LONDON—Last week the British media were promised a sensation. A terror trial was about to reach a climax. The jury was to give its verdicts on five Algerian men who were accused of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell that had planned to poison hundreds of innocent civilians. Government ministers had privately told journalists that the convictions would prove there was a hidden network of terror inside Britain that, in their words, “threatened the life of the nation.”
The jury delivered a very different sensation. They acquitted four of the men and convicted the fifth only of “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.” The man who was convicted, Kamel Bourgass, was indeed a dangerous fanatic who had also been convicted of killing a police officer, but the jury decided that there was no concrete evidence of the nightmare vision of an organization with sleeper cells across the world that was dedicated to the overthrow of the West.
This spectacular failure fuels the growing question that was raised last fall when a documentary series called The Power of Nightmares—which I wrote and produced—aired on BBC TV in prime time: Does Al Qaeda really exist?
The Power of Nightmares—which receives its first New York screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival this week—does not say that the Islamist terrorist threat is an illusion. The West does face a deadly threat from groups and individuals inspired by dangerous ideas—the horrific attacks on America and the bombings in Madrid and Bali make this only too clear. But the film also argues that the true nature of this threat has been completely misunderstood by governments, security services, and the international media. It has been distorted and exaggerated to create a vision of a unique threat unlike anything we have faced that justifies extreme countermeasures. This fantasy, which has trapped our leaders and our media, prevents us from comprehending and dealing with the dangers we face. The film tells not only how it was created but also why, and in whose interest.
At the heart of the story, which begins 50 years ago, are two groups: the American neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists born out of the failure of post-war liberal optimism, and both had very similar explanations for why that failure had occurred. Both groups did change the world—but not in the way either intended.
My original aim was not to make a documentary about the events of September 11. The project started as a series about the history of conservative political ideas and their resurgence in America and Britain over the past 30 years—a worthy project for the BBC perhaps, but not something that was going to challenge the way people see the contemporary world.
As I researched the subject, I stumbled on the work of a little-known Arab political writer called Sayyid Qutb, who visited America in 1949 and came away with a deeply pessimistic vision of post-war consumer culture. He believed that the rise of individualism had unleashed a selfishness on the world that was tearing away the moral bonds that held society together. Qutb was no alien thinker: He had read Nietzsche, Marx, and Sartre, and his criticism of modern America, though Islamic in origin, was also born out of a Western conservative tradition. Qutb’s ideas would directly inspire those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
At the same time, I was reading about the history of the neo-conservative movement and its theoretical background. This led me to the works of a political theorist called Leo Strauss. His analysis of modern democracy was that its shared moral values were in danger of corrosion by a selfish individualism that questioned everything. He too took a great deal from Nietzsche. Strauss’s ideas were to become one of the important forces that shaped the thinking of the neo-conservative movement.
My aim in The Power of Nightmares was to trace what happened to Qutb’s and Strauss’s ideas as they were taken up by the Islamists and the neo-conservatives. The film does not—despite allegations from some neo-conservative outriders—make a direct comparison between the ideas and actions of Islamists and neo-conservatives. But it does argue that both groups share a pessimism about the unbridled individualism of consumerist culture and a desire to re-create a society of shared moral values. They are the last political idealists in a world where grand political ideas have disappeared to be replaced by a managerial politics that serves only the demands of the modern self.
Tracing the history of the two groups, and how their different ideas developed, leads one to look at 9-11 in a very different way. By the end of the 1990s, the Islamist movement had failed as a mass attempt to transform the world. Revolutions in Egypt and Algeria had not been the spark for an uprising across the Arab world. The attacks on America in 2001 were born out of that failure, and they were the work of a small splinter group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. This group had no formal organization, and this new policy of attacking the West directly was opposed by the majority of Islamists. The assault on America was a desperate lashing out by a movement that was facing failure.
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.
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.