How America Is Like the Serial Killer in Dexter
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Everybody loves Dexter. He’s handsome. He’s helpful. He works at the Miami Metro Police Department, and he’s very good at his job as a blood-splatter analyst. Oh, did I mention that he moonlights as a serial killer? Don’t worry: he only kills bad guys. That’s part of the code that Dexter’s adoptive father, himself a police officer, passed down to his son. As a child who had watched his mother die a horrendous death, Dexter couldn’t overcome the murderous impulses that surged within him. His father, channeling those impulses in the only constructive way he could think of, created a better monster of his son’s nature: a serial killer of serial killers.
The other essential rule of Dexter’s code: don’t get caught. He is very precise in the way he dispatches his victims, and he will do almost anything to evade detection. Dexter works for the law, but his second job is most definitely above the law.
During its six seasons on Showtime, the popular TV show Dexter has asked a vexing moral question: can a person do good by doing bad? Let’s throw in one more twist. Sometimes Dexter makes mistakes and kills people who don’t fit his definition of Really Bad. He must then wrestle with his (rudimentary) conscience and, more importantly, try to resolve the paradoxes of his father’s code. One last painful element of the Dexter story: his efforts to wipe out bad guys occasionally endanger and even lead to the death of his own nearest and dearest. Dexter has a serious problem, in other words, with blowback.
By this point, you’ve probably figured out my theory. Dexter is all about U.S. foreign policy and the moral calculus of a superpower. Our government has likewise been on a killing streak for a long time, and there’s no end in sight. But we are also, as a country, conflicted about this propensity toward murder. We try to tell ourselves that we only kill bad guys like Osama bin Laden and his ilk. We maintain that we intervene in the affairs of other countries for only the best and purest of reasons. But we also suspect that we have deviated from our code — many times and with devastating consequences.
The first season of Dexter aired in 2006, and it’s tempting to draw the parallels between the serial killer and our serial wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. But let’s go post-partisan here and instead look at what the Obama team is doing today. “More recently, there has been hope for a more humane set of policies from the Obama administration,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Adil Shamoo in an excerpt from his new bookEqual Worth. “However, such hope has not materialized in the form of a new policy toward the [Middle East]. The Obama administration is bent on proving its ‘national security credentials’ by following the old policy of vengeance and not of justice.” This tension between vengeance and justice, a major preoccupation of Dexter, was on display last week when a U.S. drone strike killed Fahd al-Quso, a top al-Qaeda operative in Yemen.
Quso helped plan al-Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and he would certainly fit Dexter’s definition of Really Bad. He pledged to attack any and all Americans, soldiers and civilians alike. Maybe, you say, we should have apprehended him. Actually, Quso had been apprehended — several times. The FBI interrogated him prior to September 11. He escaped from prison in 2003 only to be recaptured in 2004 and then released by the Yemeni government in 2007. Maybe Washington should have tried extraordinary rendition. But the Obama administration has largely backed out of the business of extraordinary rendition in favor of extrajudicial killing.