as i did previously with adam curtis’ century of the self, this isn’t so much a review as it is a summary of an important film that more people ought to see. and i throw in a lot of commentary along the way.
the power of nightmares is mainly about the idea that politicians used to offer an optimistic view of the world, and how they used to be seen as merely managers of public life. it tries to show how they have found a new role to play which restores both their power and their authority.
now, they don’t just manage public life but they (seem to) rescue us constantly from largely unseen and misunderstood dangers. they exaggerate and distort the dangers we face with fear and essential misinformation.
the film chronicles the parallels and similarities between the american neo-conservative movement and the radical islamics. both were built out of the failure of the liberal dream of the ‘new deal’ era to build a better world. what we live in now is the result. they started out as allies, really – and have evolved into convenient, nebulous enemies of each other in what seems for both to be an eternal struggle between good and evil.
surprisingly, both sides have similar explanations for the failure of the liberal ideal. both rail against a ‘secret, organized evil that threatens the entire world’. and in the ‘disillusioned age’ that we live in, the planting of these ideals on both sides was a relatively easy transition to make.
sayyid qutb - in an egyptian jail
part 1 – baby it’s cold outside
we open in the summer of 1949. we are introduced to sayyid qutb, a middle aged school inspector from egypt who visited america to study our educational system. he became disenchanted with america. what was portrayed here as prosperous and happy to him seemed decayed and corrupt. he saw our ‘golden age’ as ‘corrupt, vulgar, and shallow’. the simplest example of this was our yards. manicured lawns and pruned hedges, to someone from the middle east, from places often devoid of water and that type of self interested care, seemed insanely selfish and materialistic.
qutb saw americans as living isolated lives behind these lawns, surrounded by their material goods. he called this the ‘taste of america’. he saw americans as ‘tragic lost souls’ who ‘believed they were free but were trapped by their own desires’. like his counterparts in american public relations at the time, he thought the average american was driven by simple and primitive animal forces and made decisions not out of rationality or spirituality, but out of fear.
he began to develop an idea of islam that could provide for the prevention of the corruption of society that he saw here.
then we jump to leo strauss at the university of chicago. he was one of the main shaping influences of the neoconservative movement. he believed that a liberal society sowed the seeds of it’s own destruction. he believed that since the new deal, the liberal society of his time could no longer define or defend itself. in short, he believed that western liberalism led unavoidably to nihilism.
he described people living in liberal society as ‘herd animals, sick little dwarfs…satisfied with a dangerous life where nothing is true and everything is permitted’
he maintained that the liberal idea of individual freedom led people to question everything – all values, all moral truths. and further, that people were led by their own selfish desires and this threatened our shared values.
he adopted an ideal of ‘necessary illusions’, that is to say – powerful and inspiring myths that could be used to bond people together and to maintain control. basically, these were religion and the myth of the nation.
by the myth of a nation, he meant this idea that the united states was inspired by god, that our freedom was something we ought to prostlyletize, that our country had a unique destiny on earth to battle evil. this was because good vs. evil, us vs. them was an easily intelligible, clear value that was easily shared throughout any group of people.
leo strauss was a huge gunsmoke and perry mason fan. curiously, his philosophy emulates the ideals of these fictions in several ways.
like his freudian cohorts in public relations and the egyptian sayyid kutb, strauss believed that the average person wasn’t able to make meaningful decisions about their lives. his idea was that in public, leaders should promote myths that in private they really had no belief in. this was a measure with which to maintain stability and control in society. he believed in the idea of a ruling elite.
in 1950, sayyid qutb returned to egypt. he envisioned a new society whose basis was a more political type of islam that could keep individualism in check and thereby stop people’s selfish desires from overwhelming them. and like strauss, he also thought that this required a ruling elite to establish and keep order in society.
