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…

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