In her new book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, journalist and author Susan Faludi examines the way America has come to tell the story of the 2001 terror attacks. Casting the events of 2001 against an evolving national mythology, Faludi concludes that American culture operates under a grand illusion–a terror dream–that in times of crisis, “manly men” are called upon to protect weak women.
Faludi deftly proved in her earlier works, Backlash and Stiffed, that this gendered American story line permeates our cultural consciousness. The gender myth that emerged in the wake of 9/11 is a puffed-up buckskin bravado that ultimately fails to ensure our safety.
In this conversation with Rashi Kesarwani, Faludi discusses The Terror Dream, politics and the “war on terror.”
When did you first notice the post-9/11 exaltation of manly men and submissive women? Was there an Aha! moment?
Perhaps one needs to be out of the country to see such things clearly. My Aha! moment came to me while I was in Sweden during 7/7 [the bombing of the London subways]. I was following it by reading the British press and listening to BBC, and it struck me that the British, like the Spanish earlier, responded to their terrorist attacks by treating them as criminal matters to be methodically investigated and prosecuted. They did not react by calling for the return of manly men and submissive women. There was something peculiar in our response, peculiar to us as a nation.
This is your third book about gender. What draws you to this subject?
It’s bedrock. When I started this book, I didn’t even understand all the gender dynamics at work, particularly the historical ones. But gender, like class, is so overlooked in this culture’s self-critiques that when you approach almost any subject with a gender-aware eye, you find answers and explanations to questions and problems that are otherwise opaque.
How does this “terror myth” affect men?
The myth is just as harmful for the people it designates as heroes as for the people it designates as victims. Men were given hero script in lieu of real support. Look at the firefighters, who were expected to settle for hero worship in place of the protections and tools they needed–and pleaded for–to be effective in their jobs. Or the US soldiers in Iraq, who are exalted as heroic while being denied the armor and medical care they desperately require.
You devote a chapter to the story of Jessica Lynch, a US soldier serving in Iraq whose injuries and recovery were grossly misreported by the media. Why did mainstream media seize on Private Lynch’s circumstances?
It’s a classic example of the media rewriting a real-life story to fit the master narrative of our security myth, just as our culture has done over hundreds of years. (See, for example, the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a young woman taken captive by Comanches in the 1830s, who preferred Indian life and fought bitterly against her “rescue” and repatriation–and whose story was rewritten ultimately into a tale of John Wayne derring-do and helpless “little Debbie” gratitude in the 1956 John Ford Western classic, The Searchers.) The narrative we keep returning to demands inflated male heroes rescuing a helpless girl, ideally one in danger of violation, which is the story the media wanted out of the Lynch rescue tale–and distorted to get.
Look at how the media pounced on a one-day erroneous story in the Washington Post early on, an article that claimed Lynch kept shooting to the last bullet. That article was decried over and over again, for months, long after the Post had retracted it and decried the article itself, running three ombudsman apologias and a very long corrective article. The media much preferred the story it ultimately settled on, of Lynch as a little “doll-like” girl who loved pink and just wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, and who may have been raped by fedayeen soldiers (while ignoring the fact that Lynch enlisted twice, did not regard herself as passive or weak, and had no memory of being raped).
Nor did the American media rush to correct the military’s farfetched tale that Lynch was rescued from bloodthirsty fedayeen death squads in a fierce battle, when in fact there was no battle and no death squads (the military entered and exited the hospital in six minutes flat and with no casualties). It was just a bunch of doctors and nurses trying to take care of Lynch and actually trying to return her to US troops. And it was left to the British press to correct the record.
You cite the capture of Mary Rowlandson by Native Americans in 1675, later popularized as a captivity narrative, as crucial to the gender myth. Why haven’t alternative narratives–from Jane Addams to Betty Freidan–had the same effect on the American cultural mindset as narratives of female frailty?
There’s no reason why they couldn’t. But the American myth to which we resort was constructed to cover up a perceived and foundational male shame. If that’s your founding insecurity, the evidence of strong women doesn’t help to ease it. It didn’t in the seventeenth century and it doesn’t today.
