During the premier of the new television programme Homeland Security USA on ABC this week, border officers flung open doors, responded to radiation alerts, drew their weapons, questioned suspects, tracked illegal immigrants through the desert, confiscated various illicit drugs and narcotics, and on and on and on.
It's all very disorienting, and at times the pace is so frantic as the camera cuts to one location to another that I lost track of my bearings. Are we at the Blaine, Washington, border crossing? Or Los Angeles International Airport? Or maybe, who really gives a damn? The show is such a confection of a Jerry Bruckheimer film and the tv series Cops that I thought the wind might whip through one of these heroes' hair or the sun glimmer off an officer's sunglasses before they spring into action and ... screen more passengers, cars and cargo. It's all so very boring.
The show, created by executive producer Arnold Shapiro of Rescue 911 and Big Brother infamy, tells the story of the brave, stoic and very ordinary men and women that protect America's borders from nefarious terrorists and criminals. But this is drivel. Homeland Security USA is nothing more than a government propaganda push aided along by ABC network executives and approved by the department of homeland security (DHS). It's an hour-long recruitment commercial.
Who can blame them? When the economy falters, as a recent Los Angeles Police Department ad campaign stated, there's no place like law enforcement.
In the world of Homeland Security USA, all the officers are gallant while nearly everyone else they encounter is suspicious, scheming or stupid. It does what most American reality shows do. It creates a Manichean world where the majority of the characters are set up to show the strength of the few, so the audience can laugh at the weak and root for the pure: DHS employees. These true Americans, naturally, do their duty, which means following their orders uncritically. It's safe to say no border officer will ever question the legitimacy or intelligence of America's "war on drugs" or American immigration policy – at least not on camera.
The suffocating Boy Scout routine, naturally, breaks at times for screwball humour: the young stoner who gets his marijuana pipes confiscated and wants the guards to refund him or the young Swiss girl who comes to the US looking for work without a visa. How's she going to make a dollar you ask? Why belly dancing of course.
The show is DHS public relations, and like all PR, it's a diversion from the real story, which is the incompetence and corruption of the DHS bureaucracy itself. On Homeland Security USA, technology flawlessly helps screeners find prohibited and dangerous items. No mention is made of the percentage of things that get through or that some technology deployed by DHS does not work. For instance, DHS is set to buy radiation detection equipment for US ports at a price tag of $2.8-3.8bn (pdf) that cannot do what DHS claims: distinguish between naturally occurring radiation and the type of radiation emitted by materials needed to construct a dirty bomb.
In the most touching part of the show, a border patrol agent tracking illegal immigrants through the desert tells the cameras that his mission is mostly search and rescue and that he understands illegal aliens brave the dangerous trek for the opportunities he was born with. But while the producers will show the humanity of one border patrol agent, you know they'd never expose the hypocrisy and corruption of DHS officials, like the one in Boston who hired illegal immigrants to clean her home.
And for every TSA official, tear in eye, who explains he does his job because "his kids fly", there's no mention of the discrimination that occurs at our nation's airports. Just this week, two TSA officials, along with Jet Blue Airways, had to pay out $240,000 to an Arab man for making him cover his T-shirt, which had Arabic writing on it, before flying because it made his fellow passengers "uncomfortable". The man was also moved from the front of the plane to the back, an eerie reminder of past injustices.
Aptly enough, a few hours before Homeland Security USA's Tuesday premier, DHS' inspector general released a report (pdf) detailing more lacklustre performance at the agency. Since its creation six years ago, DHS still cannot adequately share information with its state and local law enforcement partners in state intelligence fusion centres. The IG report notes that fusion centres are not "receiving adequate and timely information from DHS, assistance in navigating DHS' complex organisation, and obtaining initial and ongoing training for state and local analysts."
Fusion centres rank as one of the most critical pieces to US domestic counterterrorism architecture. Their goal is to obtain, vet and distribute good intelligence to those law enforcement personnel on the ground who police the streets and screen our ports of entry. When police officers have the right intelligence is when a routine traffic stop can instantly become the counterterrorism capture of the year. But it's hard for them to do this when state and local officials are so flummoxed by DHS' organisational structure that they don't know where to send information requests, according to the report. But critical stories like these don't make good television, and in the rare times they do, expect DHS to be less than cooperative.
By showing the department of homeland security's squeaky clean exterior, without any indication of its inner rot, ABC is creating an illusion of security for its viewers. This show is the government whispering to its citizens there is no monster under their bed, when the window has been left a little too open.