Threat Level

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Richard Beck in n+1:

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.

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