“A flashing, buzzing graveyard of primitive, low-resolution animated animals, “extreme animalz: the movie: part 1,” created by the collective Paper Rad and Matt Barton, is instantaneously dazzling and nauseating. (By the way, the museum installation of this work, which includes real stuffed animals thrashing wildly and turning on spits once you approach, is fabulous, the hit of the show.)”
Feign of Terror
A British filmmaker deconstructs the politics of fear exploited by radical Islamists and American neocons alike.
by Adam Curtis
April 19th, 2005 11:25 AM
LONDONóLast week the British media were promised a sensation. A terror trial was about to reach a climax. The jury was to give its verdicts on five Algerian men who were accused of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell that had planned to poison hundreds of innocent civilians. Government ministers had privately told journalists that the convictions would prove there was a hidden network of terror inside Britain that, in their words, “threatened the life of the nation.”
The jury delivered a very different sensation. They acquitted four of the men and convicted the fifth only of “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.” The man who was convicted, Kamel Bourgass, was indeed a dangerous fanatic who had also been convicted of killing a police officer, but the jury decided that there was no concrete evidence of the nightmare vision of an organization with sleeper cells across the world that was dedicated to the overthrow of the West.
This spectacular failure fuels the growing question that was raised last fall when a documentary series called The Power of Nightmaresówhich I wrote and producedóaired on BBC TV in prime time: Does Al Qaeda really exist?
The Power of Nightmaresówhich receives its first New York screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekódoes not say that the Islamist terrorist threat is an illusion. The West does face a deadly threat from groups and individuals inspired by dangerous ideasóthe horrific attacks on America and the bombings in Madrid and Bali make this only too clear. But the film also argues that the true nature of this threat has been completely misunderstood by governments, security services, and the international media. It has been distorted and exaggerated to create a vision of a unique threat unlike anything we have faced that justifies extreme countermeasures. This fantasy, which has trapped our leaders and our media, prevents us from comprehending and dealing with the dangers we face. The film tells not only how it was created but also why, and in whose interest.
At the heart of the story, which begins 50 years ago, are two groups: the American neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists born out of the failure of post-war liberal optimism, and both had very similar explanations for why that failure had occurred. Both groups did change the worldóbut not in the way either intended.
My original aim was not to make a documentary about the events of September 11. The project started as a series about the history of conservative political ideas and their resurgence in America and Britain over the past 30 yearsóa worthy project for the BBC perhaps, but not something that was going to challenge the way people see the contemporary world.
As I researched the subject, I stumbled on the work of a little-known Arab political writer called Sayyid Qutb, who visited America in 1949 and came away with a deeply pessimistic vision of post-war consumer culture. He believed that the rise of individualism had unleashed a selfishness on the world that was tearing away the moral bonds that held society together. Qutb was no alien thinker: He had read Nietzsche, Marx, and Sartre, and his criticism of modern America, though Islamic in origin, was also born out of a Western conservative tradition. Qutb’s ideas would directly inspire those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
At the same time, I was reading about the history of the neo-conservative movement and its theoretical background. This led me to the works of a political theorist called Leo Strauss. His analysis of modern democracy was that its shared moral values were in danger of corrosion by a selfish individualism that questioned everything. He too took a great deal from Nietzsche. Strauss’s ideas were to become one of the important forces that shaped the thinking of the neo-conservative movement.
My aim in The Power of Nightmares was to trace what happened to Qutb’s and Strauss’s ideas as they were taken up by the Islamists and the neo-conservatives. The film does notódespite allegations from some neo-conservative outridersómake a direct comparison between the ideas and actions of Islamists and neo-conservatives. But it does argue that both groups share a pessimism about the unbridled individualism of consumerist culture and a desire to re-create a society of shared moral values. They are the last political idealists in a world where grand political ideas have disappeared to be replaced by a managerial politics that serves only the demands of the modern self.
