Friday, November 12, 2004

The Power of Nightmares

You might have heard about the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, tonight I watched it. Well actually, I watched the three-hour series with an interval of The O.C., which made for an interesting switch of pace and context. Anyhow, if we can drag ourselves away from the tawdry world of teenage romance and high school drama and concentrate on the tawdry world of international terrorism for a while, it was a very interesting few hours. (I should probably mention that my watching this show was the result of some actions of dubious legality, DMCA anyone? Not that I would recommend such actions. For some reason, while I would never download a film, I don't have any problems downloading TV shows that aren't available on DVD. I think of it in the same way I would think of my Mother videoing said show and sending me the tape. Similarly, while I don't think one should download songs from one of the mass file sharing networks, I see no problem in borrowing a friends CD and making a mp3, or m4a, copy of it. I'm not sure that the relevant authorities have quite the same flexible interpretation of what's right and wrong.)

The documentary contrasted the rise of the neo-conservatives and islamists over the last 50 years. The filmmakers traced a very interesting path, starting with a high school dance in America and ending with dirty bombs (which are apparently a crock of shit). I was particularly interested in the portion of the film that concentrated on the Soviet Union. It started by explaining how the neo-conservatives lied about the power and influence of the Soviet Union, and ended by explaining how the Soviet Union crumbled under its own corruption, with very little effect of outside influence. Which reminded me of the conversation I was in at Hallow-e'en, strange little circles the world forms.

Anyhow, to cut a long story short the documentary was very well done. But being as its main point was one that I believed in already, the threat of terrorism is grossly exaggerated, I'm probably a biased observer. The documentary went in to a lot of detail discussing particular, well publicized 'arrests' of terrorist cells in the UK and US and pointed out how the cases fell apart under closer examination. In one such case a home video of a trip to Disneyland was used as evidence that a group of young Arabs were planning a terrorist attack there, and the fact that it looked so much like a home video of a holiday was used as proof that it was something more sinister. Lack of evidence being used as a proof evidence existed was a recurring theme throughout the documentary, with the neo-conservatives applying it successively to the Soviet Union, Bill Clinton and now the terrorists. Also despite all the hoop-la surrounding the Tube attacks in London, the only terrorists who have been prosecuted in Britain since September 11th 2001, under the anti-terror laws, were members of (Northern) Irish groups.

I wrote some of this post in the bar this evening (and some of it I tidied up on Friday morning). This prompted several conversations about nightmares. I recanted my childhood nightmare in which the world changes from it's normal form into one in which everything has the consistency of cooked pasta, this was somehow terrifying. And I was told, by one of the barmaids, about two of her nightmares, a fist fight in which you can not hurt your opponent and trying to run away but being unable to move. If I wanted to psychobabble I'd probably say that her nightmares focused on inadequacy, or helplessness, as they each involve not being able to do something, but I'm not quite sure what my pasta nightmare is supposed to symbolize.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The thesis of "The Power of Nightmares" is that it's all an illusion, and that we don't need to worry about terrorism. And to a point, that's true. Even if the result of the western world to the events of 9/11 was to do absolutely nothing, an individual person wouldn't be under much threat from terrorism. Out of 300 million people in the US, terrorists killed about 3000. Now, it took a while to plan that, but if you assume that "the terrorists" coiuld pull one off every 2 years, that still gives an individual a 1 in 200,000 chance of being killed by a terrorist attack in a year. So you're pretty safe.

On the other hand, you're more likely to be killed by Bin Laden than you are to win the lottery. How many people buy lottery tickets again?

So is the terrorist threat overblown? Probably.

Does that mean that we shouldn't do something about terrorists? No, not really. I'm not prepared to accept that any number of terrorist murders is acceptable. I'm not prepared to accept the risk of being blown up by an Arab, or an Irishman, or an animal rights nutter, or an anti-abortion "protester", or, frankly, the Israeli "defence" force as an acceptable part of modern life.

Ryan said...

The thesis of "The Power of Nightmares" is that it's all an illusion, and that we don't need to worry about terrorism.

Well, I'm not entirely sure that your statement is true. The documentary asserts that politicians and the media are exaggerating the threat of terrorism, as a means of empowering themselves.

It suggests that there is no such thing as a global terror network, and that al-Qaeda was a term invented by the FBI such that they could have an organization to prosecute under the US's organized crime laws. Instead it says, terrorists are small isolated groups of people who are 'infected' (my description, not the documentary's) with similar ideals and ideas. And that the real threat to us, in the western world, is not from an organized terror network, but instead from the spreading of the idea that we are a legitimate target.

It doesn't say that we shouldn't do something about terrorism. However, it says quite a lot of what we've done so far has been chasing a phantom enemy (searching through the Tora Bora hills for elaborate Bond-esque hideouts and tunnel systems, for example).

In my opinion while we have disaffected people, we will always have some level of terrorism. Does that mean we should accept it? No, of course not, but we've got to try and counter it in a sensible sane manner. Which we pretty much haven't done so far. For instance, I'm still searching for Iraq's connection to terrorism, that some other people seem so certain is there.

