The Making of the Terror Myth
"All they need is a big bomb every 18 months to keep this going."
UK Drawing 'Bulge' Conclusions: If Bush is a Fraud,
Then So is Islamist Terror Threat
The making of the terror myth
A major new BBC TV documentary claims that the [..terrorist] threat is a politically driven fantasy - and al-Qaida a dark illusion. Andy Beckett reports
Friday October 15, 2004
Since the attacks on the United States in September 2001, there have been more than a thousand references in British national newspapers, working out at almost one every single day, to the phrase "dirty bomb". There have been articles about how such a device can use ordinary explosives to spread lethal radiation; about how London would be evacuated in the event of such a detonation; about the Home Secretary David Blunkett's statement on terrorism in November 2002 that specifically raised the possibility of a dirty bomb being planted in Britain; and about the arrests of several groups of people, the latest only last month, for allegedly plotting exactly that.
Starting next Wednesday, BBC2 is to broadcast a three-part documentary series ..The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear ..
During the three years in which the "war on terror" has been waged, high-profile challenges to its assumptions have been rare. The sheer number of incidents and warnings connected or attributed to the war has left little room, it seems, for heretical thoughts. In this context, the central theme of The Power of Nightmares is riskily counter-intuitive and provocative. Much of the currently perceived threat from international terrorism, the series argues, "is a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media." The series' explanation for this is even bolder: "In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power."
Adam Curtis, who wrote and produced the series, acknowledges the difficulty of saying such things now. "If a bomb goes off, the fear I have is that everyone will say, 'You're completely wrong,' even if the incident doesn't touch my argument. This shows the way we have all become trapped, the way even I have become trapped by a fear that is completely irrational."
The Power of Nightmares seeks to overturn much of what is widely believed about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The latter, it argues, is not an organised international network. It does not have members or a leader. It does not have "sleeper cells". It does not have an overall strategy. In fact, it barely exists at all..
Curtis' evidence for these assertions is not easily dismissed. He tells the story of Islamism, or the desire to establish Islam as an unbreakable political framework, as half a century of mostly failed, short-lived revolutions and spectacular but politically ineffective terrorism. Curtis points out that al-Qaida did not even have a name until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation.
Curtis also cites the Home Office's own statistics for arrests and convictions of suspected terrorists since September 11 2001. Of the 664 people detained up to the end of last month, only 17 have been found guilty. Of these, the majority were Irish Republicans, Sikh militants or members of other groups with no connection to Islamist terrorism. Nobody has been convicted who is a proven member of al-Qaida.
In fact, Curtis is not alone in wondering about all this. Quietly but increasingly, other observers of the war on terror have been having similar doubts. "The grand concept of the war has not succeeded," says Jonathan Eyal, director of the British military thinktank the Royal United Services Institute. "In purely military terms, it has been an inconclusive war ... a rather haphazard operation...
"Almost no one questions this myth about al-Qaida because so many people have got an interest in keeping it alive," says Curtis. He cites the suspiciously circular relationship between the security services and much of the media since September 2001: the way in which official briefings about terrorism, often unverified or unverifiable by journalists, have become dramatic press stories which .. have prompted further briefings and further stories. Few of these ominous announcements are retracted if they turn out to be baseless: "There is no fact-checking about al-Qaida."
In one sense, of course, Curtis himself is part of the al-Qaida industry. The Power of Nightmares began as an investigation of something else, the rise of modern American conservatism. Curtis was interested in Leo Strauss, a political philosopher at the university of Chicago in the 50s who rejected the liberalism of postwar America as amoral and who thought that the country could be rescued by a revived belief in America's unique role to battle evil in the world. Strauss's certainty and his emphasis on the use of grand myths as a higher form of political propaganda created a group of influential disciples such as Paul Wolfowitz, now the US deputy defence secretary. They came to prominence by talking up the Russian threat during the cold war and have applied a similar strategy in the war on terror.
As Curtis traced the rise of the "Straussians", he came to a conclusion that would form the basis for The Power of Nightmares. Straussian conservatism had a previously unsuspected amount in common with Islamism: from origins in the 50s, to a formative belief that liberalism was the enemy, to an actual period of Islamist-Straussian collaboration against the Soviet Union during the war in Afghanistan in the 80s (both movements have proved adept at finding new foes to keep them going). Although the Islamists and the Straussians have fallen out since then, as the attacks on America in 2001 graphically demonstrated, they are in another way, Curtis concludes, collaborating still: in sustaining the "fantasy" of the war on terror.
Some may find all this difficult to swallow. But Curtis insists,"There is no way that I'm trying to be controversial just for the sake of it." Neither is he trying to be an anti-conservative polemicist like Michael Moore: "[Moore's] purpose is avowedly political. My hope is that you won't be able to tell what my politics are." For all the dizzying ideas and visual jolts and black jokes in his programmes, Curtis describes his intentions in sober, civic-minded terms. "If you go back into history and plod through it, the myth falls away. You see that these aren't terrifying new monsters. It's drawing the poison of the fear."
But whatever the reception of the series, this fear could be around for a while. It took the British government decades to dismantle the draconian laws it passed against French revolutionary infiltrators; the cold war was sustained for almost half a century without Russia invading the west, or even conclusive evidence that it ever intended to. "The archives have been opened," says the cold war historian David Caute, "but they don't bring evidence to bear on this." ...
A sceptical observer of the war on terror in the British security services says: "All they need is a big bomb every 18 months to keep this going."
The war on terror already has a hold on western political culture. "After a 300-year debate between freedom of the individual and protection of society, the protection of society seems to be the only priority," says Eyal. Black agrees: "We are probably moving to a point in the UK where national security becomes the electoral question."
The real reason for this insecurity...is the decay of the 20th century's political belief systems and social structures...
... I look at a website for a well-connected American foreign policy lobbying group called the Committee on the Present Danger. The committee features in The Power of Nightmares as a vehicle for alarmist Straussian propaganda during the Cold War. After the Soviet collapse, as the website puts it, "The mission of the committee was considered complete." But then the website goes on: "Today radical Islamists threaten the safety of the American people. Like the Cold War, securing our freedom is a long-term struggle. The road to victory begins ... "
[In other words, the fear-mongering will never stop as long as Capital needs to keep Labour imtimidated/terrorised].
· The Power of Nightmares starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday October 20.
[Taking the logic one step further: If Islamist terror Threat is a Fraud, Then Bush et al Must be Tried for 911]
add a comment on this article
add a comment on this article