Threat Level

  • Homeland. Howard Gordon, Showtime. October 2011–

American liberals spent the last decade complaining about the “paranoid” style of their conservative opponents. With each new dire warning, each shift in the Department of Homeland Security’s now defunct color-coded “threat level” indicator (which never once dropped below yellow in nine years of operation), liberal commentators took the stage as level-headed counterparts to the prevailing Republican psychosis. George W. Bush, everyone knew, governed by fear. Liberals wanted something better, or believed they did.

Homeland, now in its second season on premium cable, suggests that liberals may have been fooling themselves. What they really wanted was not to eradicate Republican paranoia, but to overcome what made Republican paranoia so potent: the widespread impression that Democrats were too weak and too plagued by self-loathing to defend us from our enemies. Under Obama, our shared fears have been inflected with the rhetoric of tolerance, and torture has been repudiated (at least in its most egregious forms). But the terrorists, on Homeland and in real life, are still supposedly out there, still capable of anything, still ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Homeland works by acclimating its Democratic fans to a permanent political mood of suspicion and imminent catastrophe. President Obama, whose drone strikes have killed scores more than Bush’s torturers—and have done so with much less fuss from the left—has called it his favorite show.

Homeland is produced by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, former writers for the network hit 24, a war-on-terror action thriller in which patriot-hero Jack Bauer rushed around the world, dodging bazooka rounds and shooting or smashing or stabbing kneecaps, always in a desperate attempt to stop a terrorist attack. In interviews, Gordon and Gansa like to describe their new project as confessing the sins of its fascistic pro-torture predecessor (their New York Times interview was headlined “The Creators of ‘Homeland’ Exorcise the Ghost of ’24′”). In practice, however, Homeland indulges many of the same fantasies. It promotes the old myths about al Qaeda’s omnipresence, wags its finger at Arab societies and the things they do to “their” women, and generates the same charge from scenes of mayhem and destruction. In the show’s fifth episode, a CIA agent asks a Marine sergeant to assist in interrogating an al Qaeda operative. “One question,” the Marine asks, hesitating. “Will he be tortured?” “We don’t do that here,” the agent replies, and the Marine breathes a sigh of relief. In Homeland‘s moral universe, strong opposition to torture provides cover for the very fears and myths that made torture possible in the first place.

Carrie Mathison, the show’s CIA-analyst lead, is erratic, mentally ill, and a criminal, but she loves her country and is also a genius. Secretly dosing herself with Clozapine to manage her bipolar disorder, Carrie harangues anyone who will listen about looming attacks. She thinks that Nicholas Brody, a recently rescued Marine prisoner of war, lauded on national news as an “American hero,” is working as a terrorist agent. To prove it, she illegally installs cameras and microphones in his family’s house. “I’m just making sure we don’t get hit again,” she says to a skeptical colleague. “I won’t—I cant let that happen again!” When, a few weeks later, her colleague points out that she hasn’t produced a single lead, she replies, “That doesn’t mean I’m wrong!” Carrie again: “We need to take this up the chain of command before we’re counting bodies!” And again, sounding an awful lot like Donald Rumsfeld: “The world is about to end and we’re standing around talking!”

Carrie watches Brody and his family just like actual people watch Homeland: late at night, slumped on her sofa, with Chinese takeout and a glass of white wine in hand. Homeland intends its liberal viewers to experience some discomfort about Carrie’s domestic spying, but it also knows that guilt intensifies the pleasure we take in things that are bad for us. If Homeland were the anti-24 that it claims to be, it would finally have to deny its viewers this pleasure: Carrie would, in fact, be deranged and wrong. But she’s never wrong, because the current logic of liberal politics dictates that although paranoia may be deranged, it must also be correct. For most of the first episode, Brody walks around in an eerie daze—is he contemplating his jihadist mission or simply readjusting to home life? Before long, his true allegiance is made clear, and Carrie’s crimes are excused. He sneaks into the garage, unrolls a little mat on the floor, and begins reciting Muslim prayers in Arabic.