Ultimately though, helping to minimize the number of disaffected people is going to be the best way to minimize the number of people who turn to terrorism. At least that's my opinion.

Anonymous said...

It suggests that there is no such thing as a global terror network, and that al-Qaeda was a term invented by the FBI such that they could have an organization to prosecute under the US's organized crime laws. Instead it says, terrorists are small isolated groups of people who are 'infected' (my description, not the documentary's) with similar ideals and ideas.I'm not sure that those aren't just two ways of looking at the same thing. It's not exactly like they have a regular payroll, so I'm not sure there's a huge amoount of difference between a loose-kit terrorist "network" with a leader and a number if independant terrorist cells who look for guidance at Bin Laden.

It's more a matter of spin than fact, and clearly Messrs. Bush and Blair have an interest in spinning one way, whereas the Beeb, bless it's underdog-loving Guardianista heart, tends to spin the other way.

I don't really understand how Iraq fits in either, except that the whole terrorist WMD thing is clearly an excuse. I can't say I'm sorry to see Saddam Hussein gone, though, and maybe there's some merit in the idea that you want to kill the nutters before they get too dangerous to attack.

Ryan said...

As far as I can tell the Beeb tends to spin it in the same way as the government, where al-Qaeda is a huge terror network that has infiltrated 50+ countries and had secret underground lairs, after all a dash of fear and excitement is good for ratings. Which is one of the reasons why the documentary is so interesting, as the filmmaker Adam Curtis has publicly slated the BBC (and other news outlets) regarding their coverage of the war on terror. There is quite an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor regarding the documentaries and the BBC's position (incidently, from its name I'd always assumed the Christian Science Monitor would be a rabid right-wing publication, but judging by the article I guess I must have been wrong. There's some saying about books and covers that I should probably look up.).

Back to your point though, I think there is a big difference between a group of isolated cells who are inspired by the same man/ideals, and a structured terror network with sleeper cells in 50-60 countries (as Dick, Donald, George, Tony and friends would have us believe). In particular the way you would go about trying to irradicate them are very different. If the latter were true you'd try to take out the leaders and the chain of command in high precision targetted attacks, whilst if the former were true you'd need a much more dispersed almost police like force to 'mop up' these groups.

I am partially sorry to Saddam go, not because I think he was good man, but he did at least bring stability to Iraq. The sanctions and US military presence there were largely keeping him hamstrung, and we could probably have tried to arrange/waited for his overthrow in a less bloody manner than one we adopted.

Anonymous said...

I'm not convinced that the Beeb really does spin the same way as the government. The article that you cited has Adam Curtis citing an episode of Spooks to back up his case. Now, if I was going to make a drama about conspiracies and spies, I'd probably want to include a big evil conspiracy, becuse it makes much more interesting television than an isolated nut.

But I think the Beeb has always been fairly careful about not describing the "Al Qa'eda network" as a Bond-esque evil terror empire.

In particular the way you would go about trying to irradicate them are very different. If the latter were true you'd try to take out the leaders and the chain of command in high precision targetted attacks, whilst if the former were true you'd need a much more dispersed almost police like force to 'mop up' these groups.Is that really true? I think in both cases, you do well to knock out the big guys: either they are military-style commanders, and so without them, you don't get the big planned "spectaculars" or they're the big ideas guys, and without them you'll not get the big spectaculars.

In both cases, plotting something like 9/11 requires more resources than an individual terrorist cell has, so you need some kind of cooperation between groups. In both cases, killing off the leaders leaves you with the little guys, who may not be able to do anything big, but are quite capable of suicide bombings, trucks full of fertilizer bombs and the like, and so in both cases you need to track them down too.

Ryan said...

Maybe these days the BBC's approach is somewhat more low key than the government's. But they are still along way away from the point of view of Adam Curtis (which may well be a good thing). My interpretation of Curtis's comments were that he was slating news coverage across the board, and in addition to this he was saying how some dramas, Spooks for example, were adding to the (in his mind) mis-conception of the terrorism threat.

I'm pretty sure that back in the days of the Afghanistan war (remember those happy days?) that the BBC, like every other mainstream media outlet, was buying in to the al-Qaeda is an all pervading terror network theme. After all the UK poured thousands of troops in to scouring the hills looking for these al-Qaeda hideouts, and at the time I don't remember very much criticism of this tactic.

The documentary was arguing that Bin Laden and the other 'leaders' were neither military style commanders or the big ideas guys, instead they were just well known terrorist sympathizers who had been involved in terrorist acts against America. For example, it claimed that September 11th was the brain child of [insert some Arabic name here (sorry not very good with Arabic names)], who knew of Bin Laden's involvement in the embassy attacks and sort him out for funding.

As far as I can tell, the point that the documentary was trying to make regarding Bin Laden was that he was not the terrorist mastermind that he is portrayed as. What he was, was part of the group that first came up with the idea of America being a legitimate target (prior to that the vast majority of extremist islamic terrorism was carried out in the Middle East area for the purpose of creating more Islamic states (like Afghanistan and Iran, but more so)). And that now that the concept is out there in the public domain, Bin Laden's influence is minimal.