Sobriety and perspective are often lost in media coverage of the threat — or fear – of domestic terrorism. So credit HBO, director Greg Barker and author Peter Bergen with trying to bring both to “Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma,” even if the documentary offers conflicting messages, chronicling stories of those inspired to commit terrorist acts – often under the noses of shocked loved ones – while also downplaying the danger, and certainly the anxiety created by fear of such random events. The 90-minute film thus feels like part of a necessary conversation, but hardly the final word on it.
Based on Bergen’s upcoming book “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists,” “Homegrown” spends a lot of time with family members of those who have committed or been suspected of plotting terrorism. That includes, for example, Virginia attorney Nader Hasan, the cousin of U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers in an attack at Fort Hood, Tex.
These episodes explore the veil of suspicion thrown over family and friends in the wake of such events, as well as the unpredictable nature of who might be radicalized, to use the popular term. In the case of Nader Hasan, that included telling Fox News that his cousin was a “good American,” an attempt to characterize the unexpected nature of what had occurred that produced fierce blowback against him, as if he was saying the murders were perpetrated by a patriot.
Yet at the same time, Barker and Bergen (whose previously collaboration resulted in HBO’s “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden”) seek out intelligence veterans like Andrew Liepman, former deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center; and Philip Mudd, former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who downplay the threat.
Liepman points out that there are much graver dangers than terrorism, but that others don’t capture the public’s imagination in the same manner. Mudd, meanwhile, suggests that it has “minuscule to near-zero impact.”
Those are points seldom heard in media coverage, especially from such veterans of the anti-terrorism effort, who usually garner airtime only after something dreadful has happened. “I don’t worry about it very much,” Mudd says.
But those notes of reassurance can be a tough sell — and are somewhat contradicted by the irrational and unsettling nature of what turns someone like Nidal Hasan or the killers in San Bernardino into jihadists, which is, of course, at the very root of terrorism as a tactic. And simply in practical media terms, fear has long been a chosen method of seeking to inspire people to watch or click, so expecting much restraint on that front is a nice concept in theory that’s unlikely to have much weight in practice.
As a premium service, HBO has welcome latitude to engage in a dialogue about the nature and scope of terrorism that is surely needed. But as constructed, “Homegrown” mostly reflects how hard it will be to calm people down when so many people have an incentive to keep them on edge.