The “war on terror” with a liberal veneer
THE TV show Homeland began its third season with record-breaking ratings. The show's creators Alex Ganza and Howard Gordon, who previously collaborated on the wildly popular series 24, seem to have worked out a successful narrative for the "war on terror" during the Obama era. If 24 reflected the Bush administration's cowboy, shoot-em-up (and torture them) style, Homeland is about Obama's "smarter" war.
New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley commented, "Homeland is 24 for grown-ups." Not surprisingly, President Obama loves Homeland, listing it as one of two "must-see" shows.
Dick Cheney also seems to watch the show, stating that he could relate to a plot in season two, in which the vice-president is killed by terrorist-hackers who take control of his defibrillator. In 2007, Cheney had asked his doctor to disconnect the wireless system in his new defibrillator as a precaution against such threats, anticipating Homeland's storyline by some years.
Writers and commentators have often noted the ways in which cultural products have been shaped by the war on terror agendas of politicians, the CIA and the Pentagon. Less examined, however, is the part played by the culture industry in furnishing the security establishment with the cultural imagination needed to meet its goals through productions like Homeland.
The media-state nexus
Government agencies have a long history of influencing cultural representations and determining how the public understands the work of the national-security state. Way back in the 1930s, the FBI set up an office to shape and police its image in film radio, and television shows. To date, FBI press officers seek to mystify the workings of the bureau by encouraging fictional depictions that glorify its activities.
Other government agencies--the Department of Defense, the Army, the Navy, Air Force--followed the FBI's lead soon afterwards, and established media offices aimed at systematically winning media producers sympathetic portrayals. The CIA and the Department of Homeland Security have most recently joined the trend.
Often, these public relations campaigns on behalf of the national-security state involve indirect government funding of propagandizing films and television shows. In his analysis of the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood, media scholar Jack Shaheen noted a pattern of Arab-bashing films like True Lies, Executive Decision and Freedom Strike receiving equipment, personnel and technical assistance from the Department of Defense in the 1990s. In 2000, the Pentagon even spent $295,000 to host a star-studded dinner in honor of Motion Picture Association President Jack Valenti.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon commented at the time, "If we can have television shows and movies that show the excitement and importance of military life, they can help generate a favorable atmosphere for recruiting."
The effort has paid off with the creation of a slew of films and television shows that whitewash the military and national security agencies, including recent films like Rules of Engagement and Argo and the shows JAG and Covert Affairs.
The incentive for filmmakers and television producers is that, in exchange for handing over some editorial control, they are able to shoot on location, use government personnel as extras, avail of stock footage, use expensive equipment and have access to technical consultants--without the costs appearing in the production budget. From the point of view of the corporate media, it is cheaper to go along with government influence than to hire their own submarines and air force carriers.
This leads to a system where film and television become arteries through which the national-security state circulates its latest obsessions. During his recent visit to the CIA, Homeland co-creator Alex Ganza asked for suggestions for locations of future story lines. The agency pointed him in the direction of North Africa, which happens to be the most recent focus of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
But this has not just been a one-way relationship, in which the security establishment has determined cultural production. There is also a reverse effect, involving cinematic and television accounts of terrorism and counter-terrorism feeding back into the world of policy-making.
The 9/11 Commission report, released in 2004, famously identified a "failure of imagination" as the basic problem with U.S. national security policy.
"Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies," noted the report's authors. Preventing terrorist attacks in the future would require finding "a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination." It was noted at the time that Tom Clancy's 1994 novel Debt of Honor had already imagined an airline pilot flying a Boeing 747 into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress, yet intelligence agencies themselves had not anticipated this possibility.
In the war on terror, it seemed, the erstwhile inability of security bureaucracies to imagine potential threat scenarios might be remedied by drawing on the creativity of Hollywood scriptwriters and right-wing pulp novelists. What was needed, it was thought, was to get inventive in conjuring up potential threats, as well as breaking down pre-existing assumptions of how best to prevent them. Hollywood became as significant as Arlington, Fort Meade, and Langley in the landscape of the U.S. national-security state.