he became a member of the muslim brotherhood. they took part and rejoiced in the ouster of the monarchy in the egyptian revolution of 1952. they had previously seen egpyt moving towards a more secular society as the west was already, and wanted to stop it. but when the new government, headed by abdel nasser, did not establish a strictly islamist form of government, they attempted to assassinate him, and failed. and in 1954, qutb is arrested.
in jail he is subjected to atrocities and torture. in custody, qutb was ‘broken’ by interrogators. he told all he could. he even detailed a plan that had been in place to flood the nile delta in order to ‘drown the infidels’.
he stayed in prison until 1964 and emerged much more radicalized and rigid in his beliefs. he believed now that a liberal culture unleashed brutal and apocalyptic urges in people. he popularized the idea of jahiliyyah, a state of barbarous ignorance, an abandonment of god wherein the people affected wouldn’t even be able to know they were infected. in short (are you seeing a trend?), that people didn’t know what was best for them in the long run – and that, absent this leadership, they would fall not just into chaos but now that society and the world would come to an end.
qutb thought that fighting this state of being was an existential and religious duty. he thought that to oppose it was to oppose god himself. any opposition to these ideals was unholy and evil and anyone who was not a true muslim, therefore, could be killed. he called for a revolutionary vanguard to defend islamic ideals. the idea that any corrupt persons ‘could be killed’, the popularization of the myth of martyrdom is borne from qutbism, really.
after his release in 1964, qutb wasn’t free for long. he was arrested again within the year and put on trial for treason. he was found guilty and swiftly executed.
enter ayman al-zawahiri. on the day of qutb’s execution, al-zawahiri sets up a radical islamic group (he was a member of several others at the time), and eventually he comes to mentor osama bin laden.
ayman al-zawahiri as a doctor
meanwhile, in america, the liberal/political order in place since roosevelt starts to collapse. lyndon johnson’s ‘great society’ experiment begins to fail. in reaction to this, a group of political thinkers and political scientists begin to embrace the little known ideas of leo strauss.
they believed at heart that true individual freedom was impossible and that social liberalism led to public and social disintegration. they were truly idealists, even if they were not realists. these were men like paul wolfowitz, frank fukiuama, bill kristol, richard perle, dick cheney, karl rove and donald rumsfeld.
their aim and ideal was to unite people via a shared purpose. their vehicle for this was to help to proliferate the myth that america had a manifest destiny to fight evil and spread democracy and through this artifice they could give meaning and purpose to the lives of everyday people. to them, the united states wasn’t just a country or society, but it was a fundamental force for good in the world.
this is important to note. these people aren’t madmen, or deluded, or crazy. like a religion or any dogma one might cling to, these men, like their counterparts on the left before them, came to their ideas through pure and thoughtful idealism. their muslim counterparts in egypt and the middle east in general also did so. it was their conclusion, not so much their method, that created the world we are living in.
but the neoconservatives had an obstacle in this country. it’s name was henry kissinger. although in some of our eyes he was a war criminal, for the neoconservatives he represented the ideal that opposed what they stood for. he was a ruthless pragmatist. he believed wholly in global interdependence. he believed on the old, liberal paradigm of talking conflicts out and finding middle ground. the neoconservative ideal, like it’s islamic counterpart, doesn’t allow for a lot of compromise or common ground. for them it’s all or nothing.
in fact, at a critical juncture, kissinger’s president, richard nixon, announced ‘the age of fear is over’. for the neoconservatives, even though he was a republican, this was a continuation of the rooseveltian ideal of fighting fear with rationality. ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. and on and on. this was anathema to their approach to government and the management of society.
the neoconservatives, as they were forming a kind of community of like minded idealists, needed a way to refute the doctrine of liberalism in general and kissinger in specific. they got their chance with nixon’s resignation. the ford administration was primed for the assumption of roles by prominent straussian neoconservatives like donald rumsfeld and dick cheney.
