Chasing shadows forever

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Robert Scheer: BBC film asks if we’re chasing a phantom enemy

By Robert Scheer / Los Angeles Times


Robert Gates testifying on the Capitol, April 30, 2009. Gates says the recent series of highly deadly bombings in Iraq is an attempt by al-Qaida to spark sectarian violence as U.S. troops reduce their security role.

Is it conceivable that Al-Qaida, 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.

“The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear,” a three-hour historical film by Adam Curtis recently aired by the British Broadcasting Corp., argues coherently that much of what we have been told about the threat of 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.”

Stern stuff, indeed. But consider just a few of the many questions the program poses along the way:

• If Osama bin Laden does, in fact, head a vast international terrorist organization with trained operatives in more than 40 countries, as claimed by Bush, why, despite torture of prisoners, has this administration failed to produce hard evidence of it?

• How can it be that in Britain since 9/11, 664 people have been detained on suspicion of terrorism but only 17 have been found guilty, most of them with no connection to Islamist groups and none who was a proven member of Al-Qaida?

• Why have we heard so much frightening talk about “dirty bombs” when experts say it is panic rather than radioactivity that would kill people?

• Why did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claim on “Meet the Press” in 2001 that Al-Qaida controlled massive high-tech cave complexes in Afghanistan, when British and U.S. military forces later found no such thing?

Of course, the documentary does not doubt that an embittered, well-connected and wealthy Saudi man named Osama bin Laden helped finance various affinity groups of Islamist fanatics that have engaged in terror, including the 9/11 attacks. Nor does it challenge the notion that a terrifying version of fundamentalist Islam has led to gruesome spates of violence throughout the world.

binladen_bushhblairBut the film, both more sober and more deeply provocative than Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” directly challenges the conventional wisdom by making a powerful case that the Bush administration, led by a tight-knit cabal of Machiavellian neoconservatives, has seized upon the false image of a unified international terrorist threat to replace the expired Soviet empire in order to push a political agenda.

Terrorism is deeply threatening, but it appears to be a much more fragmented and complex phenomenon than the octopus-network image of Al-Qaida, with Bin Laden as its head, would suggest.

While the BBC documentary acknowledges that the threat of terrorism is both real and growing, it disagrees that the threat is centralized:

“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 organization waiting to strike our societies is an illusion. Wherever one looks for this Al-Qaida organization, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the ‘sleeper cells’ in America, the British and Americans are chasing a phantom enemy.”

The fact is, despite the efforts of several government commissions and a vast army of investigators, we still do not have a credible narrative of a “war on terror” that is being fought in the shadows.

Consider, for example, that neither the 9/11 commission nor any court of law has been able to directly take evidence from the key post-9/11 terror detainees held by the United States. Everything we know comes from two sides that both have a great stake in exaggerating the threat posed by Al-Qaida: the terrorists themselves and the military and intelligence agencies that have a vested interest in maintaining the facade of an overwhelmingly dangerous enemy.

Such a state of national ignorance about an endless war is, as “The Power of Nightmares” makes clear, simply unacceptable in a functioning democracy.

By Robert Scheer writes often about issues of domestic and foreign policy.



The Power of Nightmares / A review by Katrina Vanden Heuvel

Last week, the BBC re-broadcast a provocative documentaryseries which challenges the idea that Al Qaeda is the center of a uniquely powerful, unified and well-organized international terrorist conspiracy.

“The attacks on September 11th,” according to the film’s director Adam Curtis–one of Britain’s leading documentary filmmakers–“were not the expression of a confident and growing movement. They were acts of desperation by a small group frustrated by their failure which they blamed on the power of America. It is also important,” Curtis adds, “to realize that many within the Islamist movement were against this strategy.” (This view accords with those held by terrorism experts–like Peter Bergen–who argue that Al Qaeda is largely a spent force that has changed from a tight-knit organization capable of carrying out 9/11 to more of an ideological threat with loose networks in many nations.)

The film also challenges other accepted articles of faith in the so-called war on terror, and documents that much of what we have been told about a centralized, international terrorist threat “is a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicans. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.”

The series does not claim that terrorism poses no threat, nor does it challenge the idea that radical Islamism has led to gruesome violence throughout the world. “The bombs in Madrid and Bali showed clearly the seriousness of the threat–but they are not evidence of a new and overwhelming threat unlike any we have experienced before. And above all they do not–in the words of the British government–‘threaten the life of the nation.’ “

First broadcast in Great Britain last November, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear has yet to air on this side of the Atlantic. Why is it that no television outlet in the United States has yet to broadcast this critically-acclaimed film?

In a recent e-mail interview, Curtis told me he “is very keen” that the documentary be shown in the US, and that he is “talking to some people at the moment ” However, he added, “I think the networks won’t show it because they are frightened by possible reactions. I think this is very wrong. The reaction in Britainhas been extraordinary with the overwhelming majority praising the BBC for its confidence in putting the series out.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Curtis says, “quoted the films approvingly in his Christmas address to the nation. I think we were pushing at an already open door–and I suspect the same is true for America. There is a lurking feeling in many peoples’ minds that this state of fear doesn’t quite add up–and I have received hundreds of e-mails from people in the US asking to see the series since Robert Scheer published a column about the film in the Los Angeles Times on January 11. I am sure it will be shown somewhere.”

I also asked Curtis what he thought Americans could learn from the film. His reply:

“The United States is the most powerful, confident and in many ways, the freest civilization ever in the history of the world. It is extraordinary that it has become so paralyzed by the fear of radical Islamist terrorism–it really is a lion quaking in the face of a mouse. Radical Islamists do represent a serious threat and will use terror against civilians, but when you look at them historically, as the series does, you come to see that they are not some new force with a unique power to bring the strongest nation in the world to its knees.

“Yet America has become trapped by that fear–riven by nightmare visions of ‘sleeper cells’ in its midst for which there is little or no evidence. The series attempts to explain why this strange state of affairs has come about and it argues that politicians have found in fear a way of restoring their power. In a populist consumerist age where their authority and legitimacy has declined dramatically politicians have simply discovered in the War on Terror a way of making themselves indispensable to their populations again by promising to protect us from something that only they can see.”

Curtis has promised to send me a copy of the documentary. But millions of Americans deserve to see a film that offers a rigorously documented and credible counter to the conventional narrative of a “war on terror.”

If you agree, write HBO and ask why it isn’t showing this BBC documentary. You can also call on PBS stations to be true to their missions by asking them to air The Power of Nightmares.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor in chief of The Nation magazine. 

SEE ALSO: Beware Holy Wars, Peter Bergen

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