The Power of Nightmares  

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The Power of Nightmares argues that radical Islamism is a political myth perpetuated by neoconservatives to unite and inspire their people after the ultimate failure of liberal utopias." --Sholem Stein

"This was Truman's America, and many Americans today regard it as a golden age of their civilization. But for Qutb, he saw a sinister side in this. All around him was crassness, corruption, vulgarity—talk centered on movie stars and automobile prices. He was also very concerned that the inhabitants of Greeley spent a lot of time in lawn care. Pruning their hedges, cutting their lawns. This, for Qutb, was indicative of the selfish and materialistic aspect of American life. Americans lived these isolated lives surrounded by their lawns. They lusted after material goods. And this, says Qutb quite succinctly, is the taste of America."[1] --John Calvert, Islamist historian

"The greatest danger of all is international terrorism. A powerful and sinister network, with sleeper cells in countries across the world. A threat that needs to be fought by a war on terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It's a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media."[2]

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear is a BBC television documentary series by Adam Curtis. It mainly consists of archive footage, with Curtis narrating. The series was originally broadcast in the United Kingdom in 2004. It has subsequently been aired in multiple countries and shown at various film festivals, including the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

The film compares the rise of the neoconservative movement in the United States and the radical Islamist movement, drawing comparisons between their origins, and remarking on similarities between the two groups. More controversially, it argues that radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organisation, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is a myth, or noble lie, perpetuated by leaders of many countries—and particularly neoconservatives in the U.S.—in a renewed attempt to unite and inspire their people after the ultimate failure of utopian ideas.

The Power of Nightmares was praised by film critics in Britain and the United States. Its message and content have also been the subject of various critiques and criticisms from conservatives and progressives.



Part 1. "Baby It's Cold Outside"

The Terror Network, I'm sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals

The first part of the series explains the origins of Islamism and neoconservatism. It shows Egyptian civil servant Sayyid Qutb, depicted as the founder of modern Islamist thinking, visiting the U.S. to learn about its education system, then becoming disgusted at what he judged as the corruption of morals and virtues in western society through individualism. When he returns to Egypt, he is disturbed by westernisation under Gamal Abdel Nasser and becomes convinced that in order to save his own society, it must be completely restructured along the lines of Islamic law while still using western technology. He then becomes convinced that his vision can only be accomplished through use of an elite "vanguard" to lead a revolution against the established order. Qutb becomes a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, after being tortured in one of Nasser's jails, comes to believe that western-influenced leaders can be justifiably killed to remove their corruption. Qutb is executed in 1966, but he influences Ayman al-Zawahiri, the future mentor of Osama bin Laden, to start his own secret Islamist group. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, Zawahiri and his allies assassinate Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981 in the hopes of starting their own revolution. However, the revolution does not materialise, and Zawahiri comes to believe that a majority of Muslims have been corrupted, not only by their western-inspired leaders, but Muslims themselves have been affected by jahilliyah and thus may be legitimate targets of violence if they refuse to join his cause. They continued to believe that a vanguard was necessary to rise up and overthrow the corrupt regime and replace it with a 'pure' Islamist state.

At the same time in the United States, a group of disillusioned liberals, including Irving Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, look to the political thinking of Leo Strauss after the perceived failure of President Johnson's "Great Society". They conclude that an emphasis on individual liberty was the undoing of Johnson's plans. They envisioned restructuring America by uniting the American people against a common evil, and set about creating a mythical enemy. These factions, the neoconservatives, came to power during the 1980s under the Reagan administration, with their allies Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. They alleged that the Soviet Union was not following the terms of a disarmament treaty between the two countries, and together with the outcomes of "Team B", they built a case using dubious evidence and methods to prove it to Ronald Reagan.

Part 2: "The Phantom Victory"

In the second episode, Islamist factions, rapidly falling under the more radical influence of Zawahiri and his rich Saudi acolyte Osama bin Laden, join the Neo-Conservative-influenced Reagan Administration to combat the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. When the Soviets eventually pull out and when the Eastern Bloc begins to collapse in the late 1980s, both groups believe they are the primary architects of the "Evil Empire's" defeat. Curtis argues that the Soviets were on their last legs anyway, and were doomed to collapse without intervention.

The Islamists see it quite differently, and in their triumph believe that they had the power to create 'pure' Islamic states in Egypt and Algeria. Attempts to create perpetual Islamic states are blocked by force. The Islamists then try to create revolutions in Egypt and Algeria by the use of terrorism to scare the people into rising up. However, the people were terrified by the violence and the Algerian government uses their fear as a way to maintain power. In the end, the Islamists declare the entire populations of the countries as inherently contaminated by western values, and finally in Algeria turn on each other, each believing that other terrorist groups are not pure enough Muslims either.

