Argument

Spoiler Alert

I know counterterrorism and the CIA -- and almost everything in Homeland is ridiculous. But I'm still watching.

Every era needs its heroes and villains. Eighty years ago, gangsters and G-men were the Depression's meme and the funny pages of newspapers across the country had comic strips devoted to the dispensation of law, order, and justice. The standard story arc involved pillars of probity like the lantern-jawed lawman, Dick Tracy, whose one mission in life was to bring to justice a variety of nefarious malefactors. Invariably, these criminals had evocative names like B.B. Eyes, Prune Face, Lips Marlis, and Flatop Jones. And their pursuit claimed every waking moment of Dick Tracy's life -- at great personal cost and to the exclusion of any amorous relationships. Over the course of weeks, and sometimes months, a series of three or four black and white panels on weekdays (and double that on Sundays) conveyed the cleverly executed, but flawed crime; the investigation and epiphany; the criminal's desperate flight and lawman's relentless chase; before climaxing with the inevitable denouement of the arrest or death of that strip's reprobate lawbreaker.

In 21st-century America, however, no one reads the papers anymore and while crime dramas are still a staple of cable television, gangsters and crooks are no longer America's public enemy number one. Today, even in our post-Osama bin Laden world, it's terrorists who embody our worst fears -- and stereotypes. Although some come from this country, their ringleaders are invariably shadowy foreigners with dark skin, heavy beards, bushy eyebrows, and strange sounding names like "Abu Nazir." Nor are they any longer pursued exclusively by stalwart, upstanding, manifestly WASP males. Instead, emotional, mentally unstable women and brainy Jews -- commanded by an appropriately diverse melting pot of Americans representing a variety of races and creeds (some of whom are as morally compromised as the terrorists they are hunting) -- are our flawed heroes. This, at least, is what the hit Showtime television series, Homeland, would have us believe.

It is ironic that, at a time when most Americans are bummed out by the war on terror, have largely forgotten about Iraq, and desperate to turn their collective backs on the Middle East and focus on nation building at home, this series ceaselessly reminds us of what most of us would so dearly like to ignore. Like a child's need to believe in monsters or ghosts, perhaps, Americans are riveted by Homeland and captivated by the prospect of terrorist blowback -- mostly because of the series' two maddeningly compelling central characters, the über-CIA agent Carrie Mathison, magisterially played by Claire Danes, and the U.S. Marine sergeant turned terrorist, Nicholas Brody, brought believably to life by British actor Damian Lewis.

But as much fun as Homeland is to everyone (critics, bloggers and the inside-the-Beltway set alike), it is also profoundly annoying to anyone who has studied terrorism or worked at the CIA, given the fantastical depiction of both terrorists and the intelligence officers who pursue them. Homeland's implausible plot twists and hackneyed story lines, cartoonish characters, and contrived cliffhangers are already a staple of Internet blogs, virtual newsmagazines, and discussions around the office water cooler. But living and working in Washington, D.C., it's the cardboard terrorists, conniving bureaucrats, and all the other attendant caricatures of the war on the terror's dramatic personae that, until this past Sunday's season finale, would elicit the greatest sighs and most audible moans on Monday mornings.

Take Abu Nazir, the series' arch-villain. The actor Navid Negahban looks more like a GQ model than any of the al Qaeda terrorists who have surfaced -- and, in many cases, have also been killed -- over the past decade. Contrast his nattily-knotted keffiyeh (men's headscarf) and sharply tailored salwar kameez, his svelte and cerebral appearance and haughty demeanor, for example, to the well-known photograph of the bedraggled, unshaven slovenly-looking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 112001, attacks who was captured in 2003 wearing a dirty white t-shirt that barely covered his protruding pot belly. Or how about his maniacal nephew, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, whose mug shot depicts nothing grander than a mindless, homicidal fanatic? Crazed killer, yes. Suave, articulate terrorist intellect like Abu Nazir? Not quite.

Even Homeland's female American turncoats are far more presentable and persuasive than their real-life counterparts. The incompetence and flippancy of an abject fool like Coleen LaRose, the self-described, "petite, blond, blue-eyed" suburban Philadelphia house-wife turned terrorist wannabe, with the moniker, "Jihad Jane," whose half-baked plans and poor OPSEC got her several decades' incarceration in a U.S. penitentiary, stands in marked contrast to Abu Nazir's nefarious American operative, Aileen Morgan -- the monomaniacal, relentlessly driven, white-bread American terrorist, who browbeats her college professor husband into serving (and dying for) Nasir's cause.

Alas, though, there is an uncomfortable kernel of truth in another of Abu Nazir's U.S.-based minions, the television news reporter, Roya Hammad. It was two al Qaeda terrorists posing as a Belgian television news crew, of course, who effected the assassination of the Afghan warrior Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001 -- thus paving the way for the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. two days later.

