In the precincts of the loony left, it seems, the terrorist threat is an imaginary canard. Michael Moore made this point a year ago, speaking on NBC's Today show (Oct. 7, 2003, not on the Internet ): "there is no terrorist threat. Somebody needs to just say this: There—there is not terrorist threat. Now, there are acts of terrorism."
Now the BBC2 has effectively taken this arch-stupid remark and turned it into a three-part documentary series, titled The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. The series, as explained in the Guardian, finds that much of the currently perceived threat from international terrorism
"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." …
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.
If anything, the BBC2's own description of the first installment is even wackier:
Baby It's Cold Outside. In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares. The most frightening of these is the threat of an international terror network. But just as the dreams weren't true, neither are these nightmares.
This series shows dramatically how the idea that we are threatened by a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion. It is a myth that has spread unquestioned through politics, the security services and the international media. At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neoconservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world. These two groups have changed the world but not in the way either intended. Together they created today's nightmare vision of an organised terror network. A fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. Those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.
The rise of the Politics of Fear begins in 1949 with two men whose radical ideas would inspire the attack of 9/11 and influence the Neoconservative movement that dominates Washington. Both these men believed that modern liberal freedoms were eroding the bonds that held society together. The two movements they inspired set out, in their different ways, to rescue their societies from this decay. But in an age of growing disillusion with politics, the neoconservatives turned to fear in order to pursue their vision. They would create a hidden network of evil run by the Soviet Union that only they could see. The Islamists were faced by the refusal of the masses to follow their dream and began to turn to terror to force the people to ‘see the truth'.
Comment: All I can say is, I'm glad I am not British and having to pay for this junk. (October 15, 2004)
Oct. 21, 2004 update: And here is the BBC2's description of the second installment:
The Phantom Victory. Series exploring the idea that the threat of a terror network is a myth. American Neoconservatives and radical Islamists come together to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and both believe that it is they who have defeated the Evil Empire and now have the power to transform the world. But both fail in their revolutions.
In response, the Neoconservatives invent a new fantasy enemy, Bill Clinton the depraved moral monster, to try and regain their power, while the Islamists descend into a desperate cycle of violence and terror to try and persuade the people to follow them. Out of all this comes the seeds of the strange world of fantasy, deception, violence and fear in which we now live.
Nov. 1, 2004 update: The third part, to show on Nov. 3, is no improvement on the other two, at least as the BBC2 foreshadows its fare:
The Shadows In The Cave. There are dangerous and fanatical individuals and groups around the world who have been inspired by extreme Islamist ideas, and who will use the techniques of mass terror - the attacks on America and Madrid make this only too clear.
But the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion. Wherever one looks for this al-Qaeda organisation, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the sleeper cells in America, the British and Americans are chasing a phantom enemy.
But the reason that no-one questions the illusion is because this nightmare enemy gives so many groups new power and influence in a cynical age - and not just politicians. Those with the darkest imaginations have now become the most powerful.
Nov. 6, 2004 update: Herb Greer, a playwright living in Salisbury, England, sent me a description of this series, which he watched. I present his summary of it:
Once upon a time there was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, "the godfather of modern Islamist radicalism." Qutb lived from 1906 to 1966, when he was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. He believed that the Western consumer society was spoiling the people and corrupting their morals. His cure for this Islam. At about the same time there was Leo Strauss, an American thinker. He too believed that the consumer society was spoiling the people (Americans especially) and corrupting their morals. His cure was myth, because real life was too difficult for people.
Strauss's followers were called neo-conservatives, and their mind-set was exactly like the followers of Qutb. Each of these men and their followers needed the illusion of some kind of enemy. Both wanted to use the illusions to manipulate the people in order to frighten them and strengthen their resolve, or moral fibre, or something—Qutb in the Middle East, and Strauss in America. For Qutb the enemy was America with its Satanic ways, like the consumer society. For Strauss and his followers it became the Communist conspiracy, a gigantic octopus-like, er, thing which was trying to undermine democracy and spoil the people. Actually there was no such conspiracy. Only a scattering of countries that had harmless Communist parties, who could in no way threaten America
(The BBC2 fairy tale did not mention - among other things - the Comintern, the Rosenbergs, Klaus Fuchs, Gouzenko, or anyone else that might prove inconvenient to his story.)
