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.
Faludi isn’t especially interested in the mechanics of how myths get created, or how profit is derived from them. Like the journalists she reports on, she keeps the focus on the main story. It’s a tale of demystification that describes 9/11 as a shocking scene of vulnerability, where the rescue scene was chaos. Civilians flooded the area to help, but most of the people caught in the towers were either already dead or unable to be rescued. Americans needed to believe we had “fought back” from the get-go, so where heroes weren’t found, they were manufactured. New York City firefighters, we were told, ignored their superiors and entered the collapsing buildings; their bravery was real, but the heroism of their entry was fiction. They didn’t willingly enter collapsing buildings–their faulty radio equipment prevented them from learning that the buildings were collapsing.
More boldly, Faludi suggests that Flight 93 may not have been the male cockpit-charging success story told in major news outlets and affirmed by The 9/11 Report. Whereas the Report cites five calls home indicating an intent to take back the plane, the sounds of an attack from the flight recorder and the terrorists’ spoken decision to “take it down” minutes later over Pennsylvania, Faludi insists that only “a few brief cell phone calls” and “muffled shouts and screams” exist as hard evidence. More convincingly, she describes the disappearance in the media of the female flight attendant who personally asserted the staff’s intent to douse the captors with coffeepots of hot water. Widows like Lisa Beamer, convinced that her husband led the attack (“You ready? OK. Let’s roll”), made a better story, and came to serve as an “amen corner” for an Administration-led chorus: before the incursions of terrorists and feminists, America was a man-protected women’s world. In such a world, why should men not declare war–and declare it endless?
Women’s role after 9/11 was not to join the war effort à la Rosie the Riveter. It was to cower–and be rescued. After the strikingly quick denigration of capable women and an ensuing magnification of manly men came a call for domesticity from the op-ed writers and a preference, in mainstream news stories, for helpless females, whether survivors, widows or (by 2004) the so-called soccer mom turned “security mom.” Faludi documents a striking circularity of sources for such stories and an elevation to center stage of characters like Lisa Beamer, who stayed with the script. Writer Sylvia Ann Hewlett and journalists at magazines like Time and Glamour heralded a post-9/11 baby boomlet created by working women who had seen the maternal light. Sitcoms like Friends and Sex and the City featured baby plotlines; gossip magazines were plastered with celebrity moms.
I remember the boomlet well. My first child was born in New York a year after 9/11, and the seeming increase of pregnant moms was the talk of the birthing-class set. The only problem was, it turned out to be a media concoction. We wanted to believe we were part of a trend–and why not? Parenthood is scary enough without a war on the horizon. But while the war did come, the boomlet of babies didn’t. Faludi cites the official count of the National Center for Health Statistics: the birthrate fell to its lowest rate ever in 2002.
The sexual politics of terror reached its culmination in fall 2004 with the presidential election. Faludi amusingly depicts John Kerry throwing himself on the ground in a deer-hunting parody of his actual Vietnam service. His eagerness to underscore his double-barrel talents would earn him the media moniker John the Deerslayer. While sawing away at a steak dinner one night, he regaled Washington Post writer Laura Blumenfeld with the details of dove gutting: “Carve out the heart,” he told the dismayed reporter, “pull out the entrails and cut up the meat…. You clean them. Let them hang. It takes three or four birds to have a meal. You might eat it at a picnic, cold roasted. I love dove.”
Kerry could have stayed on the peace train he joined as a veteran turned antiwar activist, or at least “made great sport of Commander in Chief Crockett.” Instead, coonskin-capped Kerry found himself not only Swiftboated but also emasculated as a fake warrior, even though, unlike Bush, he had been a real one. Bush mastered the art of blending the macho and the paternal, finding his inner Clinton for the cameras. His hug with Ashley Faulkner, the teenage daughter of a 9/11 victim, became, thanks to the girl’s media-savvy Republican uncle, the key spot of the campaign’s final weeks. The ideal citizens were the alpha male and the vulnerable but reconciled female child.
When it came to men, women and war, what had not existed had to be fabricated and photographed. Foremost among such inventions was the Jessica Lynch story, which Faludi devastatingly consigns, with the help of an interview with Lynch, to the dustbin of cultural tall tales. Lynch, of course, was the American private who, in March 2003, was left behind in a Nasiriyah hospital after her unit had been ambushed. The Americans, assuming that she was in mortal danger–or sensing a drama, as CNBC host Brian Williams put it, “right out of a major motion picture”–sent in a regiment-sized assault rescue force and carried her out in a hail of bullets. In May the BBC revealed that Lynch had been well cared for by the Iraqi doctors, who would have gladly handed her over to the Americans had they simply asked. “It was like a Hollywood film,” Dr. Anmar Uday told the BBC. “They cried, ‘Go, go, go,’ with guns and blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show…an action movie like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking down doors.” The damsel in distress is a powerful thing–it made a helpless victim out of a female soldier, and it steamrolled over Lynch’s own voice. She claims that she was never raped in captivity, but her memoir’s ghostwriter, Rick Bragg, apparently knows better. He maintains that Lynch must have been suffering from repressed memory syndrome.
It is not clear from Faludi’s account how widely the fantasy that Lynch had been raped actually circulated. She cites insinuations of abuse in Newsweek and People, remarks by some military experts on nightly news shows and newspaper reportage, along with Bragg’s repeated insistence in interviews around the time his book was published. Time, which bought first serial rights to the memoir, made the most of it in their November 2003 spread. But trying to ascertain how many people believed it doesn’t concern Faludi, who uses the events as a crucial linchpin of her argument that many Americans, guided by the Administration and the media, have been touched by a fantasy of fear that translates into a backlash against feminism. It isn’t necessary for a majority of Americans to have taken the terror dream to its extreme conclusion for the myth to have had crucial political effects; the rape fantasy is a symptom that not everyone manifests but that nevertheless proves the spread of the disease.