But there's a lot here that doesn't register. In real life, male terrorists have to martyr themselves in a suicide bomb attack to ascend to heaven and partake of the pleasures of the houri -- the fabled, beautiful 72 dark-eyed virgins. In Homeland, however, you just have to sign on with Abu Nazir's crew, get hooked up with his bagman, Prince Farid Bin Abbud, and gain access to a yacht-full of babes pre-screened and pre-selected both for their libidinous desires and kinky inclinations. Bin Laden and crew, by comparison, had to make do with pornography downloaded onto computers in their joyless, landlocked lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The heroes in Homeland are even more ludicrous than the bad-guys. In Dick Tracy's day, the job was everything and catching criminals was a full-time vocation: true love be damned. For example, Tracy and his long-suffering girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, dated for 18 long years before they married. Tracy was just too busy chasing and catching criminals. One assumes, too, given 1930s mores, that their love for each other remained unconsummated until their wedding. Now, we're all aware that affairs do happen at the CIA, but at times Homeland resembles a James Bond romp more than it does a supposedly serious drama -- with randy sex either regularly trumping saving the country from terrorists or being conflated into one and the same thing. The audible manifestation of Carrie and Brody making it on the dresser in a cheesy motel room, with her avuncular mentor, Saul Berenson, and the creepy black-ops CIA hit man, Peter Quinn, listening in, was among the more stomach-churning scenes captured on the flat screen in recent memory. Even this year's entire run of the trashy 1970s TV series Dallas, reprised on cable rival TNT, evidenced more class and taste than that gratuitous, revoltingly voyeuristic scene.

Carrie, clearly, is no Maya -- the highly believable, equally driven, and apparently libido-less heroine of Kathryn Bigelow's masterpiece film about the hunt for bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. And, barring the occasional helicopter shots of Langley, the CIA digs that Carrie works out of bear no resemblance to the real-life locale. The elegantly appointed Homeland depiction of the CIA -- offices with picture windows, cherry-wood desks, and imposing credenzas -- may exist on the seventh (read: director's) floor of Langley: but not in the windowless, GSA-gray cubicles that populate the crypt-like Counterterrorist Center. But it's not just the luxury office parks around Charlotte, North Carolina, where the series is filmed, that are a poor stand-in for Langley -- it's literally everything else.

Honestly, the only persons in Langley or any of the other non-descript office blocks that comprise the intelligence community's vast bureaucratic archipelago in Northern Virginia, who sport ID badges clipped to their suit lapels or silk blouses are visitors -- and most always either infrequent ones or those who do not merit special "No Escort" badges. Most visitors in fact are smart enough to know to bring their own lanyards.

Indeed, in the anonymous U.S. intelligence community, individual verve and style is most frequently displayed by the type of fabric, color, and words emblazoned on one's lanyard (ranging from the obvious "CTC" or "U.S. Embassy - Kabul" to "Michigan State" and "I ? Disneyland"). Similarly, anyone who counts is adorned with more than one badge: thus necessitating a lanyard and clip full of different ID badges issued by a withering multiplicity of agencies, indicating a variety of clearance levels, arrayed around one's neck. Only the non-cognoscenti wear clip-on badges -- since the alligator clips affixed to them are known to pulverize silk tops and desecrate worsted wool suits.

And what's with the cell phones regularly used on Homeland to discuss all kinds of sensitive and highly classified information? Don't the creators and writers know that cell phones -- along with iPods, iPads, MP3 players, etc. -- are not allowed into any classified facility, much less used by agents to communicate with headquarters? But then two seasons-worth of Homeland has not featured the use of even one SCIF -- the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities ubiquitous throughout the intelligence community: thus completely negating any claim to veracity or semblance to real-life. Don't even get me started on how Brody's car could end up on the sidewalk at Langley parked in front of a room full of the country's biggest VIPs.

One could continue to poke holes in the show and its premise (speaking of, here's a big one: the CIA legally cannot operate on American soil so therefore it is the FBI's responsibility to track terrorist threats to and in the homeland), its characters and plots -- but that would be disingenuous. Virtually all those who pretend to sneer at the series (including me) are eagerly awaiting Season Three: anxious to learn whether Carrie and Brody are re-united, if Brody is exonerated and, most critically, whether Dana finally out-grows her monumentally annoying adolescence.

But to wantonly criticize Homeland is also to ignore its one, true shining virtue -- its depiction of the brave men and women who, often on multiple occasions over the past decade, left their loved ones to fight in the war on terror through serial deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. What the series does effectively capture is the trauma and pain suffered by our returning soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and intelligence operatives -- as well as their families. In this respect, the two most believable and, not coincidentally, likable, characters in the series, are Jess -- Brody's wife played by the incomparably beautiful and talented Morena Baccarin -- and Mike Faber, Brody's Marine captain and best friend, played by the superb Diego Klattenhoff. If the series sheds even a small ray of light on the experiences of these selfless men and women, their spouses and their families, then even this thin sliver of illumination and understanding is sufficient justification to keep watching.

Meanwhile, Brody is on the run, a mole has surely tunneled into the CIA at Abu Nazir's behest, a new villain has taken shape to claim responsibility for the carnage inflicted at Vice President Bill Walden's memorial, and it's up to Carrie to save America from further bloodshed. A straight arrow like Dick Tracy would have the bad guys sorted out in no time. Given that this is cable television and not a cartoon-strip, it will doubtless take the unstable and mercurial Carrie from September to December 2013 to do so. And yes, despite my reservations, I will be watching.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Argument

My Dinner with Jalal

Remembering better times with Iraq's stricken president.

