True Films

The Power of Nightmares


The thesis of this three-part cinematic essay from the BBC is complex, but plausible. It begins by observing that after the horrors of WWII people no longer rallied around optimistic Pollyanna visions of a better tomorrow. The sole belief that could unite a country then became fear — fear of communism. A fear that was wildly, if not insanely exaggerated. But when communism collapsed upon itself, a new fear was fanned to keep the electorate united behind leaders. It also is wildly exaggerated. That new fear is “terrorism.” It transformed a tactic into an enemy. Furthermore this new uniting nightmare has been produced by two fundamentalist strands in the world: Islamic jihadists and American neo-cons. Both sides are ideologically dogmatic, both exaggerate the threat of the other, and both work on the power of worst-case nightmares, and in a strange way, both need each other to keep their people united. This film is a very polemic, subjective, extended argument. But it is well done, BBC-style, with interviews of the principle characters in the Islamic jihad world and in the US neo-con camp, and some fascinating deep history. It is smart enough to be worth arguing with. The Power of Nightmares has the potential to shift how you frame the “war on terror.” At least it shifted my perspective, even if I don’t agree with all its conclusions.

— KK


The Power of Nightmares
Adam Curtis
2004, 180 min.
DVD, $23

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Watch all three parts at the Internet Archive Moving Image Archive

Posted December 8, 2008 at 9:03 am | comments
in category Extremists

  • Melissa Evangeline Keyes

    Most amazing, timing, sometimes.

    I didn’t comment on your ‘Population” discussion, because you left out half of the World, the Muslims. You only showed statistics of WASPS and white europeans. Hello?? Read a book named “Alone in America”

    Please have the time to read the below. Methinks you sit at home too much lately…

    Subject: A view of Islam A German’s View on Islam This is by far the best explanation of the Muslim terrorist situation I have ever read. His references to past history are accurate and clear. Not long, easy to understand, and well worth the read. The author of this email is said to be Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a well known and well respected psychiatrist.A German’s View on Islam A man, whose family was German aristocracy prior to World War II, owned a number of large industries and estates. When asked how many German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can guide our attitude toward fanaticism. ‘Very few people were true Nazis,’ he said, ‘but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So,the majority just sat back and let it all happen. Then, before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost control, and the end of the world had come. My family lost everything. I ended up in a concentration camp and the Allies destroyed my factories.’We are told again and again by ‘experts’ and ‘talking heads’that Islam is the religion of peace, and that the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace. Although this unqualified assertion may be true, it is entirely irrelevant. It is meaningless fluff, meant to make us feel better, and meant to somehow diminish the spectra of fanatics rampaging across the globe in the name of Islam.The fact is that the fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history. It is the fanatics who march. It is the fanatics who wage any one of 50 shooting wars worldwide. It is the fanatics who systematically slaughter Christian or tribal groups throughout Africa and are gradually taking over the entire continent in an Islamic wave. It is the fanatics who bomb, behead, murder, or honor-kill. It is the fanatics who take over mosque after mosque. It is the fanatics who zealously spread the stoning and hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. It is the fanatics who teach their young to kill and to become suicide bombers.The hard quantifiable fact is that the peaceful majority, the ‘silent majority,’ is cowed and extraneous.Communist Russia was comprised of Russians who just wanted to live in peace, yet the Russian Communists were responsible for the murder of about 20 million people. The peaceful majority were irrelevant.China’s huge population was peaceful as well, but Chinese Communists managed to kill a staggering 70 million people.The average Japanese individual prior to World War II was not a warmongering sadist. Yet, Japan murdered and slaughtered its way across South East Asia in an orgy of killing that included the systematic murder of 12 million Chinese civilians; most killed by sword, shovel,and bayonet.And, who can forget Rwanda, which collapsed into butchery. Could it not be said that the majority of Rwandans were ‘peace loving’?History lessons are often incredibly simple and blunt, yet for all our powers of reason we often miss the most basic and uncomplicated of points: Peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence. Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don’t speak up, because like my friend from Germany, they will awaken one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will have begun.Peace-loving Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Rwandans,Serbs, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis, Nigerians, Algerians, and many others have died because the peaceful majority did not speak up until it was too late.As for us who watch it all unfold, we must pay attention to the only group that counts; the fanatics who threaten our way of life.Lastly, anyone who doubts that the issue is serious and just deletes this email without sending it on, is contributing to the passiveness that allows the problems to expand. So, extend yourself a bit and send this on and on and on! Let us hope that thousands, world wide, read this and think about it, and send it on – before it’s too late.Emanuel Tanay, M.D.Tass

    • Yes, I think it is important that the majority of peace-loving Muslims in the world speak up. In the end, they are the ones who will be most hurt by the fundamentalists — not those of us in the west. Far more Muslims have died from jihadist suicide bombs than Christians. And we in the west should do all we can to support the majority of peace-loving Muslims. In fact, it is the most Christian thing we could do.

  • Avi Solomon

    I bet Adam Curtis never actually read Leo Strauss:

  • fred

    yea that is the problem of the film. in a way, it is hypocritical. it sows fear and conspiracy when it accuses others of such warped thinking. in that way it is a good example of how powerful propaganda is itself. selective facts and a grand narrative with ominous music are weaved together masterfully. but it doesn’t seem curtis is self aware of this, he isn’t using the same tools to bring something to light, he is really just part of the problem. the film tries way to hard to draw parallels between neocons and islamists, and so basically falls back to the conspiracy theorists mistaken and distorted view of the world. over simplification of history to fit a grand narrative, and claiming that the world is controlled by a shadowy cabal.