FeatureReviews

Hanged at Sunrise

The Impossible Ethics of the “Homeland”

Nicholas Brody, one of the central characters of the popular and critically acclaimed drama Homeland, is a third generation United States Marine. Called Brody by his friends, Brody’s entire character is created around and through the interrelated issues of drones, torture and jihad. As the drama unfolds, Brody becomes a site on which the parallel tactics of drones and torture play out. Brody’s character comes to occupy a space, which is really a non-space, in that he personifies a kind of impossible neutrality in the thick of a war that permits no neutrality.

In what follows, I will draw from Brody’s character to discuss the ethics of the drone strikes carried out by the United States military, as well as the ethics on the war on America as it is waged by Islamic extremists. Moreover, and key to this essay, is my conviction that Brody’s character dramatizes the impossibility of any sort of ethical purity in our political beliefs, stances and convictions given the existential and political complexity of what seems to be an endless war.

To the extent that Brody’s fictionalized circumstances approximate our own and to the extent that my analysis is faithful to Brody’s character — and the analysis is loyal to his circumstances because I believe them close to our own — we see clearly that there are no good guys and no bad guys. This neutrality, or refusal to take sides, undermines the way we talk about drone and torture in the United States. In our public discourse we tend to regress into a dichotomy that allows each side to maintain a kind of either/or purity. Either drones and torture are unethical and cannot be tolerated or radical Islamists must be stopped by any means necessary.

Brody is an excellent character because his predicament undermines our efforts to give definitive answers to this dilemma. In fact, Brody’s character reveals the breakdown and inadequacy of this lazy dichotomy. His character sabotages our efforts at certainty, replacing certainty with more questions. Brody’s character represents a constitutive tension that dissolves the dichotomy between the ethics of drones and torture and their possible, even probable, necessity. There is no catharsis for Brody, or through Brody, for the viewer. From the moment we meet him, he is made of this constitutive tension. There are no flashbacks and next to no mention of his life as a United States Marine before the war in Iraq. What Homeland offers, in the character of Brody, is the exposure, or the opening up for discussion, of the constitutive tension that is played out on the body and being of Brody. It will take some telling of Brody’s story to make this tension visible, or palpable.

***

We meet Brody when he is found hiding in an underground structure in Iraq by his fellow Marines. He immediately identifies himself as a Marine and is thus rescued and returned home. As a POW he was sold to a local group of jihadists run by a man called Abu-Nazir. The first thing Nazir demands is that Brody kill a fellow Marine and dear friend, also held captive, with his bare hands. Brody is then routinely tortured and subjected to long periods of isolation punctuated by acts of kindness by Nazir.[1] After five years, Nazir has Brody teach his son, Isa, English. During this time Brody fiercely attaches to the child. When Isa, along with eighty other children, is killed in an American drone strike on a local madrassa, and the Vice President of the United States publicly denies our responsibility for the strike, Brody is outraged. He determines two things. First, Americans are also terrorists and mass murders and second, he wants retribution for Isa’s murder.

It is important to note that the conclusions reached by Brody are not ideological conversions. He is fully alienated from the American narrative of the war on terror but he does not identify with Nazir’s goals. He is not a jihadist. When Isa — someone he loves — is killed by the country he swore to defend, he is fully alienated from America and equally estranged from Nazir, his torturer. It is here, in this gap between Brody’s identities, that we should pause and consider drone strikes.

The use of drones is unethical because of the collateral damage they cause. When I use the phrase “collateral damage” I remove myself from the difficult existential level of ethics and put myself in the safer space of political euphemism. Drones kill innocent civilians, and often children.

It is from this double-bind, this space of estrangement from both sides, that Brody makes a deal with Nazir. He will go home a war hero, get close to the Vice President and then, wearing a suicide vest, blow the Vice President and the others responsible for the drone strike that killed Isa. We see just how complicated Brody’s alienation is when he makes a tape before the planned murder in which he explains that he is acting as a Marine who swore to protect his country from enemies both foreign and domestic. He sees the Vice President and his posse as domestic enemies, and he understands his intention to murder them within the framework, training and thinking of himself as a Marine.

When Brody arrives home, he quickly reconnects with his teenage daughter while preparing the suicide mission. It is Nazir who manages to get the Vice President and others into a shelter so that Brody can kill them all. But, as Brody is nearing the moment of completing the plan his daughter calls him. While he wants to get off the phone she keeps talking with him, eventually making her father promise to come home. He does. He does not activate the vest.

What stops Brody from committing an atrocity on the scale of anything he witnessed while in Nazir’s custody is his daughter’s voice. He loves her. Just as Isa’s death compelled Brody to act in a certain way, so his daughter’s voice has a similar impact. Again, Brody’s conversion here is not ideological; he loathes those responsible for the attack that killed Isa. Instead this is a human conversion; he cannot leave his daughter. Perhaps ethics and ethical purity exist only on the level of the individual. Brody can love the son of his torturer; he cannot hurt his own child. There is an ethics (of love) at play here, but we seem incapable of extending such an ethics much past the level of the individual. Call it political (or human) tragedy.