In America, the Neo-Conservatives' aspirations to use the United States military power for further destruction of evil are thrown off track by the ascent of George H. W. Bush to the presidency, followed by the 1992 election of Bill Clinton leaving them out of power. The Neo-Conservatives, with their conservative Christian allies, attempt to demonise Clinton throughout his presidency with various real and fabricated stories of corruption and immorality. To their disappointment, however, the American people do not turn against Clinton. The Islamist attempts at revolution end in massive bloodshed, leaving the Islamists without popular support. Zawahiri and bin Laden flee to the sufficiently safe Afghanistan and declare a new strategy; to fight Western-inspired moral decay they must deal a blow to its source: the United States.

Part 3: "The Shadows in the Cave"

The final episode addresses the actual rise of al-Qaeda. Curtis argues that, after their failed revolutions, bin Laden and Zawahiri had little or no popular support, let alone a serious complex organisation of terrorists, and were dependent upon independent operatives to carry out their new call for jihad. However, the film argues that in order to prosecute bin Laden in absentia for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, US prosecutors had to prove he was the head of a criminal organisation responsible for the bombings. They find a former associate of bin Laden, Jamal al-Fadl, and pay him to testify that bin Laden was the head of a massive terrorist organisation called "al-Qaeda". With the 11 September attacks, Neo-Conservatives in the new Republican government of George W. Bush use this created concept of an organisation to justify another crusade against a new evil enemy, leading to the launch of the War on Terrorism.

After the American invasion of Afghanistan fails to uproot the alleged terrorist network, the Neo-Conservatives focus inwards, searching unsuccessfully for terrorist sleeper cells in America. They then extend the war on "terror" to a war against general perceived evils with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ideas and tactics also spread to the United Kingdom where Tony Blair uses the threat of terrorism to give him a new moral authority. The repercussions of the Neo-Conservative strategy are also explored with an investigation of indefinitely-detained terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay, many allegedly taken on the word of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance without actual investigation on the part of the United States military, and other forms of "preemption" against non-existent and unlikely threats made simply on the grounds that the parties involved could later become a threat. Curtis also makes a specific attempt to allay fears of a dirty bomb attack, and concludes by reassuring viewers that politicians will eventually have to concede that some threats are exaggerated and others altogether devoid of reality. "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 originally intended to make a film about conflict within the conservative movement between the ideologies of neoconservative "elitism" and the more individualist libertarian factions. During his research into the conservative movement, Curtis discovered what he saw as similarities in the origins of the neoconservative and Islamist ideologies. The topic of the planned documentary shifted to these other two ideologies, with the libertarian element eventually being phased out. Curtis first pitched the idea of a documentary on conservative ideology in 2003 and spent half a year researching the film.

As with many of Curtis's films, The Power of Nightmares uses a montage of stock footage taken from the BBC archives which Curtis narrates. Curtis has credited James Mossman as the inspiration for his montage technique, which he first employed for the 1992 series Pandora's Box, while his use of humour has been credited to his first work with television as a talent-scout for the magazine programme That's Life! Curtis has also compared the entertainment aspect of his films to the Fox News channel in America, claiming that the network is successful because of "[their viewers] really enjoying what they're doing."

To help drive his points, Curtis uses interviews with various political and intellectual figures. In the first two parts, former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency member Anne Cahn and former American Spectator writer David Brock accuse the neoconservatives of knowingly using false evidence of wrongdoing in their campaigns against the Soviet Union and President Bill Clinton. Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, comments in The Shadows in the Cave on the failure to expose a massive terrorist network in Afghanistan. Additional interviews with major figures are added to drive the film's narrative. Neoconservatives William and Irving Kristol, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen are invited to provide a neoconservative view of the film's subject. The history of Islamism is discussed by the Institute of Islamic Political Thought's Azzam Tamimi, political scientist Roxanne Euben, and Islamist Abdullah Anas.

The film's soundtrack includes at least two pieces of music from the films of John Carpenter, who Curtis credited as inspiration for his soundtrack arrangement techniques, as well as tracks from Brian Eno's Another Green World. There is also music by composers Charles Ives and Ennio Morricone, while Curtis has credited the industrial band Skinny Puppy for the "best" music in the films.



There is too much music and noise to list everything. But the main pieces used are these:

John Carpenter - The theme from The Prince of Darkness - the 1987 movie. Plus the repetitive piano bit from Halloween in the haunted house.

Brian Eno - From Another Green World - Big Ship - and In Dark Trees

Charles Ives - Symphony number two - 5th movement. Putnam's Camp from Three Places in New England. Plus a bit from Central Park in the Dark

Ennio Morricone - Theme from the 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion And a Morricone piece from the 1980 Pontecorvo film Ogro

Shostakovich - Lyric waltz from the Ballet Suite No 1 and a bit from The Young Lady and the Hooligan

John Barry - The Ipcress File

Soundtrack to The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea - Paul Sawtell and Jerry Goldsmith

Colours by Donovan

Baby It's Cold Outside - the 1949 version by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting

The best noises come from Skinned - which is a whole lot of samples from the archives of the band Skinny Puppy

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Power of Nightmares" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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