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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 18-10-2004

The Making Of A Terror Myth

Since September 11 Britain has been warned of the 'inevitability' of
catastrophic terrorist attack. But has the danger been exaggerated? A
major new TV documentary claims that the perceived threat is a politically
driven fantasy - and al-Qaida a dark illusion. Andy Beckett reports
October 15, 2004, The Guardian
Since the attacks on the United States in September 2001, there have been
more than a thousand references in British national newspapers, working
out at almost one every single day, to the phrase "dirty bomb". There have
been articles about how such a device can use ordinary explosives to
spread lethal radiation; about how London would be evacuated in the event
of such a detonation; about the Home Secretary David Blunkett's statement
on terrorism in November 2002 that specifically raised the possibility of
a dirty bomb being planted in Britain; and about the arrests of several
groups of people, the latest only last month, for allegedly plotting
exactly that.
Starting next Wednesday, BBC2 is to broadcast a three-part documentary
series that will add further to what could be called the dirty bomb genre.
But, as its title suggests, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the
Politics of Fear takes a different view of the weapon's potential.
"I don't think it would kill anybody," says Dr Theodore Rockwell, an
authority on radiation, in an interview for the series. "You'll have
trouble finding a serious report that would claim otherwise." The American
department of energy, Rockwell continues, has simulated a dirty bomb
explosion, "and they calculated that the most exposed individual would get
a fairly high dose [of radiation], not life-threatening." And even this
minor threat is open to question. The test assumed that no one fled the
explosion for one year.
During the three years in which the "war on terror" has been waged,
high-profile challenges to its assumptions have been rare. The sheer
number of incidents and warnings connected or attributed to the war has
left little room, it seems, for heretical thoughts. In this context, the
central theme of The Power of Nightmares is riskily counter-intuitive and
provocative. 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."
Adam Curtis, who wrote and produced the series, acknowledges the
difficulty of saying such things now. "If a bomb goes off, the fear I have
is that everyone will say, 'You're completely wrong,' even if the incident
doesn't touch my argument. This shows the way we have all become trapped,
the way even I have become trapped by a fear that is completely
So controversial is the tone of his series, that trailers for it were not
broadcast last weekend because of the killing of Kenneth Bigley. At the
BBC, Curtis freely admits, there are "anxieties". But there is also
enthusiasm for the programmes, in part thanks to his reputation. Over the
past dozen years, via similarly ambitious documentary series such as
Pandora's Box, The Mayfair Set and The Century of the Self, Curtis has
established himself as perhaps the most acclaimed maker of serious
television programmes in Britain. His trademarks are long research, the
revelatory use of archive footage, telling interviews, and smooth,
insistent voiceovers concerned with the unnoticed deeper currents of
recent history, narrated by Curtis himself in tones that combine
traditional BBC authority with something more modern and sceptical: "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
Curtis also cites the Home Office's own statistics for arrests and
convictions of suspected terrorists since September 11 2001. Of the 664
people detained up to the end of last month, only 17 have been found
guilty. Of these, the majority were Irish Republicans, Sikh militants or
members of other groups with no connection to Islamist terrorism. Nobody
has been convicted who is a proven member of al-Qaida.
In fact, Curtis is not alone in wondering about all this. Quietly but
increasingly, other observers of the war on terror have been having
similar doubts. "The grand concept of the war has not succeeded," says
Jonathan Eyal, director of the British military thinktank the Royal United
Services Institute. "In purely military terms, it has been an inconclusive
war ... a rather haphazard operation. Al-Qaida managed the most
spectacular attack, but clearly it is also being sustained by the way that
we rather cavalierly stick the name al-Qaida on Iraq, Indonesia, the
Philippines. There is a long tradition that if you divert all your
resources to a threat, then you exaggerate it."
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."
Britain may also be particularly sensitive to foreign infiltrators, fifth
columnists and related menaces. In spite, or perhaps because of, the
absence of an actual invasion for many centuries, British history is
marked by frequent panics about the arrival of Spanish raiding parties,
French revolutionary agitators, anarchists, bolsheviks and Irish
terrorists. "These kind of panics rarely happen without some sort of
cause," says Colley. "But politicians make the most of them."
