwear bomber," a rich Nigerian's son called Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young man radicalized in England, briefly trained by Islamists in Yemen, acting independently and futilely—his bomb fizzled, burning only him. And yet the full force of the US government and press was immediately brought to bear on this "threat." Diplomats were withdrawn from Yemen (what about England, where Umar got his primary inspiration, or Nigeria, where he came from?). Obama announced that 50 Yemeni Guantánamo detainees, never found guilty of anything, were not to be released after all. A Department of Justice task force recommends they be held indefinitely. So this pathetic, if frightening, incident is to be justification for continuing blatant violation of international law and the American Constitution.

Vittorio Zucconi, editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, pointed out in a blog entry entitled "Excuse Me, Have You Got a Light?" that, though it may be "small consolation, of course. . . al-Qaida's recruiting and training services must be in rather a bad way if they must resort to someone whose own father had repeatedly complained to the authorities." The young Nigerian, Zucconi mocked, was "a diabolical explosives expert who couldn’t even manage to build a detonator that works and a murderous nerd who sets fire to his own balls in an attempt to blow up a load between his legs, while hiding himself under a blanket." "Obviously," the Director went on, "an ill-intentioned idiot alone is enough to do much harm, and a knife is sufficient to hijack a plane, because the so-called security services, those who harass feeble old ladies at airports because they wear metal-reinforced bras and mothers of newborns with baby bottles, are—as has been argued here for some time—merely a nice little theater designed to calm passengers." And "who runs this colossal global security apparatus," he scoffs, "Trenitalia?"

One can't imagine the editor of a major American paper daring to speak so lightly of this affair, of the lack of threat from al-Qaida evidenced in it, the incompetence of the effort, and the futility of airport security. Such talk is taboo. We can lambaste the security apparatus and call for more, but we dare not minimize the "threat." Obviously there is an analogy with September 11, 2001, in that this non-event took place in an American airplane, involved someone hostile to the US, and might have been prevented if American authorities had registered the warnings they'd been given and taken appropriate action. But the fact is, nothing happened. Terrorism has indeed again triumphed, by showing that nothing is needed, really, to reawaken hysteria exploited by the media and used as justification by the US government to take disproportionately massive action. How efficient, though blind and mad, terrorism is!

And from the gay website Milkboys comes this information: "The rapid introduction of full body scanners at British airports threatens to breach child protection laws, which ban the creation of indecent images of children, the Guardian has learned. Privacy campaigners claim the images created by the machines are so graphic they amount to 'virtual strip-searching' and have called for safeguards to protect the privacy of passengers involved. Ministers now face having to exempt under-18s from the scans or face the delays of introducing new legislation to ensure airport security staff do not commit offenses under child pornography laws. They also face demands from civil liberties groups for safeguards to ensure that images from the #80,000 scanners, including those of celebrities, do not end up on the internet. The Department for Transport confirmed that the "child porn" problem was among the "legal and operational issues" now under discussion in Whitehall after Gordon Brown’s announcement on Sunday that he wanted to see their "gradual" introduction at British airports.

Even a relatively minor incident, like the failed 'underwear bomber' fiasco, is enough to cause more individual freedoms to fall by the wayside.

Even a relatively minor incident is enough to cause more individual freedoms to fall by the wayside. Luckily, civil liberties groups are working to combat this, but it's an uphill battle. This again is, or should be, a comic matter; the worry over instantly erased body images may be unfounded. But the increasing state apparatus to watch, probe, and penetrate into individual privacy isn't necessarily so funny. Nor is the misunderstanding of threats, and the persistent lack of focus on the causes pf Islamist rage, which are ignored in favor of what Vittorio Zucconi considers to be the band-aid of cosmetic step-ups in security, if band-aid is the word when profiling is more like a full body cast, and substitutes racist harassment for efficient intelligence procedures.

It's useless to point out that the "underwear bomber" failed. The response to terrorism in the US is all about what "might happen." This is what militarism is all about: maintaining a massive force to deal with imaginary threats. Or relatively small ones. The power of nightmares is still as great as ever, and Adam Curtis' film as insightful.

©Chris Knipp 2010. See more of the author's writings at

*The documentary has been welcomed (with some reservations) by progressives, criticized and rejected by conservatives: see the Wikipedia article, "The Power of Nightmares". Three complete one-hour videos of The Power of Nightmares along with full written transcripts of its second and third parts are found at Information Clearing House.

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This story was published on February 4, 2010.


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