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The Truth About Terrorism

The Power of Nightmares

by Adam Curtis
a three-part television series
BBC Two, October 20 and 27 and November 3, 2004


In his November 3 victory speech, President Bush, sounding the keynote of his second administration, pledged to “fight this war on terror with every resource of our national power.” By saying “this” rather than “the” Bush stressed the palpable, near-at-hand quality of the war whose symbols have grown to surround us in the last three years—the tilted barrels of security cameras, BioWatch pathogen-sniffers, and all the rest of the technology of security and surveillance that Matthew Brzezinski somewhat overexcitedly details in Fortress America. Voters, at least, have been impressed. Responding to the exit pollers’ question “Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?” 32 percent of Bush supporters named “Terrorism” (as against 5 percent of Kerry supporters), 85 percent of Bush supporters said that the country was “safer from terrorism” in 2004 than it was in 2000, and 79 percent said that the war in Iraq “has improved the long-term security of the United States.” Bush’s successful conflation of security at home and military aggression abroad, his insistence that Iraq “is the central front of the war on terror,” was the bravura rhetorical gambit that drove much of his electoral strategy.

If you live, as I do, in an American city designated as a likely target by the Department of Homeland Security, the sheer proliferation of security apparatus in the streets assures you that there is a war on. Yet the nature and conduct of that war, and the character—and very existence—of our enemy, remain infuriatingly obscure: not because there’s any shortage of information, or apparent information, but because so much of it has turned out to be creative guesswork or empty propaganda.

To begin with, it wasn’t a war. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the attacks were spoken of, like the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, as acts of criminal atrocity for which those who were responsible could, the President said, “be brought to justice.” But within nine days the war was underway. At the joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush described it as a new brand of war, “unlike any other we have ever known,” of “covert operations, secret even in success.” In Dick Cheney’s words, it was to be fought “in the shadows: this is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business. We have to operate in that arena.”

Bush and Cheney were introducing the general public to the idea of asymmetric or “fourth-generation” warfare, involving a nation-state in conflict with a “non-state actor,” whose basic outlines were nicely described by William S. Lind and four Army and Marine Corps officers in an article published in the Marine Corps Gazette.1 Lind et al. wrote:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between “civilian” and “military” may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.

Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred.

The first four sentences quoted above seem as smart a description as any I’ve read of the peculiar situation we find ourselves in at present—a world of chronic blur, full of newly slippery words that mean something different from what they meant before September 2001. Just as John Ashcroft’s scheme for Operation TIPS (short for Terrorism Information and Prevention System) raised the question of whether one should treat the neighborhood mailman as a fellow civilian or a Pfc. in military intelligence, so the texture of ordinary life and talk has taken on a disturbingly ambiguous quality, to the point where peace wears the face of war, and war dissimulates as peace. As Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos), the fictional chairman of the Joint Chiefs on The West Wing, admitted to the White House chief of staff in an episode of the series broadcast in 2002, “I can’t tell when it’s peacetime and wartime any more.”

In Cheney’s “arena” of shadows, one needs to be as suspicious of unattended language as of any other form of baggage. The phrase “war on terror” is a case in point. To isolate it in skeptical quotation marks can be an act of mild, justifiable pedantry: terrorism is a belligerent means, not an object or an enemy, and declaring war on it is like declaring war on tanks, or bows and arrows. It can also be an act of political dissent, identifying the writer’s mistrust of the whole enterprise; and the reverse is true. A puzzling feature of Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil, for instance, is its repeated refusal to flag the phrase with quotes: “The norms that govern a war on terror are not the monopoly of government…. Standards for a war on terror will be set by adversarial moral competition…. A democratic war on terror needs to subject all coercive measures to the dignity test….2 In a book otherwise dedicated to the scrupulous examination of conventional assumptions, one outsized, unexamined assumption squats at the center like the elephant in the living room and opens Ignatieff to the charge that he’s not so much a disinterested critic of the terror warriors as their in-house philosopher.

But Ignatieff may be right. When so many basic notions, like security, war, enemy, network, chatter, threat, totalitarian, are infected with new and dubious meanings, there’s a temptation to reach continually for quotation marks as if they were pairs of rubber gloves. Better to remember Lind and his colleagues: fourth-generation warfare is altering the language in ways that we must learn to live with.