I only met Jalal Talabani a few times, but each time was an unforgettable experience. Hania Mufti, my former colleague at Human Rights Watch, and I had crossed clandestinely into Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran in late 2002, as the winds of the Second Gulf War were gathering force. It was a rough journey, through areas still ravaged from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. So it was a relief to arrive in the mountain city of Sulaimaniya, the stronghold of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), bitter rival to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, based in Erbil. The Speaker of the PUK parliament, Adnan Mufti, welcomed us at the spartan hotel, pledging us his personal driver and handing over one of his cell phones, offering us any kind of assistance he could. Stunned by the hospitality, I turned to Hania and asked what was happening. "I saved his life a few years ago," she said nonchalantly.  "When Saddam tried to poison them all."

A few days later, we drove even higher into the mountains to Talabani's safe house. In between, we had met most of the PUK leadership and documented the massive displacement caused from the city of Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein's ongoing "Arabization" program of the disputed city. Now we were going to meet the big man -- and what a giant of a man he was.

Walking past the guards with truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, we entered a large banquet hall and found almost the entire PUK leadership gathered. At the head of the table was a short and very rotund man, known to everyone as Mam Jalal, next to his extremely thin, chain-smoking wife, Hero. Because of Human Rights Watch's work on the Anfal genocide against the Kurds, we were honored guests, and I was seated at Mam Jalal's right side.

Given Mam Jalal's girth, the chef had prepared him special low-fat kebabs, which he proceeded to devour at an impressive speed. Having worked for years in the Middle East, I had prepared myself for a formal occasion, trying to remember all the rules of proper conduct. Instead, I found myself in a crowd of jovial, often rambunctious friends who had been through hell and back together. At one point, Adnan Mufti, the speaker of parliament, came over with a big grin on his face and presented Mam Jalal with a set of calculations on a piece of paper, demonstrating that despite his low-fat kebabs, he had still eaten more fat than anyone at the table. Then someone told a joke about Mam Jalal meeting an old drunk on the streets of Sulaimaniya and trying to convince him that he, in fact, was really the president of Kurdistan.

The pre-war mood in much of Iraqi Kurdistan was jubilant like this, believing that the coming U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq would bring an end to their suffering and a new beginning -- maybe even a fulfillment of the Kurds's age-old dream of an independent state. Mam Jalal, who in many ways embodied that hope, spoke at length that night about his vision for the future, and didn't seem to mind it a bit when we probed him on some of the abuses committed in Kurdistan by forces under his command, like the secret and abusive detention of suspected Islamists.

A friend had given me a useful tip: when you meet Talabani, prepare just a few questions, and he'll talk forever. When you meet Massoud Barzani, leader of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, prepare a lot of questions, because the answers will be very short. My friend was right.

It was a meeting to remember. It is difficult now to recall those days of high hope when you look at the devastation the ill-planned 2003 invasion of Iraq left behind, and the challenges that still lay ahead in repairing the damage. The Kurdish region managed to avoid much of the brutal sectarianism that destroyed so many thousands of lives in other parts of Iraq, but its own issues are far from resolved. The tensions between Baghdad and the regional Kurdish administration remain on a knife-edge over the degree of autonomy that should be granted to the Kurds, the division of the proceeds of the oil resources found in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the future of the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds depict as their Jerusalem but which Arabs and Turkmen claim with equal fervor. An entire swath of Iraqi territory from the Iranian to the Syrian borders remains "disputed territory," with many of Iraq's minorities -- like the Christians and Yazidis -- squeezed in the middle of a power dispute. Tensions often run so high they could easily spill over into open conflict.

After becoming president of a post-Saddam Iraq in 2005, Talabani often tried to serve as a moral compass for a country mired in bloodshed. He refused to sign off on executions -- even that of his arch-enemy Saddam Hussein -- citing his personal opposition to capital punishment. Ultimately, a compromise was reached where his deputies signed the execution orders, resolving the deadlock. Today, Iraq sadly is one of the world's leaders in executions, which are often imposed on people who were convicted in unfair trials. 

Inside Kurdistan, all is not well either. Corruption is rife, as are abuses by the security forces, leaving a population restless with unfilled hopes and grievances. When the Arab Spring began, Talabani's PUK actually moved tanks into the streets of Sulaimaniya to intimidate protesters into going back home -- but leaving the need for democratic change and accountable governance unaddressed.

Mam Jalal didn't get to enjoy much of the post-war changes in Iraqi Kurdistan. As president of Iraq, he spent most of his time trying to be a peacemaker between the warring sectarian sides. It is a testimony to his character and personality that he continued to enjoy the respect of so many even during the darkest days in Iraq. He was a giant, in girth as well as in spirit. But he was just a man, and even a giant could be easily overwhelmed by the challenges posed by Iraq's sectarian war.

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