Monday, July 11, 2005

The Power of Nightmares revisited

One of this blog's favourite television programmes was Adam Curtis's The Power of Nightmares. We wrote about it here, here, here and, indeed, here.

And one of our favourite journalists is Nick Cohen who, last Sunday, attacked the series by implication:

In my world of liberal London, social success at the dinner table belonged to the man who could simultaneously maintain that we've got it coming but that nothing was going to come; that indiscriminate murder would be Tony Blair's fault but there wouldn't be indiscriminate murder because 'the threat' was a phantom menace invented by Blair to scare the cowed electorate into supporting him.

I'd say the "power of nightmares" side of that oxymoronic argument is too bloodied to be worth discussing this weekend...

The argument that "we've got it coming" is silly, though it is legitimate to ask whether our intervention in Iraq has made terrorism in Britain more likely. And also to ask, if it has made it more likely, whether that is a price worth paying. If I understand Cohen's position correctly, he answers yes to both questions.

What interests me is his apparent dismissal of Curtis's thesis in The Power of Nightmares as a claim that the terrorist threat was invented by Blair. This is surely unfair. Curtis is well aware of the threat of terrorism: his programmes were made after 9/11, so how could be not be?

What I take Curtis to be saying is that the myth lies in the belief that al-Qaeda is a structured organisation run by Bin Laden. One American clip Curtis showed imagined holed up in a luxury HQ - complete with hydroelectric power - in the caves of Tora Bora like a Bond villain.

The best summing up of the position we are now in came in an article in Saturday's Guardian by John Gray - another of this blog's heroes, even if we did once accuse him of being off with the fairies.

Gray wrote:

No longer the semi-centralised organisation it was before the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has mutated into a brand name that covers an amorphous network of groups that are linked together mainly by their adherence to an apocalyptic version of Islamist ideology...

It is a network that seems to be replicating itself in Europe and other advanced industrial regions, and if it turns out that the London bombings were al-Qaeda-related, the group that committed them could prove to be largely homegrown.

He was also surely right when he added:
In terms of its apocalyptic mindset, al-Qaeda is not unique, nor is it peculiarly Islamic. It is the most recent expression of a tradition of terrorism which has deep roots in Western religious beliefs and in modern revolutionary politics. The idea that violence can be used to remake the world has a powerful appeal, and if al-Qaeda is distinctive, it is in the ruthlessness with which it implements this belief.
In many ways the loose organisation of al-Qaeda makes it harder to deal with, whether you seek a military victory or to negotiate with it. But it is better to understand the enemy we face than to caricature those who do not share your view of it.

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