Eventually Qutb's myth failed to take hold. The people insisted on being spoiled by the decadent West.. His followers became very upset and turned violent. They thought that if they killed some people, pour encourager les autres, it would rescue les autres from the Satanic enemy. Then there was this war in Afghanistan which the Russians lost, and both the neo-cons and the Islamists each believed they had won. It re-heated the desires of the neo-cons and the Islamists to conquer the world. The followers of Strauss saw their myth expire, alas, when the USSR fell apart. Of course America had nothing to do with this. The neocons concealed the real truth: that the USSR was rotten to the core and just fell apart by itself. Reagan had nothing to do with it, and nor did anyone else in the West. But the neo-conservatives put it about that they had won, which meant that America could now conquer the world.
Qutb's followers too, especially one Al-Zarqawi insisted that no, they would conquer the world and rule through Islam and defeat a mythical enemy: the West. This was just like the neo-cons and the USSR. Qutb's followers killed a fair number of people, and this bloodshed horrified the people and they recoiled. They still preferred sinful Western ways. Islamist ranks dwindled, for example in Algeria, until an Islamist chicken farmer with a few followers decided to kill everybody except themselves, in order to conquer the world. Alas, the Islamists failed to conquer the world and this made them very upset.. This caused a ghastly civil war which is still going on in Algeria.
Now, without their old Russian enemy, the neo-conservatives needed a new one. They discovered a new enemy right there in America called William Jefferson Clinton. They made up a myth about Clinton, promoted by a magazine called The American Spectator, which for neo-conservatives was sort of like the Koran was for the chicken farmer and his followers. This said that Clinton was immoral and had slept with all these women, and probably murdered Vince Foster and did nasty things with Whitewater, and was therefore setting a bad example for the American people, which would spoil them and weaken them and make it impossible for Democracy to conquer the world. The neo-conservatives did not actually kill lots of people over this, but they were just like the Islamists because they made up this myth about Clinton, and wildly exaggerated his really quite harmless little affair with Monica Lewinsky. David Brock, a former reporter from The American Spectator who had seen the light, denounced the whole story about Clinton as all lies. Just like the chicken farmer who wanted to kill everyone but his little band of followers, the neo-conservatives tried to impeach Clinton. They failed because his immorality was a myth and the people understood that and rejected it just like the Islamist myth and violence and bloodshed was rejected. Of course the neo-conservatives were very upset, just like the chicken farmer and his followers in Algeria. It was becoming hard to tell the difference between these two groups. Islamic terrorism attacking the West was a myth, just like the West trying to attack Islam; both were made up to frighten people and conquer the world..
Finally the fairy tale is summed up with a comforting message: international terrorism actually does not exist. It is all a myth got up by the chicken-farmer neo-cons in order to frighten and rule the people. The real danger is the fear stoked up by the myth of international terrorism, which is meant to destroy democracy and bring in totalitarian rule by the neo-con chicken farmers who want to conquer the world. Out there in the world there are scattered little groups who do bad things from time to time—but international terrorism? Definitely a myth. There is no evidence that it exists. The implicit message of this fairy tale is: Throw off the sinister rule of the neo-con chicken farmers, open your hearts to Islam, whose people really want to be friends, and we will all live happily ever after. And Osama bin Laden and Al-Zarqawi? Who?
Jan. 11, 2005 update: Robert Scheer, a Los Angeles Times columnist, admits to being mightily impressed with "The Power of Nightmares." In an article titled "Is Al Qaeda Just a Bush Boogeyman?" he embarrasses himself with this analysis:
Is it conceivable that Al Qaeda, as defined by President Bush as the center of a vast and well-organized international terrorist conspiracy, does not exist? To even raise the question amid all the officially inspired hysteria is heretical, especially in the context of the U.S. media's supine acceptance of administration claims relating to national security. Yet a brilliant new BBC film produced by one of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers systematically challenges this and many other accepted articles of faith in the so-called war on terror.
He goes on the praise the BBC series for arguing "coherently that much of what we have been told about the threat of international terrorism" is a fantasy.
June 20, 2005 update: Peter Bergen, a serious student of Al-Qaeda, endorses the documentary in The Nation, calling it a "richly rewarding film" and "arguably the most important film about the ‘war on terrorism' since the events of September 11."