On 24, this scene would have provoked accusations of bigotry. Homeland, however, soothes its viewers with inane pantomimes of moral complexity. Brody may be a terrorist-in-waiting, but he’s also a white male Marine terrorist-in-waiting, and isn’t that interesting? Well, yes, insofar as it serves the plot requirements of a televised psycho-political thriller. In light of the actual politics that make Homeland possible, however, Nicholas Brody induces nausea. For torture advocates in the Bush years, the favored hypothetical scenario involved a dirty bomb and the jihadist prisoner who knows where it is going to go off. For liberal supporters of the war on terror, the scenario has apparently changed—what if the terrorist is a white person, or even a white Marine, or even a white Marine who becomes a Congressman, as Brody eventually does? (The fantasy, here, is the terrorist who couldn’t be found out via racial profiling.) Unfortunately, the psychological and political work performed by childish hypothetical scenarios remains the same.

One minor but crucial character completes Homeland‘s War on Terror whitewash. Late in the first season, Special Agent Hall arrives to help sort out the aftermath of a mosque shooting that leaves two innocent Muslim worshippers dead—an FBI operation gone awry. Unsophisticated, unfeeling, and (worst of all, it is implied) bad at his job, Agent Hall is pure Bush-era ignorance and swagger. As Carrie and her colleagues discuss the delicate prospect of gathering information from the mosque’s community of grieving worshippers, Hall becomes impatient. “You people have rubber hoses, don’t you?” he says. He is there to throw flattering light on Carrie and her coworkers, to monopolize whatever disgust the viewer might be feeling so that it can be forgotten once he walks offscreen. He monopolizes Carrie’s disgust, too, when he swaggers into the mosque. Carrie looks down at his feet, looks back up, and says, with indignation, “Would you mind taking your shoes off, please?”


American television dramas have only two true subjects, professional life and home life. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad—all of these shows are about workaholics with complicated family situations. Homeland, working in the same vein, consistently channels geopolitical conflict, ostensibly its true subject, into rote subplots about careerism and domestic strife. Toward the middle of the first season, the CIA captures a white American woman, Aileen, who had been working with her Saudi Arabian husband to plan a terrorist attack. The reason Aileen is no longer working with her husband is that al Qaeda operatives killed him. Over the course of a long drive back to Langley, Saul, an extremely good and decent CIA division chief, conducts the interrogation every liberal wishes the CIA would conduct. He empathizes with her and tells gratuitous stories about his own childhood. She grew up a rich white kid in Saudi Arabia, he an Orthodox Jew in Middle America—they both know something about alienation. Saul also points out that each of them married a brown person. “If your issues are truly geopolitical then I can’t help you,” Saul says. “I think you wound up here because you fell in love with a boy. And he’s gone now. That’s a heartbreaker.” He’s right. What Aileen wants more than anything is for her husband to receive a proper Muslim burial, and she tells Saul everything she knows in order to get it. Not only have her political convictions melted, it appears as if they were never there in the first place.

Brody’s own conversion has a similar explanation. Although he loves the Marines, his family, and these United States, it turns out that after years of torture at the hands of al Qaeda, Brody became an English teacher to the son of terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir. The little boy is named Issa. He has big, pleading eyes, and he bonds with his American teacher over a soccer ball. One flashback sees Brody leading Issa through a halting, beautiful rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This bit of cultural exchange taken care of, Issa is free to go off to school and be killed, along with eighty-one other children, by an American drone strike. Brody is devastated. The villainous Vice President who ordered the attack—he’s like Dick Cheney, only more omnipotent—covers the whole thing up. This is why Brody signs on with the enemy. This is how Homeland makes an American terrorist.

A few episodes into the second season, Brody is finally found out, and the episode “Q&A” is almost entirely devoted to his interrogation. A CIA agent named Quinn sets the stage with a few preliminary questions, but then, for no reason, he loses his temper and puts a knife through Brody’s shackled hand. “Jesus!” Carrie yells, as men rush in to wrestle Quinn out of the room, but it turns out to have been all part of the plan. “Every good cop needs a bad cop,” Quinn says. This is a lame excuse for stabbing someone, but it is a terrific metaphor for Obama’s war on terror: re-brand violence as the product of strategic thinking rather than an expression of macho vengeance and no one will object. Lucky for the CIA that Brody isn’t familiar with this new and sophisticated good-cop-bad-cop technique, because now Carrie is ideally positioned, with tears in her eyes, to extract the information she needs. She tells Brody she understands how hard it is to talk about wartime experience with civilians. She says he is a good man who was led astray. “[Abu Nazir] kills wives and children,” she says. “I know that you think he was kind to you, that he saved you, but the truth is he systematically pulled you apart, Brody, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but pain.” In the end, Brody agrees to turn triple agent, to work for the CIA while pretending to work for the jihadists while pretending to be the Vice President’s most upstanding ally. “That’s the Brody I fell in love with,” Carrie says.

