A review of The Power of Nightmares

Peter Bergen reviews Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares, a three-hour BBC documentary on Al Qaeda and the war on terror’ in this week’s The Nation.

“Curtis has done some wonderful archival research to illustrate his film, finding rare footage, for instance, of [Sayyid] Qutb in prison (and he wittily punctuates the narrative with passages of popular songs and old film clips). But in telling Qutb’s story, Curtis argues that it is mirrored by that of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, a forced analogy that is emblematic of Curtis’s occasionally questionable polemical methods. Curtis says that around the same time Qutb was formulating his apocalyptic vision of waging offensive jihads against the enemies of Islam, Strauss, ‘who shared the same fears about the destructive influence of individualism in America,’ was telling his students, many of whom went on to influential careers in politics, that liberalism was fatally weakening the US body politic and sapping Americans’ will to defend ‘freedom.’ Intellectuals, he believed, would have to spread an ideology of good and evil, whether they believed it or not, so that the American people could be mobilized against the enemies of freedom. For this reason Strauss, we learn in one of many telling asides, was a huge fan of the TV series Gunsmoke and its Manichean depiction of good and evil.”