Certainly, many Americans believe the events of 9/11 were unlike any attack the United States had faced before. What is your response to those who may question the link you draw between 9/11 and the terrorism experienced by early Americans?
I’m not talking about a recovered memory syndrome. We didn’t remember the original trauma. We are, indeed, a history-averse culture, which prefers to forget what happened five minutes ago unless it has something to do with Britney Spears. But we are profoundly shaped as a society by the reigning mythology that our original trauma produced. We are shaped by its tangible cultural legacy–a worldview whose instructions are handed down in everything from newspaper accounts to novels to movie scripts. And that is the legacy we reach for all the more strongly in times of threat and crisis. The fact that we aren’t aware of its historical provenance only makes us more susceptible to its siren call. We take it as a bedrock given, as normal, and fail to recognize the ways it disfigures our response.
In a recent review of your book, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times alleges that The Terror Dream‘s premise “runs smack up against [your] own Backlash, which suggested that similar assaults on women’s independence were being unleashed in the 1980s–a time not of war or threat, but a decade that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming end of the cold war.” How do you respond?
It’s a willful misreading of my book to say that I’m trying to describe what 9/11 did to women and that what it did to women happens only in a crisis. I specifically stated (though it apparently went unnoted) that what 9/11 “did” to women, or men for that matter, was not the point of the book. Moreover, I argue that our reflexive reaction to 9/11 allowed us to see clearly mechanisms that underlie our culture all the time, including in the backlash era of the 1980s.
How do you interpret Hillary Clinton’s status as the presidential front-runner?
As another indication of frustration over go-it-alone militarism. The Democratic candidates have distinguished themselves by largely not resorting to jingoistic fearmongering. This is a hopeful sign that we are, as Hillary Clinton said at a rally in Oakland, California, desiring an end to “cowboy diplomacy.” But that said, we have only partially turned away from that myth. We have escalated levels of fearmongering from the GOP candidates. And of course we have Rudy Giuliani riding his dubious 9/11 rescuer “legend” to front-runner status. The coming general election promises to be a referendum on whether America wishes to be ruled by cartoon mythologies or pragmatics.
Laura Bush was recently photographed with Muslim women in hijab and later donned the hijab herself, saying that she did not think it was degrading to women. What do you make of this?
Some Muslim women, indeed, say they see the hijab as no less subjugating than high heels and bikinis in the West. Being in a culture where male modesty squads with guns and sticks force women to wear hijabs is, of course, another matter entirely, which Laura Bush evidently did not get into.
How do you make sense of the Bush Administration’s linkage of the “war on terror” with the liberation of Muslim women?
The Bush White House was never interested in the liberation of women, only in mounting a rescue drama to provide heroic luster to its military aims. Feminist leaders, much to their shock, were summoned to the White House and State Department in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan and asked their advice. But within a couple of weeks after the invasion, they were cut out of the picture, and Bush Administration officials were making it clear they had “other priorities,” as one put it, than women’s rights and didn’t want to “impose our values” on that country.
It’s telling that the Bush Administration was most opposed, according to feminist activists I talked to whose opinions were courted by the White House, to the financing of female NGOs in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration didn’t want women to have agency; it just wanted women to be props in a chivalry fantasy.
And the result is that women are worse off in many ways in Afghanistan, where honor killings and sexual assaults are on the rise, girls’ schools have been shut down and set on fire and teachers killed, and female politicians murdered. In Iraq, which once had made some significant progress in advancing women’s rights, the pattern repeated after our intervention, with human rights groups reporting a rise in rapes, abductions, sexual slavery, severe restrictions on women’s ability to travel, go to school and work, and the return of Sharia law in a US-brokered constitution.
How can Americans begin to dispense with the terror myth and directly confront the security threats at hand?
Before we can dispense with the myth, we have to understand it. And we’re barely at that point. If one can say there’s an opportunity in the horror of 9/11, it is that the attacks forced the myth to the fore and showed us its usually obscured machinery. If we take advantage of this moment of revelation to scrutinize and challenge the myth in a sustained manner, we might stand a chance of breaking free of it. It requires, though, being willing to look at ourselves and our frailties in a realistic light, instead of papering them over with dangerous delusions and buckskin bravado.