The war on terror has brought back the sap of youth to the veins of old cold warriors, like Richard Pipes, the historian of Russia, leader of Team B, and staff member of the National Security Council in the Reagan years, who seized on the Beslan school massacre in September to make a vital distinction. In an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times Pipes wrote:

The attacks on New York and the Pentagon were unprovoked and had no specific objective. Rather, they were part of a general assault of Islamic extremists bent on destroying non-Islamic civilizations. As such, America’s war with Al Qaeda is non-negotiable. But the Chechens do not seek to destroy Russia—thus there is always an opportunity for compromise.3

Pipes advised Vladimir Putin to hasten to the negotiating table, parlay with the Chechen rebels, and spare Russia further attacks. It’s axiomatic to America’s war on terror, as Pipes makes plain, that our enemy—variously known as Islamofascism, Islamist extremism, global jihad—has no rational agenda beyond its desire to destroy the United States out of remorseless, theologically inspired hatred for its values.

To justify their case, Pipes and his kind treat as beneath their notice the shopping list of causes and demands presented by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others in their February 1998 declaration of “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” which is every bit as specific as the complaints of the Chechen rebels. There’s no mention of American values in bin Laden’s call for the removal of US bases from Saudi Arabia (a demand that has since been quietly met) and for an end to “the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post,” or in his indictment of the American “endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”4 To fight Richard Pipes’s war on terror, one has to take it as read that the Islamists’ seeming preoccupation with affairs in the Arab world is merely a smokescreen to cover their pathological loathing of the United States—which could be true, but it’d be nice to see it argued in the open air and not in invisible ink.

The most rousing call to arms has come from Norman Podhoretz in an enormous article in Commentary titled “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win.” Here, in passing, he nicely disposes of the question whether America’s unconditional support for Israel plays any serious part in the global jihadists’ thinking. “Hatred of Israel,” Podhoretz explains, is “a surrogate for anti-Americanism, rather than the reverse.” “If the Jewish state had never come into existence, the United States would still have stood as an embodiment of everything that most of these Arabs considered evil.”5 For Podhoretz, as for Pipes, it’s essential to get rid of the idea that Islamist extremism might spring from causes and concerns within the Middle East, and to insist that the enemy’s quarrel is not with America’s policies but with the fact of America in and of itself:

His objective is not merely to murder as many of us as possible and to conquer our land. Like the Nazis and Communists before him, he is dedicated to the destruction of everything good for which America stands.

Or, as the subterranean monster, the Underliner, announces in the closing frames of The Incredibles, “I declare war on Peace and Happiness.”

With Israel conveniently out of the picture, Podhoretz addresses his mighty theme—the nobility of the Bush Doctrine as it confronts the third great totalitarian power of modern times. The hot war against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers and the cold war against Soviet Russia were foreshadowing preludes to the war now in progress, in which George W. Bush, “a passionate democratic idealist of the Reaganite stamp,” has heroically personified “a repudiation of moral relativism and an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs,” thereby restoring America to its pay-any-price-bear-any-burden internationalist and democratic roots.

Despite Podhoretz’s ample retrospective catalog of injuries and humiliations inflicted on the United States by various Muslim groups and individuals (including the PLO, the PFLP, the Tehran students in 1979, Hezbollah, Abu Abbas, Abu Nidal, and al-Qaeda), it’s hard to see how the many people who committed these acts share a single theology, let alone represent a unified totalitarian force comparable with Nazism or Soviet communism. When Podhoretz giddily announces that a major goal of the war on terror must be “the reform and modernization of the Islamic religion itself,” one is sharply reminded that nothing in his essay suggests any serious familiarity with the religion to which he so breezily appoints himself as the new Calvin or Luther.

  1. 1

    The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” (October 1989), pp. 22–26.

  2. 2

    The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton University Press, 2004).

  3. 3

    Give the Chechens a Land of Their Own,” The New York Times, September 9, 2004.

  4. 4

    See www.fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/980223-fatwa.htm.

  5. 5

    Commentary, September 2004, pp. 17–54.

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