Tracing the history of the two groups, and how their different ideas developed, leads one to look at 9-11 in a very different way. By the end of the 1990s, the Islamist movement had failed as a mass attempt to transform the world. Revolutions in Egypt and Algeria had not been the spark for an uprising across the Arab world. The attacks on America in 2001 were born out of that failure, and they were the work of a small splinter group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. This group had no formal organization, and this new policy of attacking the West directly was opposed by the majority of Islamists. The assault on America was a desperate lashing out by a movement that was facing failure.
But the effect of the attacks on the neo-conservatives was dramatic. For most of the 1990s they were a marginalized group. In the wake of 9-11 shock and panic, powerful and influential again with figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush White House, the neocons reconstructed the Islamists in the image of their last evil enemy, the Soviet Union. They created a simplified fantasy of the Islamist threatóa sinister web of terror run from the center by bin Laden in his lair in Afghanistanóand discovered that with the fear this nightmare image produced, they could unify the nation and rediscover a grand purpose for Americaóthe very thing for which they had been searching for over 30 years.
When The Power of Nightmares aired last fall, it caused a sensation in Britain. Thousands of articles, websites, and blogs discussed the war on terror and its underlying reality. It was an astonishing response that the BBC had not anticipated. Prior to transmission, there were serious worries about the public reaction, but when thousands of e-mails poured in, a statistical analysis found that over 96 percent were firmly in favor of the program (some viewer responses can be found at bbc .co.uk/nightmares).
The film touched a nerveóa public feeling that there was something not quite right or real about the fundamentals of the war on terror. No U.S. networks have so far expressed any interest in showing it. If they did, they might find, as the BBC did, that the public is tiring of the politics and journalism of fear. People want to make sense of the bewildering mood of uncertainty and doubt that has surrounded them since 9-11. Terrorism is an enemy that can be dealt with bravely and intelligently, as Europeans have done in the past. It is fear that really undermines a nation’s power and confidence in the world.
Adam Curtis has made a wide range of political documentaries for the BBC. His most recent work prior to The Power of Nightmares was a series about the social and political use of Sigmund Freud’s ideas called The Century of the Self (it will open at Cinema Village this summer).
The Power of Nightmares screens April 23, 26, and 29 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It can also be viewed at informationclearinghouse.info.
In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares.
The most frightening of these is the threat of an international terror network. But just as the dreams were not true, neither are these nightmares.
Broadcast BBC 2 10/20/04
Since September 11 Britain has been warned of the ÄòinevitabilityÄô 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
“Despite my many disagreements with The Power of Nightmares, which sometimes has the feel of a Noam Chomsky lecture channeled by Monty Python, it is a richly rewarding film because it treats its audience as adults capable of following complex arguments. This is a vision of the audience that has been almost entirely abandoned in the executive suites of American television networks. It would be refreshing if one of those executives took a chance on The Power of Nightmares. After all, its American counterpart, Fahrenheit 9/11, earned more money than any documentary in history. And what Curtis has to say is a helluva lot more interesting than what Michael Moore had to say.” — Peter Bergen, The Nation (June 20)
‘White Man’s Medicine’ Is Secondary to Time-Honored Customs
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005; A11
When a chronically depressed 9-year-old girl at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota became so sad that she stopped eating, Ethleen Iron Cloud-Two Dogs came up with a treatment plan: not antidepressant drugs, but a spiritual assessment, followed by a healing ceremony at a Lakota purification lodge that represents the womb.
“There is a hole dug in the middle and rocks that are heated,” she said. “Because we believe that everything has a spirit, rocks are addressed as grandfather spirits. The water is taken in and poured on the rocks — the steam that results is the breath of the grandfathers which then purifies and renews us.”
Over the next three months, the girl recovered, said Iron Cloud-Two Dogs, who treats emotionally disturbed and suicidal children at a federally funded Native American mental health program called Nagi Kicopi, “Calling the Spirit Back.” The healer dismissed those who demand evidence that her techniques work.
