The Plank

The Truthiest New Show On Television

The strongest case against the Department of Homeland Security is that it's not really about homeland security at all. Rather than catch terrorists, DHS officers at the border spend most of their time arresting people for drug and immigration offenses instead. So it's not exactly surprising--even though it's surely unintentional--that ABC's new primetime show, "Homeland Security USA," confirms the false promise of DHS. Billed as "the new hit series about the heroes who keep us safe at home," the show, which airs again tonight, promises that "no job is more important--or more dangerous" than the one performed by the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security. But the first episode last week turned out to be a glorified version of "COPS" at the border, and every segment inadvertently reminded us why DHS officers spend so little time protecting the homeland against violent threats: Investigations that begin by looking for terrorists come up short, so officers have no alternative but to snag people for non-violent crimes.

Take the border searches the show highlighted from the Blaine, Washington, port of entry. When two Indian men arrived at the border, a radiation alarm designed to identify dirty bombs alerts went off. "It doesn't take much to make a dirty bomb," the narrator intoned. But further investigation revealed that one of the men recently had radiation medical treatment, and smiling officers let him through. "To protect the border is a good thing, so I don't mind being stopped," the grateful innocent enthused. Soon after, CBP drug sniffing dogs alert to a car that turns out to have 40 kilos of cocaine buried in the trunk. Although there was no connection between the drugs and terrorism, a blonde officer declared to the camera: "I think the money that is spent on narcotics also funds terrorism, and I think the more we can stop the better off we'll be." (The show doesn't mention that out of the 50 arrests by CBP officers at the Washington-Canadian border since January 1, 2008, none has involved terrorism.)

To sex things up in between all the drug and immigration arrests, the first episode featured a comely Swiss tourist who shows up at LAX and is turned away for intending to belly dance without a work visa. "Twenty year old Nora has just arrived from Switzerland," says the narrator. "She says she's here for a vacation. But something seems amiss with this Swiss miss." Nora tugs provocatively at her blouse as stern TSA agents riffle through her belly dancing costumes and ask whether she's a terrorist, but nothing comes of it. In fact, the only contraband uncovered by the TSA officers during the first show included morphine from Cambodia and barbecued bats from Thailand. But that doesn't stop the producers from concluding the first episode with a TSA agent tearing up as he reflects on his awesome charge to protect the homeland. "I want to protect my public," he says. "When these people come in, they're my responsibility--like my kids. Sure, I get emotional."

The credits for the show include a big thank you from ABC to DHS: "The producers thank the Department of Homeland Security for its cooperation." Let's hope DHS sends ABC a thank you note in return.

--Jeffrey Rosen

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