Cyberwar, the Power of Nightmares

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

For More Information

Background for this post:

  1. The Power of Nightmares (Wikipedia)
  2. The Power of Nightmares – videos on Archive.Org
  3. The Power of Nightmares – transcript of part 3
  4. The Man Who was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton – Project Gutenberg
  5. Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater performance of The Man Who Was Thursday (1938)

To see all Marcus Ranum’s articles and other sources, visit the FM Reference Page Cyber-espionage and Cyber-war!




22 thoughts on “Cyberwar, the Power of Nightmares

  1. absolutely terrific posting, thank you…from childhood to my current ripened age, The Man Who Was Thursday has always been a favorite… and fear has replaced promise as the rational for the massive increase in the powers and acceptance of the police state in America and England, but not yet completely for the peoples acceptance of the Leviathan, the State…but when hope is dashed on the jagged rocks of reality, soon I believe, all we will have left will be fear. It will consume us all before there can be the rebirth out of the ashes of a new civilization.


    1. The Man Who Was Thursday was something I picked up as a kid, by accident (were you also grabbed by the weird cover with the two men and the swords, about to duel?) and fell in love with. I didn’t understand it, at first, but I loved Chesterton’s English and, as an adult, I have read it many times.

      I agree with you – the important issue, as Curtis says, is that fear has replaced promise because the politicial ideologies of the 20th century didn’t deliver on their promises unless they were promising death and horror.


    1. What with all the sci-fi haters in the comments! Minority Report was a fun movie! Like most movies, the MacGuffin (Wikipedia) must be accepted in order to enjoy the plot.

      I found the existence “pre-cogs” seeing murders in the future more easy to accept than the premise of the typical rom-com — in which some beautiful starlet cannot get a date.


    2. It was a fun movie, indeed. When you read about Apple suing Samsung over the iPhone interface, remember Minority Report (which lifted the interface idea from some research done at Microsoft, of all places…)


  2. I retired last year after a career of 30 years in computer systems, and I find most cyberware/cyberterrrorism senarios highly unrealistic.

    The age of hacking is the consequence of the adaption of open protocols and operating systems that were never designed with security in mind. Security was traded off for ease of implementation ease of scalability , and low costs.

    Any organization really serious about security can 1) create its own internal private network 2) use a non-tcpip networking protocol 3) ban windows/unix/linux 4) use a private operating system. Development and operational costs will be much higher , but that is the tradeoff.

    If you really have secrets worth protecting , you will implement this . If lowering your costs is more important than protecting your data , you will continue to play cops and robbers.


    1. If lowering your costs is more important than protecting your data , you will continue to play cops and robbers.

      Exactly! Many organizations that brought crucial data online are suffering from buyers’ remorse when they discover it’s not as easy as the sales rep told them, and the system they were too impatient to build right and learn how to manage is not built right and is unmanageable.


  3. I can vouch for the brilliance of “The Power Of Nightmares” (which I watched for the first time last year) — particularly because it presents a comprehensive insight into the origins and underlying principles of the neoconservative Republicans as well as the fundamentalist Islamic extremists. The choice of title was particularly inspired…because not only are the neoconservatives and Islamic extremists in the grip of irrationality (since they both essentially view creations of their own imagination — both fantasy and nightmare — as if they were reality), they’re using the energy generated by the combination of their own fear and their own overweening sense of omniscience and omnipotence and personal entitlement to create real-life nightmares for the rest of us.

    As an accompaniment to “The Power Of Nightmares”, I would also highly recommend watching the documentary “Why We Fight” since it presents the theory (supported by a persuasive argument) that most if not all of our current troubles in the Middle East can be traced back to Operation Ajax — our (to say the least) imprudent decision back in 1953 to stage a coup in Iran with the help of the CIA that overthrew the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and reinstated the Shah. The reason why we did this was because we knew the Shah would be more supportive of our petroleum interests there whereas Mossadegh had made it clear that he wanted to nationalize the oil fields so that the Iranian people would profit more from their own resources. “Why We Fight”, like “The Power Of Nightmares”, can also be found and downloaded from the Internet Archive. If there’s any truth to the argument — and I believe there may be — that what we’re experiencing now is at least in part what the CIA calls “blowback” (unforeseen negative consequences) from an ill-advised and highly unethical decision which we made nearly sixty years ago, this only amplifies the danger that we’re currently in since there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that the present state of our foreign policy will improve the situation any. Quite the reverse, in fact — there is every reason to believe that it will only serve to exacerbate the situation even further and make it exponentially worse, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.

    Another documentary which seems germane to this discussion and which is worth watching is “Orwell Rolls In His Grave”, which is particularly relevant given the previous post about the increasing prevalence of lies and distortion in the media. However, this documentary takes that argument one step further and suggests that the media is not merely taking a laissez-faire approach to the facts but instead deliberately promoting false beliefs — that instead of being the corporate and governmental watchdogs that the Founding Fathers intended them to be (which is why they considered freedom of the press important enough to be included in the First Amendment alongside such fundamental rights as freedom of speech and freedom of religion), the press have become corporate and governmental lapdogs and (worse still) did so by choice rather than by accident or under duress.