“They will say, ‘Where’s the proof, where’s the research base, how can you document this?’ — all the Western aspects of clinical interventions,” she said. “We understood from the beginning that we would get those reactions, so our stance is, ‘We are Lakota people and these are Lakota children, and we will use the methods that have worked for thousands of years and that’s all there is to it.’ “
Nagi Kicopi is only one example of a deep divide between mainstream psychiatry’s approach to mental disorders and subcultures with very different notions of why people become emotionally disturbed and how they can be cured.
Many Native American patients rebel against the notion that mental illnesses are primarily brain disorders to be treated with drugs, said several experts who work with such patients. Native tribes volunteered for drug studies in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but they saw very little benefit and are now reluctant to participate in such research, said Spero Manson, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado.
“Native communities feel they have been used as guinea pigs for research purposes to support the agenda of the biomedical world,” he said.
They might be willing to volunteer for research again, he added, but it would have to be for science they believe is relevant and that is respectful of native traditions. Some demand that traditional healing techniques be studied alongside drug-based treatments, but pharmaceutical companies, which conduct most drug studies, are not interested.
William Lawson, chairman of psychiatry at Howard University, said the lack of data is troubling because suicide rates are high in some Native American communities: “You would think there would be studies on depression.”
Lawson is one of the scientists who has received grants from the National Institutes of Health to increase the participation of minorities as research subjects in clinical trials.
Other clinicians are devising novel ways to bridge the gap between mainstream and traditional approaches. Iron Cloud-Two Dogs’s healing program includes a psychotherapist, she said, but the “Western” therapist takes a back seat to traditional healers.
Anthony Dekker, who directs community health care at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center in Arizona, recalled treating one Native American patient who was psychotic. When she refused to take medication — she called it “the white man’s medicine” — Dekker asked her to consult a traditional healer.
“The medicine man listened to her and said, ‘You live in the white man’s world and you have a white man’s disease and you need to take the white man’s medicine,’ ” said Dekker, in an interview. The woman agreed to take the drugs.
“If I said, ‘Don’t go to the medicine man, he has never been to medical school’ — that would alienate 90 percent of my patients,” Dekker added.
Reconciling the brain disease model of mental disorders with America’s increasingly diverse cultural fabric is more than a matter of gaining patient trust.
A host of small studies has shown that psychiatric drugs do not have the same risks and benefits in every ethnic group: Research showed that Caucasians experience twice the side effects of Hispanics from the antidepressants Prozac and Paxil, said Michael Smith, a psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles. And with an earlier class of antidepressants called tricyclics, Hispanics given half the dose had twice the side effects of Caucasians.
Blacks on some anti-psychotic drugs seem more likely than whites to suffer tardive dyskinesia — repetitive, involuntary movements. Another study found that Asians who got half the dose of an anti-psychotic drug responded better than Caucasians who received the regular dose.
Some patients have avoidable side effects, Smith said, because “standards were developed in Caucasians and were inappropriately extended to other ethnic groups.”
Smith and other advocates for “cultural competence” point out that substantial differences also exist among individuals within each ethnic group. Because of the lack of systematic data about variations in drug effectiveness, Smith advises doctors to tailor drug dosages to individuals:
“Most drug companies don’t acknowledge the fact that their medications require individualized dosing, because when you say that, it makes it much more difficult for the average doctor to say one dose fits all.”
A collaboratively-conceived and produced, sculptural installation by artists Andy Alexander, Kathleen Johnson, Jennifer Lane, and Halsey Rodman. Inspired by the environments, political systems, and social models of science fiction, the artists will assume a Ôø?hive-mindedÔø? approach Ôø? where individual wills and capacities merge to form a single intelligence Ôø? to jointly explore the psychological, phenomenological, and formal properties of landscapes and built form.
Friday 8 July Ôø?| Ôø?7pm
Writer, Ôø?Mark von Schlegell, will read from his first sci-fi novel Venusia, the first volume of The System Series, due out this fall 2005.
Friday 15 July Ôø?| Ôø?7:30
As part of The Minded Swarm, the artists invite the public to join their regular sci-fi reading group. Interested parties should pick up Altered
Carbon by Richard Morgan and come engage in the discussion.