Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ben Affleck

Debating Islamism: How Far We’ve Come

In a viral video that just about everyone has seen by now, movie star Ben Affleck butted heads with Bill Maher about radical Islam on the latter’s HBO show. The subject was about those calling attention to the not inconsiderable support that radical Islamists like the terrorists of ISIS get from mainstream Muslims around the world. But what’s interesting about this controversy is not so much the specifics of the conversation but the way it resonated with the public. The uproar seems to show that more than 13 years after 9/11, Americans are now willing to start talking about what’s motivating terrorists.

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In a viral video that just about everyone has seen by now, movie star Ben Affleck butted heads with Bill Maher about radical Islam on the latter’s HBO show. The subject was about those calling attention to the not inconsiderable support that radical Islamists like the terrorists of ISIS get from mainstream Muslims around the world. But what’s interesting about this controversy is not so much the specifics of the conversation but the way it resonated with the public. The uproar seems to show that more than 13 years after 9/11, Americans are now willing to start talking about what’s motivating terrorists.

The crux of the argument was about whether, as Affleck passionately argued, it is racist to say that ISIS’s ideology is backed by a vast number of Muslims. The actor believes this is just prejudice. He believes that instead of calling out the Muslim world for the actions of the terrorists, we should be merely condemning the individuals involved. Like many others on the left who have promoted the myth that America responded to 9/11 with a backlash against Muslims, Affleck seems to imply that the bigger threat to the country comes from the demonization of the faith of 1.5 billion people.

In reply, Maher, ably assisted by author Sam Harris, pointed out that while there are many Muslims who oppose terrorism, the truth is that ISIS’s Islamist beliefs are shared by at least 20 percent of adherents of Islam around the world and many more than that share the same mindset even if they are not eager to don a suicide vest.

Who won? It was not so much that Maher, who is a bitter opponent of all religions, had the better argument as that Affleck had none at all. Used to operating in the liberal echo chamber of Hollywood—which shares many of Maher’s positions on most other issues—he was out of his league when forced to defend an indefensible position. His was an expression of an attitude in which facts that do not conform to leftist prejudices are ignored, not disputed. When confronted with a position that asserted the reality of contemporary Muslim political culture, he simply yelled racism, the ultimate argument decider on the left, and declared the facts unacceptable if not irrelevant.

Yet the point of interest here is not so much that Affleck, who was applauded by liberals for his stance, spoke nonsense or that Mahr had a rare moment of total clarity, but that this sort of discussion struck a nerve throughout the country.

In the aftermath of 9/11 Americans were told ad nauseam that Islam was a religion of peace, a line that has been said as much by Barack Obama as it has by George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama doubled down on this by repeatedly declaring that ISIS is not Islamic, an odd and rather debatable point of theology for an avowed Christian to make.

But in the wake of the latest ISIS murders and the years of atrocities by other Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Boko Haram that followed 9/11 many Americans have awakened to the fact that tracing the roots of terror requires us to confront the faith for which these killers fight. It is true that not all Muslims are terrorists and that all people should be judged for their actions not as a member of a group. But the willingness of vast numbers of Muslims to subscribe to a version of Islam that is rooted in hatred of the West, America, and Israel cannot be wished away or edited out of the movie as a politically incorrect fact. Vast numbers, especially in the Third World, not only subscribe to 9/11 truther myths but also support the terrorists’ war on the West. Others are leery about the war but share the religious beliefs that are its underpinning.

To confront these facts is not an act of prejudice or Islamophobia. Nor does it serve to foment hate. Rather, it is part of an effort to support and empower those Muslims who believe that the Islamist approach is abhorrent to them but who are often silenced or intimidated by radicals and their supposedly more moderate fellow travelers. A Muslim world in which radical beliefs are part of the mainstream needs to be reformed from within. This is necessary precisely because it is the not the desire of the West or of sane people anywhere to be at war with all Muslims.

While the shouting that is part of such cable scream fests does not make for an edifying spectacle, it says something about how far we’ve come in our thinking about this subject that a prominent liberal—even a professional provocateur like Maher—is willing to publicly enunciate obvious truths even if it means being called a racist by a popular actor. It can only be hoped that this can be the start of a more rational discussion of Islam and those who use it to justify terror. If not, we will remain locked in the same state of denial about the cause of the problem in which Obama, Affleck, and much of the nation remain trapped.

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The CIA’s Big Year on the Big Screen

This past year was a banner year for the CIA on celluloid. Normally the intelligence agency’s operatives are seen in movies as murderous bad guys abusing their power–see for example any of the “Bourne” films or the Denzel Washington flick “Safe House.” This is a theme that dates back to the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA abuses in the 1970s, which prompted paranoid movies like Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and Warren Beatty’s “Parallax View.”

But a different–and more truthful–view of the agency’s operations has been presented in 2012′s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which highlight its triumphs: in the first instance, smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis using a clever ruse of making a science-fiction movie; in the second instance, tracking down Osama bin Laden, making possible the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with his death.

