Our Morbid Gaze: On Terrorism as Entertainment
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Our Morbid Gaze
On Terrorism as Entertainment

At a state dinner in 2012, President Obama confided to the actor Damian Lewis, one of the stars of the Showtime drama Homeland: “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.’ ” On the show, Lewis plays Nicholas Brody, a war hero who’s not what he appears to be.

The president’s guilty pleasure is intriguing, given that Obama is commander in chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world and personally oversees U.S. terrorism policy. George W. Bush referred to this policy as the “War on Terror”; Obama does not, for reasons that have much to do with my subject, as I will explain. The president presumably has little time to spare for television, so his choices are significant. His endorsement of Homeland matters much: Obama has always been considered savvy about his self- presentation in the media. The Homeland anecdote thus prompts my central concern: the role of entertainment in terrorism policy.

In many ways, terror became a lucrative industry after 9/11. The media didn’t miss out: captivating terrorism-themed entertainment became quite popular. In addition to dramas such as Homeland and 24, the entertainment industry produces films, miniseries, cop shows, and spy thrillers about uncovering nefarious plots—you can hear time bombs ticking. The public joins the president in binge-watching dramas like Homeland, which enjoys both critical and popular acclaim. Even news coverage is accompanied by musical scores, suspenseful timing, choreographed scenes, animated simulations, and other tropes of terrorism entertainment. Interviewed on Meet the Press (Aug. 16, 2015), presidential candidate Donald Trump cited these programs as his source of insight into military affairs: “I watch the shows,” he told Chuck Todd, who had asked where Trump gets military advice, “I mean, I really see a lot of great—you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals and you have certain people that you like.”

I’m troubled by the evil of banality that denatures terrorism, reducing it to entertainment. However, I’m more concerned about the possibility that terrorism entertainment actually promotes the evils of violence and repression endemic in U.S. terrorism policy—whether this is intentional or not. Could the slow creep of terror entertainment promote unaccountable conflict beyond the pale of international law, as expressed in overt and covert military operations, secret prisons and torture chambers, and unprecedented domestic repression and surveillance? The answer is yes. The episodes analyzed here reflect and promote public opinion regarding terror policy.

Unlike during World War II, no federal bureaucracy, such as the Office of War Information, now produces and oversees wartime entertainment—there’s no need. A Google search of “U.S. Military and Hollywood Propaganda” returns about 1,320,000 hits. The corporate entertainment media voluntarily promote U.S. policy—especially if they desire access to government officials and military sites, weapons, and troops. As Senator Gerald Nye remarked in 1941, Hollywood movies “drug the reason of the American people, set aflame their emotions, turn their hatred into a blaze, fill them with fear . . .” Look no further than the recent blockbuster American Sniper for proof that Nye’s comment still applies today. Military contractors like Boeing also partner with Hollywood to produce self-serving terrorism narratives such as NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Service) and the Avengers comic fantasy.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the corporate media profitably pander to an anxious public obsessed with terrorist threats, even if it means broadcasting terrorism’s signature message: be afraid, be terribly afraid! Thanks to the media, Americans just can’t get enough terrorism: news coverage of terrorist threats is exaggerated, stripped of historical context, and ignores the terrorists’ grievances. Meanwhile, American innocence is taken for granted: America is truly exceptional—it behaves better than other nations. Even so, this narrative continues, Americans are victimized by evildoers who hate our virtues. Thus the formulaic fictional narratives lead to the same conclusion: diabolical plots demand violent retaliation—you can’t...


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