Terror's reality TV
If you watched former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney on 60 Minutes Sunday explaining how his doctors disabled the wireless function on his heart defibrillator, worried that terrorists could deliver a fatal jolt, and thought, "Huh, is this a rerun?" well, then you are obviously a Homeland fan.
Homeland, the hit television series on the CIA, featuring the wonderfully complicated main character Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes), featured a story line last season where the vice president was indeed killed in such a plot.
That feeling of déjà vu came again earlier this month when news broke about the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on a Somali villa, while many kilometres northwest, commandos with Delta Force snatched a terrorism suspect off the streets of Libya. (Homeland spoiler alert.) The premiere of the show's third season began with a series of covert raids, although there were six of them and they were all successful (the Somali raid, in real life, was aborted).
So what does this mean, other than Homeland has good researchers?
The public's perception is often shaped by pop culture — lines between reality and TV are often blurred.
Police complain that television has produced the “CSI effect” — a jury member's expectation that there will be forensic evidence in all cases. Then there was Jack Bauer, the protagonist of Fox TV's terrorism drama 24. Bauer always stopped that "ticking time bomb" and almost always did it through torture. The program was so popular — and influential — that, as the New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point met with 24’s creative team in 2006 to ask that they write an episode where torture doesn’t work.
Apparently the show "adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers.”
Zero Dark Thirty has become the historic record for many on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie strongly suggests that tortured interrogations delivered the key intelligence, when the evidence says otherwise. When asked if bin Laden's death vindicated the much-maligned "enhanced interrogation techniques," Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, answered, "No, absolutely not" (a 6,300-page committee intelligence report on the subject, which reportedly cost American taxpayers $40 million to produce, remains secret).
What I'm waiting for is the Hollywood drone movie (yes, Homeland has already had a drone angle). The Obama administration's drone program was back in the news this week with the release of two damning reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlighting the civilian victims.
But I anticipate a likely Hollywood plot will focus on a conflicted drone pilot who kills by day and goes to his kid's soccer game at night. That is sure to get good ratings.
On Tuesday, victims of a drone attack in Pakistan are expected to testify before a U.S. congressional hearing. Rafiq ur-Rehman, his 13-year-old son, Zubair, and his 9-year-old daughter, Nabila, are travelling to Washington from the tribal region of North Waziristan, site of an alleged U.S. strike last year. The two children were injured and their grandmother, Mamana, was killed.
We'll see how many people watch.
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm