Cyberwar, the Power of Nightmares


By Marcus J. Ranum.

Summary: Today’s post by Marcus Ranum discusses Adam Curtis’ brilliant BBC documentary series “The Power of Nightmares”. Cutris deconstructs the dynamic of government as protector against unknown threats. His analysis of how generalized fears of terrorism manipulate the public apply exactly to cyberwar, as well.

“Both [the Islamists and Neoconservatives] were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world. And both had a very similar explanation for what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created today’s nightmare vision of a secret, organized evil that threatens the world. A fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.
— The Power of Nightmares, subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, a BBC documentary film series written and produced by Adam Curtis in 2004.  Download here.


  1. The power of Nightmares
  2. The Man Who Was Thursday (A Nightmare)
  3. Anatomy of a Tail-spin
  4. Curtis’ Words
  5. For More Information

(1) The Power of Nightmares

Adam Curtis’ brillant documentary series offers a view of the present as a consequence of the search for meaning of the political class. In short: they need something to do, to justify their existence. After all, if everyone were simply happy and comfortable, sooner or later we might wake up and wonder, “what are we giving you guys so much power, for, anyway?” Curtis’ series describes an entirely plausible scenario of what I call an “emergent conspiracy” – a conspiracy that was not planned by a secret committee wearing black velvet capes and meeting in dimly lit corridors of power, but rather a conspiracy that happens and snowballs because it’s convenient and spares the conspirator’s having to deal with the truth.

We can think of emergent conspiracies as a result of co-evolution or co-dependency: all of the parties involved want something, and they stumble around creating a great big whopping lie in order to get it. Then they tell that lie to themselves, and believe it. They act on the lie, and are surprised by the consequences they must, thereafter, live with.

(2) The Man Who Was Thursday (A Nightmare)

“We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them.
— G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)



The theme of emergent conspiracies is an old one. My favorite example is The Man Who Was Thursday (a Nightmare) by G.K. Chesterton (1908). Gabriel Syme, the hero, is inducted into a secret organization of police dedicated to demolishing and capturing the leadership of the secret organization of anarchists. As the story evolves, we discover that the police and the anarchists depend on eachother for their very existence and the only honest character in the situation is the population (represented by Syme) that is stuck between them, trying to make sense of things. He fails, of course.

Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.
— Friederich Neitzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146 (1886)

What Curtis’ analysis adds that is so brilliant is the observation that:

[T]he person with the most vivid imagination becomes the most powerful.

This is exactly what has happened with cyberwar punditry as well as counter-terrorism punditry. I would slightly modify Curtis’ words, if I could, replacing “vivid” with “horrible.”

(3) Anatomy of a Tail-spin

When the cyberwar meme first broke on the scene in the mid 1990s, the defense/intelligence complex was looking for a new enemy, a new mission, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just as the islamic jihadist stepped into the role of boogeyman in the counterterror arena, cyberwar became the computer security world’s boogeyman.

It started small: Winn Schwartau’s horrible imaginings (see Wikipedia) painted a scary, albeit ludicrously improbable, world of cyberwar, which scared some people into allocating money to defend themselves against this new threat. Seeing that money was being allocated, cyberwar proponents banged the fear-drums a little harder — and, more money was allocated.

Suddenly, the fear/uncertainty/doubt feedback loop was fully formed and peaked in 2010, when we witnessed gigantic sums of money (mostly in classified budgets) being allocated for cyberwars that so far hadn’t happened. The expenditures for offensive cyberwar had to be justified, so the trigger was pulled on Stuxnet et al – and now the game is fully afoot. In order to keep the money-valve jammed wide open, pundits vie with their willing victims in an effort to scare them with ever-worsening nightmares.

The pundit with the most nightmarish imagination is the most powerful, and the consulting firm they work for makes the most money.

(4) Curtis’ Words

The following is extracted from the transcript of The Power of Nightmares:

VO: But those dreams collapsed, and politicians like Tony Blair became more like managers of public life, their policies determined often by focus groups. But now, the war on terror allowed politicians like Blair to portray a new, grand vision of the future. But this vision was a dark one of imagined threats, and a new force began to drive politics: the fear of an imagined future.


TONY BLAIR : Not a conventional fear about a conventional threat, but the fear that one day these new threats of weapons of mass destruction, rogue states, and international terrorism combine to deliver a catastrophe to our world. And then the shame of knowing that I saw that threat, day after day, and did nothing to stop it.


BLAIR : It may not erupt and engulf us this month or next, perhaps not even this year or next …


BLAIR : I just think these—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.


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.


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.


DURODIE : But once you start imagining what could happen, then—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.

[ CUT , EXTERIOR , CAMP X-RAY , Guantánamo Bay, Cuba ]

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.”


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.

Curtis cuts brilliantly to the heart of the matter: because it hasn’t actually happened, it’s scarier than if it did. Thus, increasingly powerful reactions are justified against largely imaginary threats.

At what point will the US or Israel beat the war-drums against some other country (probably Iran) because they offer the potential threat of someday inflicting nightmarishly imagined cyber-devastation?


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—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.

I challenge the Iranians to prove to our satisfaction that they are not planning cyberstrikes on our power-grid that will knock us back to the Late Cretaceous period.


DAVID JOHNSTON , INTELLIGENCE SPECIALIST , NEW YORK TIMES : You’ll hear about meetings where terrorist matters are discussed in the intelligence community, and always the person with the most dire assessment, the person with the—who has the, kind of, the strongest sense that something should be done will frequently carry the day at meetings. We thus believe the most dire estimate of what could happen here. The sense of disbelief has vanished.

Voices of sanity must be heard; they will sound like skeptics and attempts will be made to dismiss them as mere nay-sayers.

Syme was dumb for an instant. Then he rose to his feet erect, like an insulted man, and thrust the chair away from him.

“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him on the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear that I would pull him down.”

“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”

“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”

– G.K. Chesterton, “The Man Who Was Thursday”

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Goya, 1856


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