I’m almost done with the second season of Sleeper Cell, and it’s fascinating how much the show changes from the first miniseries to the second. Where we initially got to know the members of the first cell through a combination of frantic action and hanging around, the second cell’s sort of presented to us as a packaged deal and we don’t get to know them as well as people. But more importantly, the second season raised some interesting questions for me about how we address Islamophobia and torture as practiced by the United States government, and how to best build villains that let us condemn those attitudes and behaviors.
There’s the contrast between Darwyn’s three case agents. Ray’s well-intentioned, but not particularly ideologically engaged: to him, terrorism is a crime and it doesn’t seem to be particularly important to him to learn about Islam as a motivating force for that crime. Patrice actually knows a lot about Islam — she’s more knowledgeable about and respectful of mainstream Muslims than Ray is, but she’s also more militant than Ray about fighting extremist forms of the faith. She’s willing to put her body on the line to try to kill extremist Iraqi insurgents. And when she’s killed by those same kinds of extremists, they’re murdering not just another foot soldier, but someone who was working on eliminating the misunderstanding between non-Muslims and Muslims that is jidhaists’ most powerful recruiting tool. Warren Russell, the case officer who replaces Patrice, is all too easy to dismiss as an arrogant, inexperienced ass even though his skepticism of Darwyn’s faith is probably a realistic portrayal of what happens when you go through the FBI’s Islamophobic training regimen. And presenting his distrust of an entire faith as a deeply ingrained institutional problem rather than as something only jerks fall prey to would be more useful and disturbing, an actual spur towards reform rather than an isolated incident.
Similarly, I have mixed feelings about the way the show presents Farik’s torture at American and Saudi hands. At one point, one of his interrogators complains that torture isn’t consistent with U.S. values but that it’s something the country’s been forced into by terrorism. Of course it’s true that the greatest victory Osama bin Laden won on September 11 was suckering us into giving up on core American values, but that’s only part of the story here. I don’t really think there’s a question that there are people who believe that torture should always have been part of the menu of options for the military and law enforcement, and who saw the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to tear down rules against torture. The key is how to get folks to recognize both that streak of thinking and the wrongness of it. If you’ve got a cackling, black-hooded dungeon master representing that position, it’s easy for audiences to turn away in revulsion and reject it as implausible.