The Terror Dream aims to explain the response to 9/11 in psychoanalytic terms. It diagnoses an original trauma that today’s culture is compensating for and, with every attempted cure, strengthening. It locates that trauma not in the smoldering towers of September 2001 but in the early years of Puritan New England. Excepting the Revolutionary War, the continental United States has never faced a sustained land invasion from abroad or the devastation of a firebombing. It has never been conquered and colonized by a foreign power–at least, not since the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 (Jamestown is oddly absent here, despite the 400th anniversary of its founding last year). The founding trauma of American history, Faludi suggests, is the cold and hot war the Puritans waged with native peoples for a century, Thanksgiving dinners notwithstanding. King Philip’s War (or Metacom’s Rebellion) of 1675-76 killed higher proportions of the settler population than would succumb in any later American war. Truly shocked at the vulnerability of their settlements, seventeenth-century New England men saw their women and, more often, children taken captive. The men were shocked and fascinated by the resistance offered by some of their captured women who lived and returned to tell the tale (some refused to return at all). In 1676, while King Philip’s War raged, the wife of a minister, Mary Rowlandson, was kidnapped by a band of Nashaway Indians and held captive for eighty-two days, separated from her children, one of whom died. The story of her ordeal, when published in 1682, became hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and gave birth to a new, uniquely American literary genre–the captivity narrative.
Women like Rowlandson failed to uniformly follow the Puritan code, which included trusting their fates first to God and second to male authorities. (Naming their own hostage price, as Rowlandson did, wasn’t in the script.) To cope with that betrayal, men rewrote the story, penning often fictionalized tales, like the one embedded in Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, which featured defenseless women being rescued, as they had so rarely been, by white men. Faludi suggests that contemporary re-enactments of the terror myth à la Jessica Lynch are dreamlike precisely because they are built on falsely remembered history. The dream has the power to persist because the fear–not the facts–was and is real.
By the nineteenth century, male rescue fantasies had inflated the enemy, almost always men of color, into savage rapists with no motives but bloodlust. It is not a far leap off a cliff from The Last of the Mohicans to The Birth of a Nation, with its lynching vision of revenge in the name of a single innocent white woman. This vision recurs in cold war-era calls to protect the homefront against subversion, and in the revival of the western in the 1950s, when the current crop of Washington warriors grew up, primed and ready to search for, rescue or create hapless females.
Faludi wants us to return to these primal scenes and to our faulty memories of history in order to expunge them as fantasies. The real repressed memory in American history, she concludes, is not the largely mythic rape of white women but the vulnerability men felt on the frontier–male melodrama. This primal scene of a woman attacked while men were absent in the fields leads to the inflation of manliness, the gunslingers so memorably traced by Richard Slotkin in his work on the myth of the frontier in American history. The author of the celebrated works Regeneration Through Violence and The Fatal Environment, Slotkin finished his trilogy in 1992 with Gunfighter Nation, which finds rescue fantasies all over the Vietnam War and its films. Slotkin, who admiringly blurbed The Terror Dream, traced detailed links between popular culture and actual political events in his exhaustive chronicling of the violence that contributed to community building and nation building. Faludi uses his method to argue that the Puritan-Indian origins of the terror dream amount to nothing less than a primal scene that shaped the American male, and perhaps female, psyche.
True enough. But Slotkin did a better job of presenting the existence of other voices in the culture, voices of those who had doubts and who refused to sling guns. His later work in particular emphasizes the shaping force of dissent, even if dissenters tend to lose out in the end. It’s unclear whether the short-term historically informed fantasizing that Faludi documents is more powerful in contemporary America than the longer-term realities of this expensive, pointless 9/11-inspired war without end. In future years we may forget macho firefighters and remember the dream turning to nightmare at Abu Ghraib, when our women and men together abused foreign men. But other than brief asides on firefighters disgusted with media coverage and the Jersey Girls–a group of 9/11 widows who documented the failures of homeland security and campaigned for Kerry only to find themselves marginalized by the media–Faludi writes as if dissent or discontent with our national fantasies has had no effect whatsoever on their evolving shape.
In Faludi’s history and reportage, there are a few women warriors and a few skeptics, but no unfought, or interrupted, wars. She uncovers crucial continuities and important consequences of majority rule in American history, but she can’t see the skepticism about the current war and the response to 9/11 that is now evident everywhere. Or to put it another way: if some right-wingers inflated 9/11 into an American fantasy of a just war that would finally do away with what they called “Vietnam syndrome,” why did they see the refusal of war without end in Vietnam as something which so needed undoing? Because, it seems fair to say, dissent mattered. It made history.
And it still does. If Faludi had found more places in the story for those who dream differently, she might have come up with a more hopeful ending and a more effective prescription than her call to “live with insecurity.” The refusal of modern, popular war is, in the end, the refusal to demonize or dehumanize the enemy. That means recognizing more than one’s own culture’s fantasies and their roots. Faludi does not ask Americans to understand our influence on the world, the tendency of our popular culture to emasculate the pious Rough Riders of the Middle East, who have their own idea of grateful virgins. We are the “other”–not because all men are brothers but because we have shaped each others’ histories, and not just in our heads. That may be the truly repressed aspect of 9/11, and it requires us to comprehend not just our fictions but also our ignorance of our place in the world and how others see us. Traditional therapeutics–the realization of one’s own illusions and delusions–is no substitute for understanding reality, no matter how much American fantasies shape the world.