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Homeland's Anti-Drone Message Hits Obama at Home | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Homeland's Anti-Drone Message Hits Obama at Home


Courtesy Showtime Networks Inc.

However Homeland ends its amazing second season next week, I’m already anticipating its real-life cliffhanger: How does President Obama react to Brody assassinating the vice president for killing scores of children by drone?

Homeland fans couldn’t help but half-recoil and half-cheer last week when Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody triggered a fatal heart attack in Vice President Walden by helping terrorists reprogram his pacemaker (a stretch, but possible). Obama, who says Homeland is one of his favorite TV shows, has ordered five times as many drone strikes as President Bush, many of which have killed innocent civilians, including children. If Obama hasn’t seen the shocking episode yet, he’ll likely catch it later on DVD. This is surreal. How exactly does Obama handle Homeland’s hitting so close to home?

A little background for those just tuning in: Brody is a POW turned terrorist turned sympathetic antihero. Although terrorist leader Abu Nazir held Brody captive and had him tortured for eight years in Afghanistan, Brody eventually becomes Nazir’s devotee and comes to love his young son, Issa, as his own. When a drone strike, secretly ordered by Walden, kills Issa and eighty-two other young students in his madrassa, Brody “turns.” At Nazir’s behest, Brody returns to the US to win Walden’s trust in order to destroy him and undermine America. In the name of Issa.

That much was in season one, which we know Obama saw. At a state dinner he told Damian Lewis, the British actor playing Brody, “While Michelle and the two girls go play tennis on Saturday afternoons, I go in the Oval Office, pretend I’m going to work, and then I switch on ‘Homeland.’ ”

This season, Brody is a congressman and is working with the CIA against Nazir. But Brody must off the veep or else Nazir will kill Carrie (Claire Danes), Brody’s CIA handler (in all senses). It’s not pretty watching Brody literally give Walden a heart attack, but the show encourages us to cut him some moral slack: When, moments earlier, he tells Walden he’s withdrawing his name from consideration as Walden’s future running mate “for my family,” the veep says, “Fuck your family.” If he’d say that to Brody, the show suggests, just think what he’d tell the survivors of drone-attack. Does Walden, as Brody contends, “deserve” to die? Last night’s episode made clear that Carrie can live with that.

More to the point, how does President Obama take all this in? Is he, like most of the audience, both glad and disgusted that Brody is taking it to the evil veep? Does he identify at all with Walden? With Brody? Does he dismiss it as “just TV”?

“I can only imagine what he must be thinking when he watches a show like ours that explicitly deals with the collateral damage of drone strikes,” Damian Lewis told The Atlantic in late September. The “overtly political” show, he said, goes “straight to the heart of the drone argument. We have a left-center or liberal president, and yet we seem to be sending in more drones than ever before. That’s a decision that the current president has made—though obviously none of these decisions are easy to make.”

Now, Obama’s no Walden, who’s more of a Cheney-like figure (and a bad father to boot), always scheming behind the back of the presumably more moderate president. Perhaps to avoid too direct a criticism of Obama, the show has thus far not shown us its POTUS. Furthermore, Homeland never says never drone. The really good guys—Carrie and her boss Saul (Mandy Patinkin)—are determined to kill terrorists, but they’d rather not kill innocents along the way. And the show, while sympathetic to Nazir’s argument that the drone strikes are terrorism, wants you to know that he’s a monster (right down to the “nazi” in his name). So Homeland is complex and nuanced, as is Obama.

The connections to reality are all the more surreal because the Showtime hit’s co-creators, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, were also lead writers on 24, the Fox show whose hawkish defense of torture had neocons like Cheney and Anthony Scalia giving high-fives to each other and the finger to the bleeding-heart left. As Jane Mayer recounted, veteran interrogators met with 24 to complain that American soldiers wanted to copy the hero Jack Bauer’s tactics under the false and dangerous impression that torture “works.”

Is Homeland Gordon’s and Gansa’s penance for 24? Possibly (though the chief pro-torture guy behind 24 was its co-creator, Joel Surnow). In an interview with Mother Jones last year, Gordon described himself as “apolitical,” “a centrist, an issue-specific person,” while Gansa said, of Homeland, “[E]verybody here tilts left of center more than they did on 24.” Drone attacks, he went on, are “being debated in the CIA, according to our consultants: Here we’re not allowed to carry out any sort of coercion or harsh interrogation techniques anymore, but we’re allowed to fly over somebody’s village, without due process, and kill them all? It’s a very interesting dialog.”

The Obama-Homeland-24 connections wind tighter still when you consider that 24, as if to counter its right-wing tilt, gave the nation its first black president on weekly TV. Movies have long featured black presidents, from James Earl Jones in 1972’s The Man to Morgan Freeman in 1998’s Deep Impact, but I’m convinced that seeing the steady, deliberative, wise President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) every week for a couple years in the mid-2000s helped ease the idea of a black president into mainstream America’s consciousness. (One of 24’s wilder conceits is that no one in its fictional America mentions the president’s race, much less goes all birther and secessionist over it.)

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President Palmer was in fact so deliberative that he refused to attack a Middle Eastern country without irrefutable evidence that it planned to attack us—even while, in reality, President George W. Bush was busy invading Iraq based on fake evidence.

I’ve no doubt Obama is deliberative and thoughtful when ordering drone strikes. And apparently, new rules on when and how to drone are in the works in order to, as Obama told Jon Stewart, “make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.”

There’s more to that statement than meets the eye, Conor Friedersdorf writes. And even when drones don’t kill civilians, they terrorize everyone. As the Stanford/NYU report Living Under Drones found:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

Obama has seen the effects of this, at least fictionally. What’s he going to do?

From Living Under Drones:

In an open letter to Barack Obama, Tom Englehardt criticizes, among other things, the president’s drone campaign.

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