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This past year was a banner year for the CIA on celluloid. Normally the intelligence agency’s operatives are seen in movies as murderous bad guys abusing their power–see for example any of the “Bourne” films or the Denzel Washington flick “Safe House.” This is a theme that dates back to the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA abuses in the 1970s, which prompted paranoid movies like Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and Warren Beatty’s “Parallax View.”

But a different–and more truthful–view of the agency’s operations has been presented in 2012′s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which highlight its triumphs: in the first instance, smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis using a clever ruse of making a science-fiction movie; in the second instance, tracking down Osama bin Laden, making possible the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with his death.

What controversy the movies have aroused has been mainly about the torture scenes depicted at the beginning of “Zero Dark Thirty,” because the movie is hardly out to make even the brutal CIA interrogators out to be bad guys; it is noncommittal in its depiction of them and might even be said to skew the audience’s perspective in their favor by beginning the movie with the sounds of 9/11 to remind viewers of why they are willing to manhandle detainees.

But both films, while focusing on successful operations, also highlight some of the agency’s problems.

Ben Affleck and Jessica Chastain play dedicated, highly effective, if relatively junior, CIA personnel based on real-life models–he a clandestine service operative who specializes in exfiltrations, she an analyst working the Osama bin Laden file. Both are convinced, rightly, that they have figured out the solution to a difficult problem: how to get the diplomats out and how to track down bin Laden, respectively. And both consistently find that they are stymied by their own managers who are risk averse to a fault. Affleck nearly has his plan scuttled while carrying it out; Chastain has to constantly badger and harass her superiors to get them to devote the necessary resources to the manhunt amid many other distractions.

Thus both movies highlight the real problem with the CIA. It is not an agency made up of ruthless killers with goon squads standing by to dispose of troublesome agents, as shown in the “Bourne” movies. It is actually a hyper-cautious bureaucracy that too often fails to take chances because superiors are more motivated by covering their collective derrieres than by getting the job done. Thank goodness there are passionate risk-takers like the ones depicted by Affleck and Chastain who really do work for the Agency. Problem is, top Agency executives need to prune back the bureaucracy to let their stars shine.

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The Hostage Crisis and American Decline

I just saw “Argo” last night. Not only is it a great film (who would have thunk that Ben Affleck had it in him?) but it’s also a great primer on a period of American history that, for those under 40 today, is as ancient as the Civil War.

The movie tells the story of how CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez managed to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran in 1980 by pretending they were part of a production crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.”  As this Slate article notes, the film takes a few liberties with the history—but only a few. It conveys what would seem to be, on the whole, an accurate picture of the period—from the bureaucratic politics of Washington to the violent and chaotic nature of the Iranian revolution. Above all it captures, as no other film I have seen does, the sad spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

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I just saw “Argo” last night. Not only is it a great film (who would have thunk that Ben Affleck had it in him?) but it’s also a great primer on a period of American history that, for those under 40 today, is as ancient as the Civil War.

The movie tells the story of how CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez managed to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran in 1980 by pretending they were part of a production crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.”  As this Slate article notes, the film takes a few liberties with the history—but only a few. It conveys what would seem to be, on the whole, an accurate picture of the period—from the bureaucratic politics of Washington to the violent and chaotic nature of the Iranian revolution. Above all it captures, as no other film I have seen does, the sad spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

I was only nine years old when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979, but I can still remember the dispiriting drama of how Iranian extremists were able to hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. That experience was all the more traumatic for the nation because newscasts (some of them played in “Argo”) routinely noted that this was “day 33” (or whatever) of “America held hostage.” Meanwhile yellow ribbons proliferated around the nation to keep alive the memory of the hostages. America’s humiliation was worsened when a belated rescue mission ended in a fiery crash in the Iranian desert, at a rendezvous point codenamed Desert One.

“Argo” is a thriller but it accurately evokes this crisis—one that, I now realize, helped shape my worldview. Growing up at a time when America was widely thought to be on the decline, I, like many other young people, was attracted to Ronald Reagan and his message of hope and renewal—the idea that America’s best days were still ahead of us. Reagan rescued us from the post-Vietnam malaise and restored our economic and military strength, as even his onetime critics now admit.

The lesson I take away from this history is that there is nothing inevitable about American decline and that if we permit ourselves to become weak, the results will be catastrophic. That is a point worth thinking about today as, once again, a consensus seems to be building among the chattering classes that America is in decline. The only thing that has changed is the country that is supposed to usurp our position in the world. Now it’s China. Back then it was the USSR, followed by Japan. “Argo” is a sobering reminder of the cost of a declinist mindset—and a reminder too of how even a ponderous institution like the U.S. government can pull off amazing feats if talented individuals are unleashed to be daring and creative, something that, alas, only seems to happen in a crisis.

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