They are not the only ones who find opportunities. "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."
In one sense, of course, Curtis himself is part of the al-Qaida industry.
The Power of Nightmares began as an investigation of something else, the
rise of modern American conservatism. Curtis was interested in Leo
Strauss, a political philosopher at the university of Chicago in the 50s
who rejected the liberalism of postwar America as amoral and who thought
that the country could be rescued by a revived belief in America's unique
role to battle evil in the world. Strauss's certainty and his emphasis on
the use of grand myths as a higher form of political propaganda created a
group of influential disciples such as Paul Wolfowitz, now the US deputy
defence secretary. They came to prominence by talking up the Russian
threat during the cold war and have applied a similar strategy in the war
on terror.
As Curtis traced the rise of the "Straussians", he came to a conclusion
that would form the basis for The Power of Nightmares. Straussian
conservatism had a previously unsuspected amount in common with Islamism:
from origins in the 50s, to a formative belief that liberalism was the
enemy, to an actual period of Islamist-Straussian collaboration against
the Soviet Union during the war in Afghanistan in the 80s (both movements
have proved adept at finding new foes to keep them going). Although the
Islamists and the Straussians have fallen out since then, as the attacks
on America in 2001 graphically demonstrated, they are in another way,
Curtis concludes, collaborating still: in sustaining the "fantasy" of the
war on terror.
Some may find all this difficult to swallow. But Curtis insists,"There is
no way that I'm trying to be controversial just for the sake of it."
Neither is he trying to be an anti-conservative polemicist like Michael
Moore: "[Moore's] purpose is avowedly political. My hope is that you won't
be able to tell what my politics are." For all the dizzying ideas and
visual jolts and black jokes in his programmes, Curtis describes his
intentions in sober, civic-minded terms. "If you go back into history and
plod through it, the myth falls away. You see that these aren't terrifying
new monsters. It's drawing the poison of the fear."
But whatever the reception of the series, this fear could be around for a
while. It took the British government decades to dismantle the draconian
laws it passed against French revolutionary infiltrators; the cold war was
sustained for almost half a century without Russia invading the west, or
even conclusive evidence that it ever intended to. "The archives have been
opened," says the cold war historian David Caute, "but they don't bring
evidence to bear on this." And the danger from Islamist terrorists,
whatever its scale, is concrete. A sceptical observer of the war on terror
in the British security services says: "All they need is a big bomb every
18 months to keep this going."
The war on terror already has a hold on western political culture. "After
a 300-year debate between freedom of the individual and protection of
society, the protection of society seems to be the only priority," says
Eyal. Black agrees: "We are probably moving to a point in the UK where
national security becomes the electoral question."
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".
Yet the notion that "security politics" is the perfect instrument for
every ambitious politician from Blunkett to Wolfowitz also has its
weaknesses. The fears of the public, in Britain at least, are actually
quite erratic: when the opinion pollsters Mori asked people what they felt
was the most important political issue, the figure for "defence and
foreign affairs" leapt from 2% to 60% after the attacks of September 2001,
yet by January 2002 had fallen back almost to its earlier level. And then
there are the twin risks that the terrors politicians warn of will either
not materialise or will materialise all too brutally, and in both cases
the politicians will be blamed. "This is a very rickety platform from
which to build up a political career," says Eyal. He sees the war on
terror as a hurried improvisation rather than some grand Straussian
strategy: "In democracies, in order to galvanize the public for war, you
have to make the enemy bigger, uglier and more menacing."
Afterwards, I look at a website for a well-connected American foreign
policy lobbying group called the Committee on the Present Danger. The
committee features in The Power of Nightmares as a vehicle for alarmist
Straussian propaganda during the cold war. After the Soviet collapse, as
the website puts it, "The mission of the committee was considered
complete." But then the website goes on: "Today radical Islamists threaten
the safety of the American people. Like the cold war, securing our freedom
is a long-term struggle. The road to victory begins ... "