“Q&A” is the show’s most important episode to date, so let’s be clear: what happens is that a pair of liberal heroes (Carrie and Saul) successfully hire a fantasy version of the terrorist threat (Brody) to justify the continued prosecution of a war that liberals hated right up until their guy was in charge of it. While Homeland pays an enormous amount of attention to professional realism—CIA’s Langley headquarters are clean and stylish, but not too clean or stylish—this realism breaks down when the show bumps up against things it would rather not know about itself. This triple-agent thing, I mean, it’s really a bit much. Then there’s Brody murdering two people in public places without ever drawing the suspicion of law enforcement. Then there are al Qaeda operatives, dressed up in riot gear and wielding assault rifles, who gun down a team of FBI investigators in broad daylight, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and get away. It’s at moments like these, when Homeland turns itself into a well-acted Schwarzenegger movie, that you can stop, blink a few times, and then understand that Homeland is basically an exercise in political escapism.

What Homeland understands, consciously or not, is that the Bush-era Democratic Party made a fetish out of moral ambiguity because it excused a political imagination that had been paralyzed by fear. In 2008, the one thing that I really did Hope for from the Obama Administration is that it would dismantle the climate of paranoid fear that has defined just about my entire life as a conscious citizen. Instead, Obama took up many of the Bush Administration’s worst ideas and built an institutional framework for them, made sure they would be around for years to come. Speaking at the University of Michigan this past September, Michael Hayden, who directed the CIA and the NSA under Bush, acknowledged that “enemy combatants” are not captured and tortured under Obama. Now, he said, “We take another option. We kill them. Now, I don’t morally oppose that.” Obama may have been frustrated in advance by a stubborn Republican House on immigration and climate change, but he led the way with his war on terror. He was inventive, careful, and extremely competent. George W. Bush wishes he could have started up a secret list of people to be murdered without getting in any trouble.

Homeland is a perfect dramatization of the rhetorical moves and political self-deceptions that made this now semi-permanent and very deadly war on terror possible, and it is important to see these things dramatized, to see them laid out in terms of affect and demeanor and style. Homeland‘s idea, and Obama’s, is that it is actually OK to kill as many supposed terrorists as you like, so long as you use a solemn tone of voice, present your credentials up front, and keep the swagger out of your gait. It should be asked, though, of Obama, and of Homeland, whether professional expertise hasn’t replaced the old paranoia but merely repressed it.


For Obama, it wasn’t a terrorist strike that made him afraid, but a presidential election. The New York Times recently reported the following:

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

In other words, the prospect of a Romney presidency forced the Obama Administration to confront, for the first time, apparently, the fact that their War on Terror professionalism is a front, a cover for a military improv act that so far has left around 2,500 people dead in Pakistan. Were these dead people terrorists? Yes, sometimes, in the case of “personality strikes,” which target specific individuals. We’ve been so good at targeting specific individuals, in fact, that there just aren’t that many competent aspiring terrorists left. For the most part, Al Qaeda “operatives” today can’t even round up the ingredients for a bomb without an assist from undercover FBI agents, who send along fake explosives and make an arrest. And so, as though to pass the time until a real-world Abu Nazir finally arrives, the Obama Administration now also carries out “signature strikes,” in which we kill groups of unidentified people who seem to be behaving as terrorists might. Another official name for “signature strikes” is “crowd kills.” The joke, one senior official told the Times, is that “when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.” High comedy, and very black comedy, too–a great way to cope with fear, at least on a short term basis.

Related Articles

Issue 12 Conversion Experience

The best books purport to be about one thing and are about all other things, about tradition and decency and experiment.

November 9, 2008

Talking to voters is hard only if you think you know something about your candidate, or about politics or news.

January 1, 2010

But what about Avatar’s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion.

March 12, 2014

Because of where New Orleans is, catastrophe is a promise.

More by this Author

Issue 18 Good News
The Friedmans
May 2, 2011

My mom sent me a text message which read: “Such thrilling news, but sobering, too, as counterattacks are anticipated.”

June 29, 2009

Pronunciation was part of his whiteness. He literally made rap intelligible to the people who had always hated it.

November 18, 2011

As the women’s movement came undone, Ellen Willis watched, and took careful notes.