Sunday, October 17, 2004
The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear
Adam Curtis three part documentary The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear takes a look at the way the Media has been complicit in inciting and perpetuating a spectre of terrorism that is vastly out of proportion with the evidence. He raises the most important question of all, a question that has been conspicuous by its absence from the public discourse: Is It Real?
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."
Despite the fact that there haven't been any terrorist attacks on U.S., British or Australian soil since 9/11 (and big questions remain unanswered about that one)the fact that none of the Guantanamo inmates has yet been officially charged with anythingand the interesting synchronicity between Bush's approval rating and the US terror alert status the media churns out the myth of a danger that is both Imminent and Immanent. This has reached such a pitch, that to suggest that such fears have no basis even with ample evidence to support is considered highly controversial - The BBC held back on airing trailers for the documentary because of anxieties as to how it would be recieved.
Curtis aims to get people to question the assumptions they have about the reality of the threat, something that even the better media have completely failed to since 9/11.
"I want to try to make people look at things they think they know about in a new way."
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, except as an idea about cleansing a corrupt world through religious violence.
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.
It speaks volumes about the state of the media that they have neglected to sustain any line of questioning about how valid the threats really are for this all this time, despite the scantiest amount of actual evidence to support the spin. The biggest question of all has remained unasked and a perspective fundamental to the discourse has been entirely absent from it until now.
Bill Durodie, director of the international centre for security analysis at King's College London, says: "The reality [of the al-Qaida threat to the west] has been essentially a one-off. There has been one incident in the developed world since 9/11 [the Madrid bombings]. There's no real evidence that all these groups are connected." Crispin Black, a senior government intelligence analyst until 2002, is more cautious but admits the terrorist threat presented by politicians and the media is "out of date and too one-dimensional. We think there is a bit of a gulf between the terrorists' ambition and their ability to pull it off."
Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to describe the strategy of a government, the authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the 1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then members of the public during the 19th century, states have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists "to be of absolute cosmic significance", and that therefore "anything goes" when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: "States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism."
Something has gone very wrong with the media's priorites. The boundaries between reality and fiction have been blurred, the sense of obligation to the public discourse supplanted by corporate interests and systematised dependence on the favours of the spin doctors. The information stream is toxic with uncorrected lies and the media is swollowing its own waste.
"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 - in a jittery media-driven democracy - 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."
Corporations have their own agenda, but how and why are so many normal individuals willing to buy into rumour driven phantasmagoria where al-zakarwi lurks behind every corner in Iraq, responsible for every bomb and every beheading in every town? Nobody even appears to find it odd that since al-zakarwi became the new 'bin Laden', Osama has, as the posters say, bin forgotten. Curtis traces the socio- historical development of this state of affairs:
Some critics of this situation see our striking susceptibility during the 90s to other anxieties - the millennium bug, MMR, genetically modified food - as a sort of dress rehearsal for the war on terror. The press became accustomed to publishing scare stories and not retracting them; politicians became accustomed to responding to supposed threats rather than questioning them; the public became accustomed to the idea that some sort of apocalypse might be just around the corner. "Insecurity is the key driving concept of our times," says Durodie. "Politicians have packaged themselves as risk managers. There is also a demand from below for protection." The real reason for this insecurity, he argues, is the decay of the 20th century's political belief systems and social structures: people have been left "disconnected" and "fearful".
In this light the situation looks like a catch 22, a downward spiral of fear begetting authoritarianism and authoritarianism perpetuating fear. What people need is a new sense of community, dialogue and interconnectedness but that is further away now than it has been at any point in recent history. The demonisation of Islam and the subsequent invasion of Iraq (the only secular nation in the Middle-East) has spawned alienations where none previously existed and the world is divided as never before. The US' traditional allies now stand in mutual suspicion with the Bush regime and American culture - once its most potent and effective organ of influence - is beginning to be rejected even in England.
The neocons have more in common with Islamic fundamentalism than they do differences. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism whatever colour it paints itself. All fundamentalism sets itself in opposition to liberalism, diversity and egalitarianism. This is the real war of our times. There is no such thing as a fundamentalist democracy.