One early documented case of this reverse effect occurred with the Fox TV series 24. In effect, the show provided a weekly policy briefing to the nation on the myriad threats supposedly faced by the U.S. and how best to counter them. Joel Surnow, the show's co-creator and executive producer, told journalist Jane Mayer, "America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He's a patriot." Since Bauer's main tactic in the show is torture, the implication was clear.
In the fall of 2002, government lawyers responsible for authorizing new techniques of interrogation felt that the second season of 24, then being broadcast, gave them the green light to approve torture techniques that had previously been considered fundamentally immoral. The limits of acceptability had been collectively re-imagined, creating a new "common sense" of national security.
The fact that a film like Zero Dark Thirty presents the use of torture as an acceptable topic of discussion rather than an absolute wrong is a good indication of how much the terror war has permanently shifted earlier ethical norms in the name of a Hollywood-infused "moral clarity" against terrorism.
Yet, the failure of the war in Iraq, the declining credibility of the U.S. on the global stage, and the backlash against George W. Bush's approach necessitated a shift. Enter Obama and the age of "smart power." The U.S. national-security state now claims to be interested in winning "hearts and minds" as much as "shock and awe."
Cultural knowledge, targeted strikes and patient intelligence gathering are supposed to be the new methods of the war on terror, rather than blanket demonization, military occupations and fabricated justifications for war.
Homeland and liberal imperialism
A marked departure from 24's ticking time-bomb scenarios, Showtime's Homeland features storylines that center upon the psychological turmoil leading to what homeland security officials call "radicalization," particularly when it involves Americans converting to Islam. CIA consultants are reportedly involved in the show's script development.
In season one, we learn that Nick Brody, a white American Marine, was captured and held prisoner by al-Qaeda for eight years. The narrative of the show's opening episodes is driven by Brody's hiding the fact that he has converted to Islam. Viewers are teased into drawing the conclusion that Brody has become a terrorist--which eventually turns out to be the case.
The CIA's Carrie Mathison--whose character is reportedly based on the same actual CIA analyst that inspired the lead in Zero Dark Thirty--suspects Brody and initiates a rogue surveillance operation which proves her to be correct.
Mathison obsessively watches Brody's every action, even in the bathroom, which leads her to develop romantic feelings for him. The plotline not only justifies such invasive surveillance from a counter-terrorism point of view, but also shows it can be the basis for love.
To be sure, Brody and Mathison are complex characters, and the first season impressed audiences through its unpredictable and sophisticated narrative. Additionally, the show's apparently liberal stance and the inclusion of scenes such as the one where Brody's daughter critiques U.S. foreign policy and defends her father's religious convictions complicates the story. But at its core, Homeland's key accomplishment is to naturalize the workings of the national security state in the Obama era.
If Obama's policy involved a shift in focus onto the "homegrown" terrorist, Brody came to personify what happens to good Americans when they adopt Islam. But because he is a white Muslim, with a traditional heteronormative all-American family life, he is not like Hollywood's typical irrational, one-dimensional (brown) Jihadist.
Brody's suicide mission to kill the vice president is abandoned after an emotional last-minute conversation with his daughter. Brody then confesses to Mathison during an interrogation, and he agrees to work as a double agent.
In season two, the audience is told that Israel has bombed Iran to prevent it the latter from developing nuclear weapons; this becomes the pretext for a focus on Hezbollah, which has implausibly allied with al-Qaeda in seeking to attack the U.S. in revenge. Beirut is morphed into an imaginary terrorist enclave, and the season culminates in a devastating car-bombing at the CIA's headquarters.
Like 24 before it, the series presents a homeland that is vulnerable to attack from threats both on the inside and outside. Not only does it exaggerate the extent of those threats, it justifies the CIA's turn to domestic security (which is beyond its jurisdiction) and the need for agents like Mathison.
Mathison's obsession with connecting the dots in the hunt for Abu Nazir, the mastermind behind various attacks, leads her to spy on and observe wide swathes of people within the U.S. The National Security Agency (NSA)'s recent talking point to justify its total surveillance used a similar logic: that future 9/11s can only be prevented by collecting ever more "dots" of information about U.S. citizens.
