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Carrie Mathison, CIA analyst

Art compels a response, especially when it is serving up pain during entertainment

The Obama era TV drama, Homeland, about a US Marine who emerges from a protracted period of incarceration by Al-Qaeda during the occupation of Iraq as a covert operative of the Islamists has received plaudits for its portrayal of a country ill at ease with the 9/11 wars it launched.


The slow and measured pace of the drama required painful adjustment for those reared on the frenetic and implausible narratives of 24 but is rewarded with some arresting performances, notably by Claire Danes as the mentally ill intelligence officer Carrie Mathison, whose depiction of bi-polar disorder afforded sobering realism in a plot which still called for the suspension of belief.


Homeland has its critics. Foreign affairs journalist Peter Beaumont sees the depiction of Arab Muslims as an insidious reinforcement of a stereotype: devious, menacing and violent. There is evidence to suggest that the presentation of groups in drama influences the way these groups are perceived in reality. If so, then Homeland may contribute to a paranoid world. The show was billed as a nuanced depiction of the outcomes of the so-called war on terror, yet in its obsession with domestic security threats, also largely ignores the profound impact of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan on these and neighbouring countries like Pakistan. Perhaps it will require the return of all allied troops from these places before an honest and enquiring assessment can be made in drama of the legacy of the 9/11 wars.


As series 2 of Homeland commenced, commentary in the Radio Times by the former Beirut hostage, John McCarthy on itspresentation of the abuse of prisoners at the hands of their captors garnered wider media attention. Observing the dramatised suffering of one man at the hands of others, McCarthy said: ‘It is absolutely grotesque and makes your stomach churn. I do fear we’re not really appreciating the absolute horror of what someone’s going through there. Anybody who has been severely beaten wouldn’t see that as entertainment. Perhaps if another commentator had made these remarks it would not have received the ensuing attention; coming from John McCarthy, it had an arresting authenticity.


Most viewers do not consume the fictionalisation of torture as entertainment; it would be sadistic to do so. Instead it is usually tolerated as a significant driver of the story. Yet there is an incremental tendency to display cruelty and suffering where a more allusive approach would be just as effective. The Church inhabits a paradox here: the indulgence of violence is prohibited; reflection on the cross is encouraged. While the New Testament writers were sparing in their description of the cross (understandable, given its ubiquity in the Roman Empire), Christian meditation is replete with it.


Perhaps the notion of the cross’ redemptive power whispers truth into the fictional portrayal of torture: from the core of its barbarity we must draw subversive strength. To watch gratuitous violence in entertainment is to be reminded of its pervasiveness in real life. Day after day, people are subject to this kind of abuse in the dark and secret places the human race creates for its diabolical impulses. Art compels a response; as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorted: Remember…those who are tortured as if you yourselves were being tortured

The medical charity Freedom from Torture or use the icon on the home page of my website if you are reading this in 2012) works with great skill and patience in helping to restore the dignity and trust of those who have been abused by their captors. Whatever courage it may take to read the stories of survivors is as nothing compared to their suffering and it is possible to support such work without having to sicken yourself in the process. If the role of the intercessor is to speak up before God and society on behalf of the powerless, there can be few causes which cohere so precisely with our Christian calling.



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