the effect was almost immediate. rumsfeld began to give speeches saying that the soviets were actively, further preparing for war. the cia said this was fiction. in fact, at the time, the soviet union was already crumbling to the point at which it would break. but in 1975, to counteract the cia’s refusal to back his claims, wolfowitz and rumsfeld set up and independent inquiry to help them publicly demonize the soviets. this inquiry was led by richard pipes.
the result was curious and interesting – and it’s the type of result that has been repeated again and again in the public arena. when they could not find evidence that the soviet union was gearing up for war with the united states, they claimed that this merely demonstrated how advanced they were – that they had better technology than we had ever conceived.
and in 1980 ronald reagan runs for president. his candidacy is run and directed by many of the neoconservatives. they started off by forming ‘the committee on the present danger’ and didn’t really let up. they believed more than ever in lies for the common man that nonetheless give meaning and purpose to their lives. a simplistic fiction that satisfied people’s needs and fed off their fears.
the longed to create a world of moral certainties. and like their islamic counterparts, they fashioned the idea that anyone who obstructs their pure, godly ideals were not just mistaken but were often evil.
meanwhile, in the late 70s, egypt is westernizing. al-zawahiri is a prosperous doctor but is still active in underground, militant islamic groups. they see their current government, led by anwar sadat, to be under the thumb of the west. it is corrupt to the core. sadat had even been persuaded by kissinger to start peace talks with israel in 1977.
then in 1979, the ayatollah kohmeini spurs the islamic revolution in iran. after it’s success, he puts sayyid kotb on a stamp. the militant islamics are seeing their stock go up. and about this time in the middle east, islamic jihad is formed. followers of al-zawahiri and kotb come together. their unity culminates in the assassination of sadat and al-zawahiri is arrested.
like his mentor kotb, al-zawahiri is tortured in jail and further radicalizes. he now believes that the people are as corrupt as the leaders. so not only could a corrupt leader be killed, but now, so too could anyone who follows or supports a corrupt leader. killing infidels is further cemented as a noble purpose among these men. he develops of doctrine of ‘shocking’ people into seeing the truth of things, through the artifice of terrorist attacks. in truth, he seems to merely have been taking revenge on a muslim society that, on the whole, did not agree with him.
at this same time, in america, religion is being utilized as a political tool really for the first time. religious followers are mobilized as the neoconservatives latch onto this group which, historically had not been politically active and did not vote.
and reagan wins. but reagan isn’t a pure neoconservative, himself. he still thought you could ‘negotiate’ the other side. he was a true believer in compromise and rationality.
but during the early years of his presidency the neoconservatives begin promoting the idea that terrorism around the world wasn’t the result of disparate and desperate groups, but of a ‘global network of terror’ at the center of which was the soviet union. they based their theories of this on a book, the terror network, by claire sterling. the books main expositor was michael ladeen, whose name pops up again and again in various intelligence-based scandals.
the cia denied that any ‘terror network’ existed, despite the insistence of it by cia head, william casey. he pushed for a study that would prove it existed. cia agents then admitted that a lot of the books source material were ‘black ops’ that they had put out to smear the soviet union. nonetheless, a report was eventually proffered which stated that indeed, the russians were behind the majority of the terrorism in the world. they became ‘the focus of evil in the modern world”.
somewhere in this mix, many in the neoconservative movement achieve that strange alchemy of thought, belief, faith and action wherein they began to believe their own narrative. they truly believed that they were ‘democratic revolutionaries’.
part 2 – the phantom victory
we pick up the narrative of the power of nightmares in the reagan/thatcher era of the 1980s. this was a world where instead of making promises and trying to deliver dreams, politicians took on the role of perpetually rescuing us from nightmares.
about this time, the russians were involved in afghanistan. what happened here was a tremendous turn of events that coincided with the fall of the soviet union. what resulted was that both the islamic militants on the ground, and the american government who acted as allies could and would both take credit for the same outcome.