    On the off chance, does anyone happen to know for certain whether “The Man Who Was Thursday” provided George Orwell with some inspiration to write “1984”? I’d be surprised if it didn’t, considering that there are some similarities in plot between the two novels (since the perpetual wars between Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in “1984” are depicted as resulting from a subconscious conspiracy of sorts between the rival nations designed to keep the ordinary citizens of all three in line). Both novels even feature a character called Syme who appears to have ties to both sides (in “1984”, Syme is one of Winston’s colleagues at the Ministry of Truth who is eventually “disappeared” because he “sees too clearly and speaks too plainly”)


    1. does anyone happen to know for certain whether “The Man Who Was Thursday” provided George Orwell with some inspiration to write “1984″

      I think his experiences fighting fascism in Spain gave him a larger-than-necessary dose of cynicism. G. K. Chesterton’s cynicism was of a much more gentle sort; Orwell was mainlining the pure uncut stuff.


  4. Somewhere the whole Y2K debacle fits into this. Dry run?

    After the whole Y2K imbroglio ended in a popcorn fart, the admonition was, “Sure, but what if we hadn’t sounded the alarm? What if we hadn’t changed all that code?”. A variation on the old joke:

    Q: Why are you blowing that whistle on this street corner?
    Ans: It repels the crocodiles.
    Q: But there are no crocodiles here.
    Ans: I know. It works great!


    1. That’s a great observation!

      We have an easy test of the boasts about Y2k: look at East Asia, and the third world. The former thought our Y2K mania was nuts, the latter lacked the money to do much. Both made minor changes, and suffered no ill effects as a result.

      This is yet another example showing how easily Americans are conned by an appeal to fear.


    2. Somewhere the whole Y2K debacle fits into this. Dry run?

      My notion of “emergent conspiracies” is less that a bunch of people got together and said, “hey, let’s do this…” but rather that the bandwagon started rolling and then all the bandwagon-jumpers turned it into a full-fledged carnival of stupid.

      In that sense, Y2K was more a “taste of things to come” than a test.


    3. Plus — lots of lots of money to be made feeding the Y2K fears. Hence similar to many of our subsequent manias. Building our 21st century military to fight China! Fighting climate Change to save the world! Fighting jihadists everywhere!

      Never underestimate the role of vendors in fanning the flames of fear.


  5. Yes, a great documentary. Adam Curtis’ documentary Century of the Self also explains much about politics and the way consumerist American society works today, so that’s worth watching too.

    Related to Marcus’ discussion, a computer researcher has recently proven thatthe way databases are intermeshing and proliferating today, a dangerous and potentially damaging secret about every person in America will now be revealed inadvertently by the intercombination of overlapping public databases. One spooky example: the data analytics team at the store Target can now determine which shoppers are pregnant, and even predict their delivery dates, by detecting subtle shifts in purchasing habits. Another good example involves the misuse of DNA tests by police, since skin cells can cling to money and be conveyed to distant locations…so merely because police find one of your skin cells at a crime scene, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were there, let alone guilty of the crime.

    This result seems related to the sad fact that all databases contain errors, and when two databases with errors get merged, the number of errors increases by far more than a factor of two. Thus the ever-growing number of toddlers on the “no fly” list in America. We’re setting ourselves up for a Buttle/Tuttle society as in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil.


    1. the intercombination of overlapping public databases

      If you hear anything about that from US Gov’t, and they are acting surprised, they are lying.

      Cross-correlating aggregated data is what NSA programs like “THINWIRE” are all about; the tools for doing it – semantic forests, etc – have been known for some time. Yes, you get everything normalized and start joining records on common fields then you can apply simple layers of assumptions (“if 2 people are in the same address, tentatively assign them one of the following relationships: parent, spouse, significant other then go back through the database looking for hits that allow you to refine the assessment of the relationship” Things like age-commonality, etc, and you can build a remarkable picture) Some friends of mine back in the late 80s did some amazing work with AT&T’s phone customer database. I wonder where it all wound up, nudge nudge wink wink.

      This result seems related to the sad fact that all databases contain errors, and when two databases with errors get merged, the number of errors increases by far more than a factor of two.

      It depends on how the databases are collected and merged. If it’s done well, you can actually improve the database by using them as cross-checks. That, in fact, is really all that a fraud-detection system does: it looks for things in databases that don’t cross-correlate (“why is this guy shipping a $3,000 watch to an address for Mr Asd Jkf in Toronto, when he has never done that before and there is no record anywhere of Mr Asd Jkf ever existing at that address?”)

      I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m deeply concerned that the WOT and cops are going to be lazy, incompetent, and stupid about how they do it. That was what was so brilliant about “Brazil” – the military bureaucracy is so blindingly dumb they just take the simple answer unquestioningly. Buttle, Tuttle, what’s the difference? A little waterboarding will sort ’em out.

      I am endlessly torn by this topic. I see Big Brother being built but Big Brother is stupid, venal, and incompetent. It’s unstoppably far along, at this point, so should we simply be happy that all that money is going to waste building a “Keystone Kops State”? It beats the alternative…


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