Terrorist acts are often described as unanticipated, but terrorist strategies are never new. Designed to exploit fantasies and fears, playing off history and fiction alike, the ideal act of terror, not unlike 9/11, would resemble something often seen in the movies that has never actually happened. And the same fears and fantasies that terrorism strikes at will also condition the response to it, whether to batten down the hatches, come to the negotiating table or go on the offensive. In The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi argues that the “symbolic war at home” waged to “repair and restore a national myth” of invulnerability adds up to a real war against the wrong foe–American women. It leaves us without real security or a workable foreign policy. Faludi suggests that the Bush Administration is more interested in imaginary culprits than in terrorism, Afghanistan or Iraq. It has fought its homefront battles by waging war abroad.
The Terror Dream is a worthy sequel to Backlash and Stiffed, Faludi’s now-classic dissections of late twentieth-century gender politics. In Backlash, Faludi outlined the media-driven response to women’s achievement that punishes feminism and reinforces conventional gender roles; in Stiffed, she analyzed the crisis of masculinity and the everyday powerlessness of American men. As in those books, Faludi reads deeply and widely in popular media to make The Terror Dream‘s case for the manufactured, yet all too real, revival of antifeminism. To say that those investigations inform her account of 9/11’s aftermath would be an understatement. Yet it would also underrate the book’s achievements. For one, Faludi refuses to grant our age of hyped-up color-coded alerts any newness at all. No one ever flew a plane into a building before, but the “war on terror,” she writes, is as American as apple pie. Instead of dwelling on the unprecedented scale of the attack on US soil, she traces the fallout from that day to seventeenth-century captivity narratives.
The Administration labeled the attacks an outrage that could not possibly have been anticipated, a bit of backpedaling that only briefly compensated for Bush’s stunned, deer-in-headlights reaction so memorably captured on CNN. When he received news of the second tower’s fall, he was engrossed in reading The Pet Goat to a classroom full of children and female teachers. He made no effort to seem especially manly or presidential but stayed to finish the story. Camille Paglia, the diva of antifeminism, could have been talking about the President on 9/11 when she told CNN host Paula Zahn on December 8, 2001, that since “men and women are virtually indistinguishable in the workplace,” the American upper-middle-class man had “become like a woman.” Paglia ominously warned that “there is a kind of threat to national security here. I think that the nation is not going to be able to confront and to defeat other countries where the code of masculinity is more traditional.”
When Paglia spoke, though, Bush had already been praised for his “strenuous tone” (David Brooks) and his “commander’s grip” (Newsweek). Syndicated columnists pronounced the return of the “manly man” and the irrelevance of feminism. As manly men soaked up the limelight, working women were shown the door. In the only slightly self-indulgent chapter of the book, Faludi describes how she and fellow feminist cultural critics were denounced and muscled off the television while conservative female pundits seemed to be working overtime. In a distinctly Upper West Side version of backlash, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, in a speech about contemporary anti-Semitism, sentenced Susan Sontag, who had commented on the homegrown causes of 9/11 a year earlier in The New Yorker, to the “Ninth Circle of Hell” reserved for culture heroes whose books Koch “will no longer read.” Here as elsewhere, Faludi piles up disturbing examples from the mainstream and right-leaning media, though readers who insist on social-scientific methods may not be satisfied with her sample.