TV drama travels into the mind of a terrorist

‘Homeland’: Saul, Carrie and Brody, the troubled characters of the new thriller. © Channel 4

American political thriller ‘Homeland’ explores the motivations of a terrorist. As its latest series begins in the UK, is it right to try and understand mass murder?

On Sunday night, the new series of an award-winning drama aired in the UK. It tells the story of a returning American war hero, and a troubled CIA agent who suspects him of being a terrorist. Homeland is packed with dramatic shoot-outs, romantic intrigue and scenes of near-unbearable suspense.

The show, however, is no ordinary thriller. Nicholas Brody is an American war hero turned terrorist, but no easy-to-condemn villain: as well as his violent intentions, the show explores his conflicted mind, encouraging viewers to understand and even empathise with his cause.

Brody’s motivation is rooted in tragedy: whilst being held captive for eight years in Iraq, he witnessed an American drone strike that killed 80 children. He has converted to Islam, and was influenced by the intelligence and kindness of his captor, terrorist network leader Abu Nasir.

In Season Two’s opening episode, viewers see that wider problems fuel Brody’s violence. Israel has bombed nuclear facilities in Iran; a young terrorist sympathiser explains that her family was forced to leave Palestine after Israel was created in 1948. Later, the rant of a privileged schoolboy reveals the prejudice Muslims face in the USA.

Barack Obama – who says Homeland is his favourite TV show – drew attention to these issues after 9/11. Then, the president-to-be said the cruelty behind terrorism might spring from poverty and despair.

America should respond to 9/11, in part, by improving the lot of ‘embittered children’ and opposing ‘bigotry or discrimination’ across the globe.

In politics such views are taboo. In 2010, for example, Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge argued that Israel’s treatment of Palestine was seen as ‘as an example of how the West treats Muslims’ – and was ‘at the root cause of terrorism worldwide.’ The comments were met with outrage from Israel’s many supporters: the Jewish state has long been targeted by terrorists who oppose its activities in Palestine.

Some right-wing pundits are equally furious about Homeland. It is a show, one right-wing pundit claimed, ‘for liberals who root for Islamic terrorists’ and ‘blame America first’.

Sympathy for the devil

Quite right, some say. If someone does have legitimate grievances, these become irrelevant once they strap on a bomb. Listing the ‘reasons’ for mass murder comes dangerously close to justifying it: terrorists should not be understood, only condemned.

Trying to understand what causes something, however, does not make it legitimate. Even if we can all agree that terrorism is unacceptable, the fact remains that many people believe it is a necessary response to real problems. Ignoring their problems will do nothing to stop terrorism.

You Decide

  1. Should we pay attention to the motivations of terrorists?
  2. Is understanding the motivations behind an action the same as justifying it?


  1. Write a TV review of the first episode of Homeland.
  2. In class, discuss some of the things that might drive someone to become involved in terrorism. Consider ways in which governments, charities or normal people might intervene to stop these issues ‘radicalising’ people.

Some People Say...

“No cause can ever justify violence.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do we actually know anything about the motivations of terrorists?
Yes and no. The team behind Homeland have obviously used a great deal of artistic licence: the plot has been criticised for being a little implausible, and one former prisoner of Islamic terrorists, John McCarthy, argues that Brody’s conversion is unconvincing. But the story is also based on a real and growing knowledge of what causes radicalisation.
What kind of knowledge?
Today, researchers have access to a small but significant pool of people who have been radicalised, and even considered carrying out terror attacks, only to turn their backs on extremism. Many are willing to discuss their experiences, and have helped authorities understand: social isolation, charismatic role models, or disenchantment with modern society.

Word Watch

CIA Agent
In Homeland Carrie Mathison is an agent for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) which is responsible for monitoring events and groups that might threaten the security of the United States.
Empathy means the ability to relate to what another person is feeling, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand why they do or feel certain things. Sympathy, on the other hand, means feeling pity for someone, rather than understanding them.
Israel was created in 1948
After the second world war, the state of Israel was created in the Middle East as a homeland for the Jewish people. After the horror of the Holocaust, it was backed by a strong movement and a great deal of international support. But it was also controversial: Palestinians were displaced by the new state, and it sparked an Israeli-Arab war and tensions that continue to this day.
Barack Obama
Some members of America’s press are keen to brand Obama a Muslim, often citing his middle name, Hussein, as evidence. Some suggest this makes him sympathetic to terrorists. Most Muslims, of course, are opposed to violence, and there is no real evidence that the president is a Muslim.
Long been targeted by terrorists
Several terror groups have targeted Israel in bloody and prolonged campaigns, for what they see as an ‘occupation’ of Palestine. Because America supports Israel, such groups also direct violence toward the USA.

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