Feign of Terror

A British filmmaker deconstructs the politics of fear exploited by radical Islamists and American neocons alike.

But the effect of the attacks on the neo-conservatives was dramatic. For most of the 1990s they were a marginalized group. In the wake of 9-11 shock and panic, powerful and influential again with figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush White House, the neocons reconstructed the Islamists in the image of their last evil enemy, the Soviet Union. They created a simplified fantasy of the Islamist threat—a sinister web of terror run from the center by bin Laden in his lair in Afghanistan—and discovered that with the fear this nightmare image produced, they could unify the nation and rediscover a grand purpose for America—the very thing for which they had been searching for over 30 years.

When The Power of Nightmares aired last fall, it caused a sensation in Britain. Thousands of articles, websites, and blogs discussed the war on terror and its underlying reality. It was an astonishing response that the BBC had not anticipated. Prior to transmission, there were serious worries about the public reaction, but when thousands of e-mails poured in, a statistical analysis found that over 96 percent were firmly in favor of the program (some viewer responses can be found at bbc .co.uk/nightmares).

The film touched a nerve—a public feeling that there was something not quite right or real about the fundamentals of the war on terror. No U.S. networks have so far expressed any interest in showing it. If they did, they might find, as the BBC did, that the public is tiring of the politics and journalism of fear. People want to make sense of the bewildering mood of uncertainty and doubt that has surrounded them since 9-11. Terrorism is an enemy that can be dealt with bravely and intelligently, as Europeans have done in the past. It is fear that really undermines a nation's power and confidence in the world.

The phantom menace: A scene from The Power of Nightmares
photo: BBC
The phantom menace: A scene from The Power of Nightmares

Adam Curtis has made a wide range of political documentaries for the BBC. His most recent work prior to The Power of Nightmares was a series about the social and political use of Sigmund Freud's ideas called The Century of the Self (it will open at Cinema Village this summer).

The Power of Nightmares screens April 23, 26, and 29 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It can also be viewed at informationclearinghouse.info.

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