Azara Blog: The Power of Nightmares, Part 3

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Date published: 2005/01/21

Part 3 of The Power of Nightmares was scarier than both Parts 1 and 2, because it concentrated on the post 9/11 manufactured hysteria. The maker, Adam Curtis, provided a reasonable line of argument to suggest that the supposed global reach of the Al Qaeda network was largely an invention of the US government (of course Bin Laden was happy to go along). They showed one clip with Donald Rumsfeld showing a vast James-Bond-like underground cavern in Afghanistan which was supposedly one of only many that Al Qaeda had. Needless to say, no such caverns were ever found (just like no WMD have ever been found in Iraq).

The Detroit "sleeper cell" case was amazing (VO = voiceover):

VO ... in Detroit. Four Arab men were arrested on suspicion of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell. They had been accused by another immigrant called Mr Hmimssa. But Mr Hmimssa was, in reality, an international con man with 12 aliases and wanted for fraud across America. Despite this, the FBI offered to reduce his sentence for fraud if he testified against the men. And to back up Mr Hmimssa's allegations, the FBI turned to the videotape. On the surface it was the innocent record of a trip to Disneyland by a group of teenagers who had nothing to do with the accused, but the government had discovered a hidden and sinister purpose to the tape.

RON HANSEN, REPORTER, THE DETROIT NEWS : The government expert who has looked into surveillance tapes, "casing tapes," as he referred to them, said that one of the objectives of making these kinds of tapes is to disguise the nature, the real purpose, of the tape, and he explained it that the tape is made to look benign, made to look like a tourist tape to obscure its real purpose as a tape to case Disneyland, and that the very appearance of it as being just a tourist tape is actually evidence that it's not a tourist tape.


YOUTH [ HOLDING IMAGINARY MICROPHONE ]: Al-Jazeera, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Hello?


RON HANSEN : I could never get past the fact that the tape just looked like a tourist tape. The Disneyland ride, for example, was a lengthy queue, people just making their way to the ride. The camera occasionally pans to look at the rocks on the wall, made to look like an Indiana Jones movie, and after several minutes the camera pans across and shows a trash can momentarily, and then continues off to look into the crowd. The expert basically said that, by flashing on that trash can for a moment, the people who are part of this conspiracy to conduct these kinds of terrorist operations, they would understand what this is all about: how to locate a bomb in Disneyland in California.



RON HANSEN : All the talking and bantering were intended to disguise the hidden message contained within the tape.


VO: The government was convinced that the tape was full of hidden messages. A brief shot of a tree outside the group's hotel room was there, they said, to show where to place a sniper to attack the cars on the freeway.


VO: And what looked like a camera which had accidentally been left running was in reality a terrorist secretly counting out distances to show others where to place a bomb.


VO: And the government also said that the Detroit cell was planning to attack US military bases around the world. Yet again, they found hidden evidence of this in a day planner they discovered under the sofa in the house in Detroit. What looked like doodles were in reality, they said, a plan to attack a US base in Turkey.

WILLIAM SWOR, DEFENCE LAWYER, DETROIT SLEEPER CELL TRIAL, INDICATING COPY OF DRAWINGS FROM DAY PLANNER : The government brought in its security officer from the base to testify that she interpreted this as being the main runways. She identified these as being AWACS airplanes and these as being fighter jets. She said that these solid lines were lines of fire and she also said that this down here was a hardened bunker.

VO: But the drawings in the day planner were discovered to have actually been the work of a madman. They were the fantasies of a Yemeni who believed that he was the minister of defence for the whole of the Middle East. He had committed suicide a year before any of the accused had arrived in Detroit, leaving the day planner lying under the sofa in the house. Despite this, two of the accused were found guilty. But then, the government's only witness, Mr Hmimssa, told two of his cellmates that he had made the whole thing up to get his fraud charges reduced. The terrorism convictions have now been overturned by the judge in the case, but it was acclaimed by the President as the first success in the war on terror at home.

What can one say? Witch Trials. Salem. 17th century. This is where America is now at.

Then there is the "precautionary principle" (the paragraphs are independent clips):

TONY BLAIR : I just think these dangers are there, I think that it's difficult sometimes for people to see how they all come together. I think that it's my duty to tell it to you if I really believe it, and I do really believe it. I may be wrong in believing it, but I do believe it.

VO: What Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network, the politician's role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. In doing this, Blair was embracing an idea that had actually been developed by the Green movement: it was called the "precautionary principle." Back in the 1980s, thinkers within the ecology movement believed the world was being threatened by global warming, but at the time there was little scientific evidence to prove this. So they put forward the radical idea that governments had a higher duty: they couldn't wait for the evidence, because by then it would be too late; they had to act imaginatively, on intuition, in order to save the world from a looming catastrophe.

BILL DURODIE : In essence, the precautionary principle says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action as if it were a problem. That's a very famous triple-negative phrase that effectively says that action without evidence is justified. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination upon the worst evidence that currently exists.

TONY BLAIR : Would Al Qaeda buy weapons of mass destruction if they could? Certainly. Does it have the financial resources? Probably. Would it use such weapons? Definitely.

BILL DURODIE : But once you start imagining what could happen, then there's no limit. What if they had access to it? What if they could effectively deploy it? What if we weren't prepared? What it is is a shift from the scientific, "what is" evidence-based decision making to this speculative, imaginary, "what if"-based, worst case scenario.

VO: And it was this principle that now began to shape government policy in the war on terror. In both America and Britain, individuals were detained in high-security prisons, not for any crimes they had committed, but because the politicians believed, or imagined, that they might commit an atrocity in the future, even though there was no evidence they intended to do this. The American attorney general explained this shift to what he called the "paradigm of prevention."

JOHN ASHCROFT : We had to make a shift in the way we thought about things, so being reactive, waiting for a crime to be committed, or waiting for there to be evidence of the commission of a crime didn't seem to us to be an appropriate way to protect the American people.

DAVID COLE : Under the preventive paradigm, instead of holding people accountable for what you can prove that they have done in the past, you lock them up based on what you think or speculate they might do in the future. And how can a person who's locked up based on what you think they might do in the future disprove your speculation? It's impossible, and so what ends up happening is the government short-circuits all the processes that are designed to distinguish the innocent from the guilty because they simply don't fit this mode of locking people up for what they might do in the future.

VO: The supporters of the precautionary principle argue that this loss of rights is the price that society has to pay when faced by the unique and terrifying threat of the Al Qaeda network. But, as this series has shown, the idea of a hidden, organised web of terror is largely a fantasy, and by embracing the precautionary principle, the politicians have become trapped in a vicious circle: they imagine the worst about an organisation that doesn't even exist. But no one questions this because the very basis of the precautionary principle is to imagine the worst without supporting evidence, and, instead, those with the darkest imaginations become the most influential.

The precautionary principle has always been a load of rubbish. It is used by religious fundamentalists (be they George Bush, Tony Blair or so-called environmentalists) because they have faith, and nothing else, to prove their case. "Minority Report" is fiction, only the rulers of the world seem to now treat it as a philosphical treatise.

Bush and Blair get away with locking up hundreds of innocent Muslims because most citizens of the US and UK don't care, because it will never happen to them, because they are not Muslim. If you really believe the precautionary principle when it comes to crime then you should imprison everybody (well, certainly all men between the age of 10 and 70). Needless to say, when the public gets bored with this Islamo-phobic story the rulers will find some other minority to pick on. Who knows, it might be gays or Jews next.

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