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The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004)

Reviewed on 2009 March 3

This BBC project is not a movie in the technical sense, so I’m not going to add a morsel rating. It is very troubling though, and I wanted to mention it here. It’s slickly produced, rich in old film footage, and interesting. I thought I even heard a few music chords from the Night of the Living Dead score woven into the mix. Too bad it does us such a disservice with it conclusions: since Muslim terrorists and American neoconservatives really both want to govern through fear, our government largely invents the danger from radical Islamic cells. I’ll go along with an imam or congresscritter getting a glint in their eye when they pick up a useful tidbit on CNN, but to say the terror cells are really a rag-tag group of disorganized bomb-throwers, and therefore not a menace, does nobody any good.

The series starts with the story of Sayid Qtub, an Egyptian professor who comes to a town in Colorado in 1949 and is horrified by our Ozzie-and-Harriet era hedonism. Among other offenses, we allowed women too much freedom and spent too much time taking care of our lawns. The straw that breaks the came’ls back is a dance in a church basement. After seeing several couples dancing together, he flees back to Egypt, only to be sickened by the spread of American culture in Cairo. He pens Milestones, a work that influences many fundamentalists, including Bin Laden’s pet spider Zawahiri.

This part is great, and an insight into how such groups think. It’s also an interesting counter point to those who say we brought hostility from the Middle East on our own heads utterly due to our policies. The problem is when the film postulates that for every Qtub or Zawahri, there’s a neocon CIA spook exaggerating, if not outright creating, terror cells for their own ends. By the end of the series the whole concept of Al Qaeda is written off as little more than a neocon fantasy to make us blindly follow our government and look for suicide bombers under our beds. To prove it the British writer and producer selectively holds up an example of ¬†where we overreacted to a couple of Middle Eastern kids having fun with a video camera while in line at Disneyland. (I have a feeling he would be silent about such incidents as the Megahed/Mohamed case.) He happily concludes with the idea that politicians can abandon the fear-mongering once and for all.

Yeah, that’ll give the victims of the July 7th attack a world of comfort. I understand that the idiocy on either extreme end of the political spectrum is going to overlap, and I hate Nazis as much as Taliban goons, but the conclusion of the film is foolish. Hinting that Al Qaeda is a figment to scare us is just dangerous. The fact that it dares to imply this in the third part, after it clearly identifies an Al Qaeda frontman as being influenced by Milestones in the first, is unbelievable.

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