Homeland: Fear and self-loathing in America
One of Homeland’s greatest strengths is that it shows how much modern terrorists now ape liberal Westerners.
Much of the debate surrounding the final episodes of the first season of US drama series Homeland focuses on whether actress Claire Danes has done justice to sufferers of bipolar disorder in her performance as CIA agent Carrie Anderson. But it’s important another portrayal doesn’t go unacknowledged – that of war-hero-turned-terrorist, Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). That’s because the shared sentiments between Islamic terrorists and self-loathing Westerners have never been better portrayed on television.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the show and you are planning to, you might want to stop reading now.)
‘People will say I was broken. I was brainwashed. People will say I was turned into a terrorist, taught to hate my country. I love my country… As a marine I swore an oath to defend the United States of America against enemies both foreign and domestic. My action this day is against such domestic enemies.’
So says Brody in a self-filmed terrorist suicide video that justifies his intended plan to blow himself up alongside the vice president and assorted White House staff, who are ‘liars and war criminals, responsible for atrocities they were never held accountable for’. In the eyes of Brody, his suicide mission is about ‘justice’ for the unacknowledged bombing of 82 children in Iraq – including the young son of bin Laden-esque Abu Nazir, with whom Brody developed a strong bond while in captivity. Their deaths, according to Brody, are ‘a stain on the soul of this nation’.
In its predecessor, 24 – which key members of the Homeland production team worked on, before seemingly having a liberal conversion – it was all so black and white. The terrorists were almost always unsympathetic, inhuman, murderous creatures brainwashed by radical Islam and fully deserving of a gruesome interrogation and bullet in the head from US agent Jack Bauer. Even as the seasons progressed and double agents were found in the government, you always knew who was Good and who was Evil.
Not so in Homeland. The series turns all of 24’s certainties on their head, and does so with an evident relish. The all-American-hero Brody, who delivers passionate speeches to his kids about American values at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, sees more justice in blowing up the US administration than serving it. And so obsessed is Anderson with understanding the motivations of terrorist Nazir that her dogged pursuit leads to her having a breakdown, losing her job and having to undergo electroshock therapy. Indeed, it is far easier to empathise with the suffering terrorists than it is with the senior US administration officials, who are two-dimensional, heartless political players by comparison.
The motivations of the terrorists are revealing. The role of Islam in Homeland is slight. Brody himself seems to have mainly been converted to it for therapeutic purposes – and primarily because it was the only option available in captivity. Instead, the main driving force of the terrorists appears to be anti-imperialism, their attacks being acts of revenge for humanitarian atrocities committed by the Evil American Empire in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Which is one of the reasons why Homeland seems so convincing by comparison to 24. Much of the rhetoric spouted by terrorists post-9/11 has consisted of regurgitated ideas that were formulated by Westerners. As Brendan O’Neill observed in 2005, it was Western commentators who provided the ideas-free bin Laden with ‘the cloak of rationality and political reasoning’. Bin Laden’s script was always ‘ghost written in the West’ and, as a result, generated a degree of sympathy among certain sections of the anti-war left. As sociologist Michael Mann put it in a Verso collection of bin Laden’s writings: ‘Bin Laden is a rational man. There is a simple reason why he attacked the US: American imperialism. As long as America seeks to control the Middle East, he and people like him will be its enemy.’
Given this, it’s no wonder this liberal retelling of 24 seems uncannily accurate. But Homeland looks set to take this merger of the ideas of self-loathing Westerners and terrorists to a whole other level in season two. In the final episode of season one, Brody and Nazir agree a change of tack. Rather than blowing up the future president, Brody will build upon his ever-closer relationship with him in order to ‘influence policy at the highest levels’. As Nazir said, ‘why kill a man. When you can kill an idea?’.
Exactly what the idea is that is to be killed is not really revealed – but my bet is that it is the warmongering ideology of the neo-liberal hawks in the US administration. In season two, Homeland may present us with a fictional vision of what would have happened had bin Laden been able to steer the actions of the US government rather than being shot by Navy SEALs in Abbottabad. It should come as a surprise to no one if his goals resemble more those of the anti-war left than the establishment of a global Caliphate.