afghanistan fit perfectly into ‘the reagan doctrine’, which was really the first push to spread democracy around the world. and cia chief william casey thought afghanistan was key in the cold war with the russians, so he sent agent milton bearden with ‘stinger missiles and a billion dollars’ and told him to ‘win afghanistan’. so, the cia trained mujahideen in terror techniques, including the utilization of car bombs.
arabs from all over the middle east descend on afghanistan after a global fatwa was issued to help liberate arab lands from the soviets. men like abdullah yusuf azzam, ayman al-zawahiri and osama bin laden are among these. as it turns out, the arabs and the americans both saw the soviet union as the first step – but in very different walks.
men like azzam thought that once the soviets were overthrown in afghanistan, that the arab fighters would return to their home countries and overthrow the corrupt governments there. he had his men take a pledge against terror on civilians. his aide in 1985 was osama bin laden. about this time, al-zawahiri is released from prison and makes his way to afghanistan. eventually, azzam was assassinated.
slowly, many of the fighters in afghanistan, being trained by the cia, are simultaneously radicalized by al-zawahiri and the like. and in 1987, soviet leader mikhail gorbachev withdraws from afghanistan. at the time, gorbachev asked the us to help negotiate the peace. he warned that if it wasn’t handled properly, it could disintegrate. apparently, he sent a message through the kgb to the white house, warning that if the mujahideen took control, islamic extremists would triumph. his message was not answered. the us refused any part in the peace, though it had readily engaged itself in the war.
and so, the neoconservatives as well as the mujahideen took credit for the victory. it was the beginning of the central myth that still inspires both movements. the soviet union, known or unknown to them, was already crumbling. but both took credit for defeating the phantom empty. the islamic militants thought that mass revolution throughout the arab world was imminent. this was not the case.
but what did happen was that now the koran was used as a framework for governments in many arab countries. political parties therefore became largely irrelevant and there was no need for frequent, open elections.
cut to washington – in 1991. the soviet union is no longer the threat. the neoconservatives waste no time in creating a different bogeyman. they begin to focus on saddam hussein. interestingly, george bush sr did not share the neoconservative vision of transforming the middle east. he calls off the ‘war’ without getting to baghdad and without ousting hussein. he was of the old school, much like henry kissinger. for him, issues of good and evil were irrelevant. what mattered to him was stability. and with stability restored, he thought his job was done. there were many neoconservatives who were seething behind the scenes, though many did speak out publicly afterward.
they saw this as an expression of the corrupt liberal values that had dominated america in the generations prior. to them, this was a shaky, moral relativism that was prepared to bargain with evil people. for the neoconservatives, this was a huge setback and a sign of weakness. they believed that politicians should reassert absolute, simple moral values, above all else. and from this stinging defeat of sorts, they set out to reform america from the inside out as they re-aligned themselves with the religious right for what would be known in the 1990s as the ‘culture wars’.
for many of the neoconservatives, religion, like the myth of america itself, was a noble lie in service of good and order. aligning with religious folks was a way to gain and maintain power. they were/are possessed of a covert vision to affect change in history while concealing certain parts of it from those in society they think are in capable of understanding it.
a key moment in the neoconservative movement was the 1992 convention. this was a time when the republican party was still a party of many different types of politicians. it wasn’t a straight party line all agreeing on the same platform. that would change, quickly. william weld is booed off the stage for saying that a woman should have a right to choose. this was the beginning of the cookie cutter republican politician of the modern era. but the lopsided nature of it at the time it was happening was enough to allow bill clinton to win.
and an amazing thing happened. spurred on by talk radio, the neoconservatives did to bill clinton what they had previously done to the soviet union. they turned him into a bogeyman. clinton was assailed with a barrage of charges, all of which were baseless: the death of vince foster, whitewater, drug smuggling, and sexual harassment. all these cases were overstated by the neoconservatives and by ‘the american spectator’ in specific, with what was known as ‘the arkansas project’.
