Last week, the BBC re-broadcast a provocative documentary series 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 Britain has 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.
© 2005 The Nation