'Homeland' Season 3 Episodes Show Just How Far 9/11 Has Seeped Into Our Conscience

“I missed something once before. I won’t … I can’t let that happen again.”

Carrie Mathison, Homeland’s brilliant, manic-depressive anti-heroine, makes this vow to longtime mentor Saul in the series pilot, and her tenacity in uncovering the conspiracy behind Sergeant Brody’s return from captivity makes us believe that she will indeed protect us, that she won’t let the horrors of 9/11 be repeated.

But we know deep down she can’t make that promise. Think of her real-life counterparts, those anonymous CIA operatives charged with foiling violent plots every day. They’re human, just like us, and their expertise makes no guarantees. How do we deal with being permanently vulnerable to that potential bomb exploding somewhere at some point?

Homeland, with its ceaseless tension, suspense, and explosions, encompasses that exact fear and vulnerability. Carrie’s obsession with catching Al Qaeda's mastermind Abu Nazir, combined with Abu Nazir’s long-held vendetta against the Vice President and Brody’s position on an ambiguous middle ground, embodies the terrifying reality we face every day. It’s not if there’s another attack, but when. Americans were reminded of this reality on a Monday afternoon in Boston earlier this year.

There’s no end in sight to this vicious cycle, and Homeland makes the uniquely driven Carrie our eyes and ears, to make us feel some sense of control over the unseen dangers we face. We watch her uncover clues and go to extreme and questionable lengths to thwart Abu Nazir, but since the real Carries and Sauls sometimes fail, it follows that she will fail, too.

Season 2 closed with (now) dead Nazir’s swan song: a shocking explosion at CIA headquarters that kills counterterrorism director David Estes, the VP’s grieving family, and hundreds of others. It’s horrifying and exhilarating to watch, and we’re grateful that we get to witness this chaos safely from our couches and not in real life. But since we’ve been forced to confront our post-9/11 anxieties with the Boston Marathon attack, we realize that the world of Homeland isn’t all that removed from our own. 

Homeland and its depiction of post-9/11 mentality is so important because, as weak and unpopular as the idea may be, we want protection. We may rightly complain about the financial burdens and invasions of privacy attached, but we are still human beings, and our survival instincts tell us that we don’t want to be victims. And this fear brings more than its fair share of collateral damage, from torture to civilian casualties in drone strikes to violations of Muslim Americans’ constitutional rights. These negative consequences often fuel the fire that could end up burning innocent Americans when they least expect.

And Homeland does not shy away from these consequences either. The Vice President himself is a villain, burying evidence of the drone strike he ordered that killed Al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir’s young son among other children. I doubt there were many viewers out there who didn’t feel a little bit satisfied when Brody kills the VP — he avenges the death of a blameless child and makes the VP personally feel the destruction that the “War on Terror” has wrought.

But ultimately, both sides in this battle are right as well as wrong, simultaneously winning and losing. Abu Nazir’s unsettling debate with Carrie while holding her captive in Season 2 demonstrates this impossible struggle. The rigidity of their hatred of each other reminds us that the U.S.’s brutal efforts to stay a step ahead might foil today’s attack, but provide the motivation for one tomorrow. 

As someone who works inside the Beltway, I know that the paranoia that comes with being a Homeland fan sometimes reaches irrational levels in me. It has surfaced when I’ve seen a covered truck pull up next to a government building, or a man stop his van inside an intersection on Capitol Hill, staring blankly ahead and not moving until a Capitol Police officer nervously screamed at him through the window.

Because even with zealous geniuses like Carrie Mathison chasing down every conceivable lead, security is a tenuous thing.