Nazir is a zealot, a torturer and a terrorist.[2] So when Brody tells Nazir that the vest did not work, he simply changes the mission, insisting that Brody assassinate the Vice President. Brody knows that Nazir will have him killed if he refuses. The CIA has thus been unable to get anywhere near Nazir. And this is typical and representative of the war on terror. The United States (the CIA and American military) often cannot get anywhere near most leaders of Islamic extremism to capture them alive or take them out by hand. If we cannot get close enough to characters like Nazir, who are homicidal maniacs, hell bent on destroying western civilization, how do we take them out? It is here, in this question — how to we dispatch of radical Islamic leaders devoted to the destruction of our way of life — that the second and more thorny question about drones arises. They may be unethical but are they necessary? People like Nazir mastermind and carry out the torture, maiming, and beheading human beings in the name of Allah.[3] If we cannot get near them, then what do we do? Are drones and torture the best (and most terrible) option?

As the drama unfolds, the CIA gets a hold of the tape Brody made explaining his (aborted) suicide mission. They offer him a (non)choice: go on trial for treason or work for the CIA. Brody is fully alienated from the CIA and its tactics, as well as Nazir and his crusade. Brody exists in a desolate and lonely no man’s land. Nazir then executes a large scale attack on the Pentagon and releases the tape Brody made. Brody flees the country in an attempt to save his own life, but by this point it does not matter. His face is on televisions all over the world. Nazir used and destroyed him.

Then the CIA uses Brody. They find him in Venezuela where he is being held and drugged and demand that he take on a mission in Iran. Since Brody has been publicly depicted as an Islamic terrorist, the CIA figures that he can authentically seek asylum in Iran, and then get close enough to a high-ranking member of the Iranian National Guard to kill him. A CIA official aims to persuade Brody to undertake the mission by appealing to his supposed loyalties: “this is your chance to be a Marine again,” he says. But Brody is unmoved. He undertakes the mission not out of loyalties to an institution, but in the hopes of surviving and coming home to his daughter. In exchange the CIA promises him full protection, but both Brody and we viewers are by now suspicious of such promises.

After assassinating the member of the Iranian National Guard the CIA unsurprisingly reneges on its promise, refusing to hide Brody’s whereabouts. In Brody’s final hours, the CIA agent with him tells him that he will die a noble death, a life sacrificed for his county. But he feels nothing of the sort. He has no faith in his country, no faith in the Marines; no faith in anything. He is fully alienated; he simply prepares to die.

It may be strange to say it, but I find an odd hope in Brody’s character, and, by extension, in Homeland. The show is wildly popular; Brody is a beloved character. If so many of us can watch the show and relate to Brody, and even have moments of empathy for characters as damaged as Nazir, then perhaps we are capable of raising the level of national discourse regarding drones and torture — we can manage more ambivalence and complexity that we assume. Mine is a hope is born of a stellar work of art, one which it requires empathy and identification to understand—and yet many understand it.

In Tehran, at sunrise, Brody is hung on a gurney before a cheering crowd. He is believed to be a traitor to the Islamic revolution just as he is believed to be a traitor to the United States. He has been scapegoated by both sides. The show saves itself from melodrama in this scene only because, in a war that leaves no room for neutrality, Brody, until his last breath, takes no side.

And it is in identifying with Brody’s neutrality, with the impossibility of his ethical position, that shows us that everything on this earth — even the purest form of love; even love for a child — is impure. It is in his body that we are faced with the reality that nothing is pure. Or, rather, that nothing without violence is pure.

Footnotes

[1] The issue of Guantanamo Bay is not raised much (if at all) in the first three seasons. I want to say a few things about torture, however, because torture plays a staring role in the drama and the war. When Nazir tortures Brody, it is strategic, meant to break Brody. We don’t know what he knows or if he talks. The movie Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow was controversial. Many on the left believed that the film advocated torture and misrepresents the effectiveness of torture in locating Osama bin Laden. The film does not advocate torture but it explores torture – and indeed does so very well. Exploring is not advocating. The truth of torture is this: if a person is put in enough physical pain and knows something of value, s/he will not be able to withhold the information; s/he will talk. It is physiologically impossible to control what you say once you pass a certain threshold of pain. The ethics of torture are thus not dissimilar to the ethics of drones. Often the person tortured knows nothing and is innocent of any crime so his or her torture results in a senseless murder and it an act of what I call “collateral damage” in this essay. Whether or not torture helped us find Osama bin Laden is anyone’s guess; it is a state secret and may remain one forever.

[2] Nazir loves his son intensely and when Isa is killed, Nazir goes into intense mourning and his grief appeals to the viewers’ empathy.

[3] I am thinking here of the beheading of Daniel Pearl in Karachi, captured on video and circulated on YouTube.

Also for you:

Lisa Aslanian

Previous post

Clean In

Next post

The Visibility of Value