Shocking confession alert: I just started watching Homeland. (In related news, my wife and I just decided to stop watching Homeland.) I get it, I’m a year late to the “Homeland is (or was) awesome” party.
When I bring Homeland up in conversation, I get one question over and over, “So...is it accurate?” People know that I worked in intelligence and that I write a blog on national security, so I must have some insight. I mean, Sergeant Brody was snatched out of the Korengal valley. I’ve been there!
As Eric C and I launch into a week(s) of Oscar-movie talk, it seems necessary to discuss the larger relationship of Hollywood and national security. People ask me about Homeland, for example, because they want to know the difference between reality and fiction. On one hand, everyone watching Homeland (or any other television show) inherently knows it isn’t real. On the other, do they?
Take crime shows and the “Perry Mason syndrome”. In the sixties, juries stopped convicting defendants because they didn’t crack on the stand and confess their guilt...the way Mason could always make them.
In the modern era, we’ve seen “the CSI effect”. Most crime labs are pretty boring, technologically wanting, and drastically underfunded affairs. Lots of forensic pathology is downright inept. (Do yourself a favor and watch this entire Frontline episode.) But shows like CSI: Miami, CSI: New York and CSI: Bakersfield treat forensics with a reverence that makes Jesus look flawed. As a result, juries either convict people based on flawed forensic data, or refuse to convict unless they have overwhelming forensic evidence.
Medical shows get in on the act too. In real life, CPR works less than 10% of the time. On television, it works 95% of the time. As a result, most Americans think CPR always works. In reality, it rarely does.
For most Americans, their “national security education” comes from Homeland, the Call of Duty franchise, 24 and now Zero Dark Thirty. What does contemporary national security media teach us? Well...
Myth 1: Intelligence works all the time. Nope. Intelligence is an inexact science. By inexact, I mean vague and filled with complexity, fog and mystery.
Even the most damning evidence--which comes rarely--is often wrong or misinterpreted. Sure, plenty of dedicated professionals have devoted their lives to intelligence, and do yeoman’s work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong more often than they are right.
In the 24’s and Zero Dark Thirty’s of the world, though, intelligence always wins. Isn’t that the moral of the story in Zero Dark Thirty? One intelligence analyst finding the “magic bullet” of a courier who led us directly to bin Laden. In reality, for ten years prior, intelligence analysts often thought they had found that one true lead, only to chase down another rabbit hole to nowhere. The real bin Laden story would be the HBO version of How I Met Your Mother meets intelligence; the analysts wouldn’t get the real lead until the last season.
(This is confessional as well as accusatory; I made tons of mistakes in my time as an analyst.)
Myth 2: Torture works. In Homeland, stab someone in the hand and you get your result. In 24, well, let’s just say Jack Bauer always gets the answer. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 uses a car battery to find out where to go next. In Zero Dark Thirty, well, apparently that box they shoved the guy in did the trick. In other words, torture always works...on television.
On Violence’s official opinion on torture upsets both sides of the debate. Sometimes, torture works. More often, it doesn’t. When it does work, knowing whether you’ve received good or bad intel is nearly impossible without corroborating evidence (er intelligence). Torture is always morally abhorrent. Since torture is morally reprehensible, as a society, we shouldn’t even discuss it. However, like CPR in hospital shows and confessing murderers on legal shows, most terror-hunting TV shows and films only show the upside. (It worked successfully twice in Homeland; more if you count Sergeants Brody and Walker’s captivity. In Zero Dark Thirty they never tortured the wrong people.)
Myth 3: “Kill teams” are running around the globe killing people. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Act of Valor and Homeland have a seemingly limitless supply of uber-badass SEALs (They’re all SEALs now. Sorry D-boys.) to capture and kill suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, 99% of JSOCs missions over the last ten years have taken place in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. JSOC does partner with countries around the globe, but they aren’t running kill teams. They also don’t do nearly as many missions as movies imply.
The worst offenders in this category were the training-film-turned-publicity-piece Act of Valor that spanned the globe in unrealistic fashion and the Call of Duty franchise, which turns half the world into a warzone that SEALs wade through in pursuit of Russian “terrorists”.
All this begs the question, why are they doing it?
Myth 4: To keep you safe. Terrorists hunters on Homeland have a very clear purpose: people want to kill you and your family right now. 24 stopped a terrorist every season. In Call of Duty, Russia invaded America, with a general in husky voice telling us, “The world has changed and it needs people to keep you safe.”
According to these shows, we must remain ever vigilant, running torture programs and extraordinarily renditioning of innocent people to keep frightened Americans safe. Claire Danes’ Carrie in Homeland repeats this refrain in nearly half the episodes. Call of Duty’s bizarro quotes advocate a realist foreign policy premised on a scary and dangerous world.
As a result, most Americans overestimate the risk of terrorism. We don’t need a super-empowered CIA/JSOC to keep us safe. We could save a lot of money trimming their budgets. By watching television, though, most Americans will never understand that. (The secrecy doesn’t help either.)