david brock was hired at the american spectator to dig up dirt on the clintons. he was a fervent neoconservative at the time who published anti-clinton pieces and went on tv crusading against clinton. he’s well known now for coming forward to admit that there really was nothing there. he now refers to it as ‘political terrorism’.
but in the mayhem of accusations, ken starr is appointed to investigate. and while he found no truth to the other allegations, he did stumble across monica lewinsky and so began the hysterical campaign that followed. and in the end, the right ended up somehow behaving worse than the behavior they were vilifying, and the nation, as it turns out, really didn’t care.
the right wing and the neoconservatives saw this as a tremendous defeat – or really, a failing of the american people to support their cause. like in the first gulf war, they were left out in the wind. they recoiled. bill bennett writes a book, ‘the death of outrage’ in which he reasoned that the publics failure to support the impeachment was evidence of their own moral corruption. are you seeing the parallels with their islamic counterparts yet?
the neoconservatives were officially marginalized. but after a close, and some say stolen election, the neoconservatives were poised to set the tone – and the september 11, 2001 attacks were just around the bend.
and while the bill clinton scandal was happening, terrorism was persisting in the middle east. terrorists turned their attention from much harder to hit politicians to ordinary people. and after some time, the extremists turn to killing each other because, much like the neoconservatives in the united states, they can only see purity, political or otherwise, in themselves and no one else.
and by 1997, bin laden and al-zawahiri are back in afghanistan. the islamic revolutions around the middle east had failed to materialize. in the end, the islamic public shunned terroristic carnage. in may of 1998 they hold a press conference. in it they threaten the west, in particular the us. many intelligence analysts have called this a strategy of desperation of a marginalized group. afghanistan was their only real stronghold. and why? because of the previous ‘victory’ over the soviets.
“the western regimes and the government of the us bear the blame for what might happen. if their people do not wish to be harmed inside their very own countries, they should seek to elect governments that are truly representative of them and that can protect their interests.” not the strongest rhetoric. but that’s what was said.
and then came september 11. and the neoconservative reaction to the attack transformed the islamic extremists, as well as their neoconservative counterparts, into just what they purported themselves to be.
osama bin laden
part 3 – the shadows in the cave
we pick back up with al-zawahiri in afghanistan with bin laden, threatening a far off evil – the united states, in order to rally the masses. after attacks in kenya and tanzania, bin laden’s name begins to enter the public consciousness. but records seem to indicate that, at this time, beyond his own small group, bin laden really had no organization until the us gave him the appearance of one. both were convenient scapegoats for the other.
enter jamal al-fadl. he was a mujahideen who purportedly attended early meetings where the idea of ‘forming’ al-qaeda in the first place were discussed. eventually he stole a bunch of money from the organization and fled. he got cia protection and eventually was placed in witness protection. he provided information against bin laden that perfectly fit into how the united states prosecutes rico statute violations. and bin laden was tried in early 2001 for the 1998 us embassy bombings in africa. fadl testified. some intelligence experts think that fadl lied in his testimony to provide the prosecutors the case they wanted. he was already on the run from al-qaeda. he had been in cia custody more than two years before the attacks in question. and on and on.
what resulted was the idea that al-qaeda was now: the new mafia. the new communists. the new immoral mr clinton. they were evil and the enemy. they were scary looking. they were creepy. they ‘threatened’ us in the past and had attacked ‘us’ already. they were identifiable, quantifiable and they were the perfect bogeyman. this idea was seized upon by the neoconservatives.
the idea was raised in the movie of ‘what if there had not previously been real al-qaeda ‘network’? regardless, the september 11 attacks proved the myth, even though as we now know, neither al-zawahiri or bin laden had ‘blueprinted’ the plan of attack. who did? that man’s name was khalif sheik mohammed. we have him in custody. he lives at guantanamo bay, cuba with the marines.
