Summer Watching: Oslo and the Power of Nightmares

Documentary Film

Adam Curtis produced The Power of Nightmares (2004), a three part BBC series, right smack in the middle of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” I recently re-discovered the documentary series, and have been wondering whether its message is still relevant, or whether the neoconservative agenda will gently fade into the memory of the turn of the millennium. Yet the recent homegrown terrorist attacks in Norway seem to add another layer to the films’ dichotomy of neoconservatives versus Islamist fundamentalists. The neoconservative goal is to lure the American public toward the spreading of democracy, i.e. American values, to all corners of the earth. The film also shows then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cooption of the American neoconservative platform, using it to enable British support of Bush’s war in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Islamist fundamentalists are trying to save the world from detrimental and immoral Western ideology. Curtis pits the two ideologies against each other—two distinct groups who both see themselves as intellectual vanguards amongst a misguided public. Yet, over in continental Europe, particularly in more traditionally racially homogeneous Nordic countries, the growing acceptance of overtly fascist, racist, and xenophobic politics correlates to more open European Union borders and increased immigration. If the feared terrorist has become a white, Christian neo-Nazi, how does this affect the West’s fear of “the other?” 

The premise of The Power of Nightmares is that, as the public has become disenchanted with politics and ideology, politicians have had to come up with new ways of maintaining power. Instead of offering dreams of prosperity within the framework of a great and hopeful future, Curtis asserts that politicians now promise to protect the public from nightmares. While the classic politically generated nightmare has taken on many forms—from witch-hunts to communism—this series focuses on the nightmare of terrorism, a phenomenon that Curtis seeks to prove as a strategic exaggeration to scare the public into blind submission.

The series begins by exploring the influence of Egyptian activist Sayyid Qutb, a leader in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood throughout the 1950s and 60s. While studying in a post-war 1950s United States, Qutb became disgusted with what he deemed empty and immoral values from the influence of capitalistic individualism. He would later influence Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Islamic fundamentalist that would eventually serve as mentor to Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, a group of jaded liberals were forming a new political ideology based on the teachings of philosopher Leo Strauss. They too had become disgusted with American society and, like Sayyid Qutb, also blamed individualism.

The plan was to unite the American people through the shared fear of an unseen other. After 9/11, with a large presence in the Bush White House, the neoconservatives portray a small terrorist group funded by Osama Bin Laden as a massive terrorist network, with domestic sleeper cells ready to pounce at any moment. Curtis shows how, eventually, the neoconservatives begin to believe their own lies. While Curtis does not discredit the real threat of terrorism, he does cite the neoconservatives as capitalizing on American fear to be able to promote their own political agendas. Although the series generated some criticism, it also received many positive reviews.

How do the recent terrorist attacks in Norway fit into the rhetoric of fear portrayed in The Power of Nightmares? Gary Younge points out in his article, Europe’s Homegrown Terrorists, that directly after the recent terrorist attacks in Norway, media outlets were already proclaiming jihadists responsible. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, the daily counterpart to now infamously defunct News of the World, had run the headline: “Al Qaeda massacre: Norway’s 9/11.” We soon learned that the real terrorist was a homegrown neo-Nazi, Anders Breivik, a white, blonde Norwegian who purportedly initiated the attacks on fellow Norwegians in “self defense” against the Labor Party’s multicultural values and acceptance of Muslims. Younge describes the general framework behind the steadily growing European brand of xenophobia: “Europe is being overrun by Muslims and other non-white immigrants, who are outbreeding non-Muslims at a terrifying rate.” Younge counters this argument with statistics showing that Muslims make up only 3% of the Norwegian population, cleverly adding that Black Americans have a greater presence in Alaska. Regardless of whether the claim of Muslim takeover in Europe is true or not, upholding European identity as white and Christian is an age-old claim dating back from the Spanish Inquisition and consequent colonization of Latin America to Hitler’s Nazi Germany. It’s an assumption that needs to be thwarted.

Has the neoconservative agenda caused such fear of “the other” that xenophobic and racist sentiments have eventually seeped into Europe, making way for the recent Norwegian homegrown terrorism, as well as nationalist groups such as the British Nationalist Party (BNP) or Le Pen’s Front National in France? Or, is it the neoconservatives who have capitalized on humanity’s predisposition to the fear of “the other?” The Islamic fundamentalists are just as guilty. They have also killed innocent people while acting as self-proclaimed vanguards and the only true practitioners of Islam. Like Anders Breivik, they fear the pollution of an idealized religious identity, turning to violence in ironic acts of blasphemy. Will Europe see xenophobia as equally dangerous as Islamic fundamentalism, or will we continue to hear British Prime Minister David Cameron make statements such as “multiculturalism has failed” and we need a “stronger national identity” in order for recent immigrants to become more assimilated to a long heritage of British whiteness? The recent events in Norway only strengthen the arguments made in Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares. As the economic crisis lurches on and emotions are still running high, there will always be a space for scapegoats and for blaming. My greatest hope is that we will get out of our current crisis without any more unnecessary violence. You can find The Power of Nightmares on DVD through Netflix, or online.

Europe, Norway, Terrorism, Xenophobia