Nineteen Years Ago

People look at the Tribute in Light installation marking the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks from Brooklyn, N.Y., September 11, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

On the menu today: recognizing that 19 years have passed since 9/11, why the presidential race in Nevada is more uncertain than usual this cycle, and what the defenders of the Netflix film Cuties refuse to acknowledge.

Nineteen Years Later, This Date Almost Feels Normal Again. Almost.

Nineteen years.

We don’t really think about Islamist terrorism much anymore, do we? Back in 2018, I asked if that represents a form of victory in the War on Terror. Last year, I went through and noted how the leaders of the threat are long gone: “Osama bin Laden is fish food. Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and heir, was killed earlier this year. The Taliban leader who hosted and protected al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar, is dead. We don’t hear much from Ayman al-Zawahiri anymore. Al-Qaeda isn’t even the big worry in Islamist terror anymore, compared to ISIS. One expert concludes, ‘The last international attack in the West connected to al-Qaeda was the 2015 shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.’”

Now, in 2020, even the successor threat of ISIS is rarely discussed anymore. They’re not gone completely, of course. Last month, the U.N. counter-terrorism chief estimated that more than 10,000 ISIS fighters are estimated to remain active in Iraq and Syria two years after the militant group’s defeat, and their attacks have significantly increased this year. He added that about 3,500 ISIS fighters are in West Africa. That sounds like a lot, but back in 2014, the CIA estimated ISIS had 20,000 to 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated the group had closer to 50,000 in those two countries.

Evil will always exist, and the world will probably always have terrorists of some stripe. But you wonder if the decimation of first al-Qaeda and then ISIS have taught at least some hardline Islamists that forming a terrorist group and attacking Westerners is just not an effective way to get what they want.

One of the stories of the war on terror that seems wildly under-discussed is the account of James E. Mitchell, who interrogated Khalid Sheik Mohammad:

Far from trying to draw us in, KSM said that al-Qaeda expected the United States to respond to 9/11 as we had the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut — when, KSM told Mitchell, the United States “turned tail and ran.” He also said he thought we would treat 9/11 as a law enforcement matter, just as we had the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in Yemen — arresting some operatives and firing a few missiles into empty tents, but otherwise leaving him free to plan the next attack.

“Then he looked at me and said, ‘How was I supposed to know that cowboy George Bush would announce he wanted us ‘dead or alive’ and then invade Afghanistan to hunt us down?’” Mitchell writes. “KSM explained that if the United States had treated 9/11 like a law enforcement matter, he would have had time to launch a second wave of attacks.” He was not able to do so because al-Qaeda was stunned “by the ferocity and swiftness of George W. Bush’s response.”

But KSM said something else that was prophetic. In the end, he told Mitchell, “We will win because Americans don’t realize . . . we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”

KSM explained that large-scale attacks such as 9/11 were “nice, but not necessary” and that a series of “low-tech attacks could bring down America the same way ‘enough disease-infected fleas can fell an elephant.’ ” KSM “said jihadi-minded brothers would immigrate into the United States” and “wrap themselves in America’s rights and laws” until they were strong enough to rise up and attack us. “He said the brothers would relentlessly continue their attacks and the American people would eventually become so tired, so frightened, and so weary of war that they would just want it to end.”

“Peace talks” with the Taliban will begin again this week, and some will argue that indeed represents an American that is so tired, frightened, and weary of war that we would just want it to end. But looking for a way to bring the remaining 12,000 troops home after 19 years cannot be characterized as “abandoning” Afghanistan by any stretch of the imagination.

Can Biden Count on Winning Nevada This Year?

There’s one state I didn’t include in my list on Tuesday that might be of interest in the presidential race: Nevada. History is probably affecting my judgment. Donald Trump lost the state by about two and a half percentage points, Mitt Romney lost by seven points, John McCain lost by 13 points, and George W. Bush won it by three and a half points the first time and two points the second time. Trump hasn’t led Biden in a poll in Nevada since November of last year.

But Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report is taking the state out of the “safe for Democrats” category:

There are plenty of reasons for why the Biden campaign should be nervous about their hold on this state. First, Nevada — with its tourism-based economy — was hit extraordinarily hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of August, the state’s unemployment rate was almost twice as high as the national average. Many folks are more worried about how they are going to be able to keep a roof over their head or food on the table. The upcoming election is probably not high on their priority list.

The pandemic also meant that traditional ground game activities — like voter registration drives in and around the casinos, churches and other gathering places — can no longer be employed.

Jon Ralston, the editor of the Nevada Independent (and guru of all things Nevada), tells me that “the pandemic turned off the Democratic machine here for almost half the year. Voter registration has essentially been a draw, slight Republican advantage, since March.” Democrats are still “well ahead” in total registration in the state, says Ralston, but had the pandemic not hit, Democrats “could have put it out of reach.”

. . . given all the uncertainty swirling around that state, and the increased attention both the Trump campaign and Biden camp are paying here, this race should be considered more competitive. It moves from Likely Democrat to Lean Democrat.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think turnout will be significantly lower this year. If the stakes of the pandemic, the shutdowns, the economy, the closure of most public schools, the Black Lives Matter movement, public expectations of the police, the protests, riots, and looting, the Supreme Court, and every other major issue in our public life doesn’t get you motivated to vote . . . what will?

Just What Kind of Reaction Did Netflix Expect to Get?

An observation about the controversy surrounding the Netflix film Cuties, which quite a few people find to be an outrageous, or at minimum, a deeply uncomfortable depiction of preteen actresses in a highly sexualized way . . .

Assume, for the moment, that the filmmakers and cast and everyone involved genuinely wanted to make a film that, as the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody insists, “dramatizes the difficulties of growing up female in a sexualized and commercialized media culture” and to make the point that “children, especially poor and nonwhite children, who are deprived of the resources — the education, the emotional support, the open family discussion — to put sexualized media and pop culture into perspective.” Brody decries that the film has become “the target of a right-wing campaign.”

Even if everyone had the best and most noble intentions, the filmmakers still asked preteen actresses to put on tight outfits and dance suggestively before an audience in that scene. In order to make a movie that denounces the cultural trend of sexualizing girls at an inappropriate age, they chose to film a scene that sexualizes girls at an inappropriate age. The filmmakers chose to go out and create another example of precisely the problem they sought to denounce. How did no one in the creative process recognize this?

And then once Netflix promoted the film with a poster and promotional material specifically focused on the scene with the girls in the skimpy outfits . . . I’m sorry, a lot of people are just not going to believe anyone who insists that this movie is meant to protest and push back against the sexualization of children. That blows up the assumption of good faith. That makes Netflix look exactly like what the film and filmmaker are allegedly deploring — an entity that is willing to make money by selling highly sexualized images of young girls.

Brody argues that the film is a victim of misleading advertising. But those images didn’t end up in the film, or on the poster, or in the trailers by accident. Everyone involved made a conscious choice that a group of preteen actresses should put on those outfits and dance in that way, and that the scene should be in the movie, and that the scene should be in the trailers and on the poster. The filmmakers could have chosen to not film it. The filmmakers could have chosen to film that scene with older actresses as body doubles, or out of focus or from a distance, or in extreme close-up on their hands, or some other filmmaking trick to communicate what was going on. They could have chosen to leave that scene out and have the characters describing what happened. The director and editors and studio could have watched the footage, recognized what they had done, and left that scene on the cutting room floor. None of that happened; everyone in the creative process concluded that the audience had to watch preteen actresses dancing that way.

If you want to make a strong statement that the sexualization of girls at that age is wrong, you should probably not do precisely the act that you’re denouncing, and then try to bring those images to as wide an audience as possible.

ADDENDUM: After a chaotic year, it felt good to experience the “normalcy” of watching a football game. I just hope Andy Reid’s foggy face shield makes it through the season.