“al-qaeda is to terrorism what the mafia is to crime” - george w bush
after the september 11 attacks, rumsfeld begins to refer to al-qaeda as a ‘terror network’, in shades of his early 1980s work. a great quote from the film is that “our ‘war on terror’ isn’t so much a war against terrorists, but a war to prove the idea that our destiny is to fight evil”.
what seemed to happen post september 11 was that the neoconservatives took a failing movement which had lost mass support and reconstructed it as powerful network of evil that must be defeated. it really is a kind of comic book view of the universe.
and so we went into afghanistan and allied ourselves with the northern alliance, who were already fighting the taliban there. the taliban were not necessarily al-qaeda, though their best trained fighters had been to al-qaeda camps. the us starts a campaign to pay the northern alliance for any prisoners. the northern alliance begins rounding up anyone for the bounties. they tell the cia that bin laden is hiding in tora bora.
we are sold this idea of labyrinthian fortresses in the mountains with an underground network. and now the british are coming to help. british general roger lane famously comes out and says there’s nothing there to find.
after the terror network fails to be found in afghanistan or in the middle east, the us government turns it’s attention inward, looking for any evidence of a terror network inside the us. 1000s are detained. the patriot act is pushed through.
but from buffalo to portland to tampa, and after much fanfare of investigative breaks, the government finds no authentic terror network in the us, either. four are accused in detroit after a tip and a video tape is found. the contents of the tape? a trip to disneyland by four teenagers. terror experts say the tape is evidence they are ‘scouting’, but eventually the tipster, in jail, admits he made it all up. eventually – just about all ‘terror’ charges against all domestic threats are quietly dropped. since september, 2001 – 664 people have been arrested on terror suspicion. there have been no convictions.
a great interview in the movie is with bill durodie. he says ‘we have an exaggerated perception of the possibility of terrorism that is quite disabling. we only need to look at the evidence to understand that the figures don’t bear out how we’ve responded as a society’.
but the neoconservatives (and now, the democratic president barack obama), seem to just be following their playbook meme – distort and exaggerate threats to maintain control. what seems clear is that terrorism exists and is not new. but the way that the neoconservatives in the us have transformed this complex and disparate threat into a simplistic fantasy of an organized web of uniquely powerful terrorists who may strike anywhere, and any time, is just a self serving, fear based policy of exploitation. it just happens to work.
and in turn, islamist militants realize that by feeding this fantasy, they too can gain more power.
we have to get back to the idea that politicians are not saviors, heroes, protectors or celebrities. they are servants. they are public servants. they only have the power we give them and let them keep. their authority is as real as we allow it to be.
we can no longer allow them to corral us because of some fear of a negatively imagined future. we can no longer allow them to operate on the ‘precautionary principle’, wherein the government acts as thought it has a higher duty to act to save the world from some imagined future harm, some nebulous idea formed from no real evidence, or falsified evidence. they cannot be permitted to present ‘what if’ scenarios and then regulate our freedom based on the negative outcomes they envision. we should not allow them to present emotional, fear based rationale as a basis for foreign policy or detention of any kind. we now live in a country that has locked people up over what they ‘might do’. it’s philip k dick’s ‘minority report’ already in some cases.
their purported ‘organized network of terror’ is largely a fantasy. and in this brave new world, those leaders with the darkest imaginations therefore become the most influential and most often heard.
and ask yourself – ‘how will we know when the war on terror is over?’
the neoconservatives think we live in a society that mostly believes in nothing. and in a time like that, fear becomes the only common agenda people will agree on. they cling to it out of narrow minded self interest alone. the film says ‘a society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by anyone who believes in anything’. and so, fundamentalists and fanatics here and abroad are easily demonized. and demonizing them gives them power where they live, too. this situation is a clear measure of our own isolation, not necessarily our strength.
eventually – the fear will fade. what vision will our leaders have to offer us then?
and below you will find each of the three parts of this documentary, if you care to watch it.