Showtime’s ‘Homeland’ and the imagination of national security

Middle EastUS Politics

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The 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 United States 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US. 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 US citizens.

In the current, third season, the show shifts its attention to terrorist financing, with an Iranian intelligence officer funding terrorism against the US 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 US 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 multi-cultural 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 US 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.

US 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.

This article first appeared at Jacobin.

Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author most recently of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (Haymarket, 2012) and blogs at Empirebytes.com. Arun Kundnani teaches at NYU and blogs at kundnani.org; his The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror is forthcoming from Verso Books in March, 2014. 

About Deepa Kumar

Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of "Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire" and "Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike". You can follow her work at her website Deepakumar.net and on twitter @ProfessorKumar.

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9 Responses

  1. Philip Munger
    November 14, 2013, 10:58 am

    This is an excellent essay, the best look inside of what Homeland represents I’ve yet read. I watched a few episodes of season two, and couldn’t stand to have it inflicted upon me.

    It must be pointed out, though, how deeply embedded the government has been in our film industry, as the essay seems to minimize it, beyond the opening paragraphs of The Media-State Nexus. There, the author points out that in the days of the early talkie, the government was already realizing Hollywood’s propaganda importance:

    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.

    Even before FDR became president, the U.S. armed forces offered up vast resources to friendly film productions, at no cost to the movies’ bottom lines. The 1932 film (Clark Gable’s first big role) Hell Divers:

    The production received full cooperation from the US Navy Department….

    While a small number of miniatures stood in for the real aircraft, as well in a mock battle by airships attacking the Saratoga, the majority of the aerial scenes directed by Marshall, featured the actual Helldivers of VF-1B. Real events were woven into the film; footage of the historic 1928 landing of the airship USS Los Angeles aboard the carrier was also incorporated into the story. In addition to sequences filmed aboard the Saratoga at sea and in the Panama Canal, Hell Divers was filmed at the NAS North Island, as one of the first of a series of naval epics filmed there. [emphasis added]

    Go to 1955. The movie Strategic Air Command, which was designed to get us to trust the new nuclear weapon delivery paradigm:

    The film was made with the full cooperation of the United States Air Force and was partly filmed on location at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida; Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado and Carswell Air Force Base, Texas.

    Not all thermonuclear bomber movies received DoD blessings or largesse. Dr. Strangelove, one of Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar masterpieces:

    Lacking cooperation from the Pentagon in the making of the film, the set designers reconstructed the aircraft cockpit to the best of their ability by comparing the cockpit of a B-29 Superfortress and a single photograph of the cockpit of a B-52, and relating this to the geometry of the B-52’s fuselage…..

    When some United States Air Force personnel were invited to view the reconstructed B-52 cockpit, they said that “it was absolutely correct, even to the little black box which was the CRM.” It was so accurate that Kubrick was concerned whether Ken Adam’s production design team had done all of their research legally, fearing a possible investigation by the FBI. [emphasis added]

    Many articles have been written about CIA influence on films, dating back to the Vietnam War, and going through Zero Dark Thirty.

    [Three movie quotes from their respective Wikipedia entries]

    I can’t remember who said it, nor find the exact quote, but back in the early 1950s, some prominent Soviet government Minister remarked that if Moscow had Hollywood, they would dominate the world.

  2. talknic
    November 14, 2013, 11:04 am

    “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.”

    More likely the film makers took a leaf from reality and rewrote it

    • marc b.
      November 14, 2013, 11:25 am

      huh. interesting bit on cheney. for the conspiracy minded, see the suicide of Barnaby Jack.

      http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/29/barnaby-jack-hacker-cause-of-death

      Jack became well-known in 2010 after hacking an ATM so it would spit out money at the Black Hat hacking convention in Las Vegas. He received further acclaim last year by showing how an insulin pump is vulnerable to a hack that would allow a hacker to dispense a fatal dosage of insulin from 300ft away.

      He was due to present his latest research on hacking implanted medical devices at this year’s Black Hat convention on Thursday. Jack was set to show how he could hack into pacemakers and implanted defibrillators from 30ft away. That slot is now being used as a time to commemorate his life and work.

  3. just
    November 14, 2013, 11:25 am

    So, why is Snowden being hunted for telling the unvarnished truth?

    (disclaimer: I’ve never watched 24 nor Homeland, and don’t plan to. These series are propaganda of the worst sort, imho. Fed to the uninformed and easily persuaded, it is dangerous and toxic.)

    Very good essay, though.

    • marc b.
      November 14, 2013, 11:42 am

      I will try to watch some episodes if it is available for free. (I thought Patinkin was supposed to be something of a lefty. how does he square his politics with the apparent propaganda value of the show, I wonder?)

      • miriam6
        November 14, 2013, 7:24 pm

        marc b @;

        (I thought Patinkin was supposed to be something of a lefty. how does he square his politics with the apparent propaganda value of the show, I wonder?)

        Tee Hee !
        Well , Pollyanna – I think it can all be explained scientifically by the existence of the no – doubt hefty salary I would imagine Patinkin gets paid per Homeland episode.
        And Patinkin isn’t getting any younger .. got to make hay while the sun still shines. Can’t very well blame him for grabbing the money and running..

        Personally I love Homeland – load of old nonsense though it is.
        Obviously Saul is the ‘mole’.
        How else to explain the mounting heap of dead bodies that seem to follow in the wake of the comically incompetent and inept ‘CIA operative’ Saul Berenson..

      • marc b.
        November 15, 2013, 1:35 pm

        thanks, Miriam. yes. that’s exactly why celebrity supporters of this cause or that should be treated with the indifference they deserve. back in the day, actors had a social status equivalent to prostitutes. that may be a bit of a harsh view (to prostitutes some might say) but it’s more in line with the reality of their true social worth than the exalted status they hold today.

        /s/
        pollyanna

  4. Marco
    November 14, 2013, 2:41 pm

    The latest season is especially heavy on the propaganda.

    We’re supposed to believe that Iran is funding a Sunni fundamentalist terrorist organization similar to Al Qaeda and that they were behind a major terrorist attack on the CIA.

    The show might as well be saying that the mullahs did 9/11.

  5. Keith
    November 15, 2013, 5:27 pm

    I continue to maintain that the entertainment media, including video games, not only works in harmony with the news media to manufacture consent, but probably is the more significant of the two insofar as it is the creator of the social mythology against which the news is evaluated for believability and relevance. Even a quick survey of the extreme violence throughout the movies, TV and video games will quickly demonstrate an irrational society comfortable with violence, sadism and militarism. A reminder, as if one was needed, of the extent to which the American people are easily manipulated.

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