In the current, third season, the show shifts its attention to terrorist financing, with an Iranian intelligence officer funding terrorism against the U.S. from Caracas, Venezuela, where Brody has also gone into hiding. This theme is poached from neoconservatives, who have in recent years fantasized that Iran might use Latin America as an "operational base to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States," in the words of an American Enterprise Institute report.
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez supposedly joined this new axis of pink and green evil. For the U.S. far right, the phantasm of a Latin American Hezbollah is the ideal fear scenario, uniting the threats of terrorism, leftism and Hispanic immigration in a single image of evil.
Mathison's thoughtful CIA mentor, Saul Berenson, is the true hero of Homeland and a character who fully embodies the contradictions and limitations of Obama's war on terror. His Indian wife, cultural knowledge of the Middle East, and fluency in Arabic are emphasized, much like President Obama's own multicultural credentials. These traits enable him to pursue terrorist enemies more effectively, through the cultivation of reliable informants and carefully considered decision-making, rather than 24's gung-ho missions.
Berenson even has a detailed knowledge of Iranian soccer, information that proves useful when the name of a player is used as a cover identity by the owner of a Venezuelan soccer team involved in terrorism. (Such cultural knowledge, a tool of "soft power," is also key to the pivotal moment in Argo when a Farsi-speaking U.S. embassy official is able to convince Revolutionary Guards at Tehran airport to allow his group to board a Swissair plane and flee the country.)
As he assumes leadership of the CIA in season three, Berenson is depicted as so cautious and precise in his decision-making that he almost calls off a long-planned, coordinated series of extra-judicial killings of six terrorist suspects because one person cannot be located.
This is exactly the picture President Obama has sought to portray of himself as a bearer of moral wisdom who reflects on philosophical questions as he authorizes the "kill list." Little wonder that Obama is reported to have told actor Damian Lewis, who plays Brody, that he found the show believable.
Yet Berenson also believes in racial profiling when necessary, on one occasion giving his team instructions on how to conduct an investigation: "We prioritize. First the dark-skinned ones." When he is assigned an assistant, Fara, who wears a hijab, Berenson tells her: "You wearing that thing on your head--it's one big 'fuck you' to the people that would've been your coworkers." Racial discrimination is a regrettable but understandable tactic that even America's most principled security officials are likely to succumb to when investigating terrorist threats.
Torture is not the universal solution it was on 24, but it can still be an essential item in Homeland's counterterrorism tool kit, so long as it is used in conjunction with Mathison's and Berenson's soft skills. Brody is stabbed through the hand by an interrogator, but only so that Mathison can step in afterward and present herself as the good cop, using empathy rather than force to win his cooperation.
U.S. policies in Homeland are essentially benign but occasionally undermined by rogue cliques, who lead the government astray into counterproductive excesses. The show gives Mathison and Berenson some opportunities to voice their concerns about such excesses from within the national security system. But in line with the official radicalization narrative, political dissent and terrorism are collapsed into each other: The only Muslim voice is the terrorist voice.
On a deeper level, then, the assumptions underpinning Homeland's war on terror remain very much the same as 24's, even as the show brandishes more liberal credentials. Howard Gordon stated that he was "disturbed" by the accusations of 24 "stoking Islamophobia and being a midwife to a public acceptance of torture," arguing that they "actively engaged and reconsidered how we told stories."
The response to these disturbing accusations is a show that is more liberal and has a more subtle enunciation of the same underlying counter-terrorism story, but one that remains Islamophobic in its basic structure.
Ultimately, Homeland functions in the same way as 24, providing a means for the national security state to publicize fantasies of terrorist threat, while setting new norms of acceptability on issues like surveillance and political violence. It not only sells the public on the notion that the war on terror has become a permanent state of emergency, but that educated, sober, ethical and smart people are in charge and that we should trust them to guard us.
And if such even-keeled operatives occasionally deem a bit of racial profiling or torture necessary, we should trust their judgment. The CIA, an organization with few rivals in the use of political terror, is rebranded and presented as the sole agency that will protect us from al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, Venezuela and Iran--all now fused in an image of fanaticism.
Homeland gives the Obama's war on terror a fresh liberal veneer. Absent from this cultural imagination is empathy, and what it is like for those on the receiving end of imperial violence.
First published at Jacobin.