Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream is the most thought-provoking and eye-opening book yet about this nation's reaction to 9/11. While the conventional wisdom held that "everything changed" on that fateful morning, Faludi asserts that not much changed at all. Instead, Faludi argues, America responded to our national sense of vulnerability by reverting back to primal, comic-book-like fantasies about the need for macho strength to protect us from "evildoers." An avenging John Wayne, the stoical protector of women and children, became our newest (and retro) icon.
Among the first casualties of the post-9/11 cultural landscape, Faludi notes, were feminists, whose demands for equal status with men had supposedly "sissified" pre-9/11 America and "softened us up" for attack. With the nation moving quickly to a wartime footing, and needing to reassert its swaggering masculinity, what Faludi describes "as a 'not now, honey, we're at war' mentality" made attacking feminism commonplace. Faludi offers an overwhelming amount of data showing just how underrepresented women's voices were in the media in the aftermath of 9/11, and the few women who were given a platform tended to attack feminism.
A not-so-new gender paradigm made a comeback, Faludi explains: Men were strong protectors and women were innocent victims. Faludi explores the post-9/11 media's portrayal of our leaders "with such comic hyperbole" as Texas gunslingers and caped superheroes. This trend became ridiculous in 2004 when both President Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry competed to show who was the more devoted hunter. At a campaign stop in Ohio, Kerry swaggered into a gun shop, reports Faludi, "to inquire, in freshly acquired twang, 'Can I get me a hunting license here?' "
A necessary corollary of the macho superhero myth, Faludi explains, are innocent, dependent women in need of their menfolk's protection. Thus, the 9/11 widows were subject to a rapturous media circus focusing on their victimhood, their difficulties in coping. In one absurd example, TV host Geraldo Rivera interviewed several wealthy, suburban 9/11-widows, whose husbands had gotten rich in high finance, and chivalrously handed the group a check for $50,000.
Yet when four 9/11 widows, known as the "Jersey Girls," began questioning US intelligence failures that allowed the attacks to happen, they were pilloried as "witches" by conservative pundits like Ann Coulter. The new female exemplars were women like Karen Hughes, who selflessly left her White House job as presidential speechwriter to return home to her kids. As fellow conservative speech writer Peggy Noonan wrote approvingly in The Wall Street Journal: Hughes "doesn't have to wear makeup now. She can have a soft face. She can wash her face in Dove foamy cleanser."
In her most provocative chapter, Faludi exposes the mythical nature of the "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital: "It was a tale of a maiden in need of rescue." Faludi shows that the military rescue was "made for Hollywood." In fact, as revealed later by the BBC, hospital staff had earlier attempted to return Lynch to American forces, only to be deterred by American soldiers shooting at their ambulance. The "rescue" of Lynch led to a bestselling personal memoir that Lynch didn't write, and that suggested, against Lynch's own objections, that she'd been raped.
Faludi meticulously traces the roots of our post-9/11 myths back to the Puritans. Disasters were viewed then as God's retribution for social laxity – perhaps unsurprisingly, argues Faludi, women were often victimized as a result of post-crisis hysteria (e.g., the Salem witch trials). Faludi also explores the frontier myth of strong men protecting weak women from Indians and southern blacks: "Our ancestors had already fought a war on terror, a very long war," writes Faludi.
At book's end, Faludi details the perilous consequences of our post 9/11 fantasies: "By living in a myth, we made the world and ourselves less secure. By refusing to grapple with the actual failures that led to 9/11" we leave ourselves open to further attack. Faludi saves much of her scorn for a media that went along with the fantasy: "The media-inflamed need for a virile 'victory' drove our stampede to war, while the domestic assault on traitors and 'moral idiots' foreclosed any rational prewar discussion."
Susan Faludi may be shouted down as an "America-hater" or "feminazi" for this fascinating look at 9/11, and that will be a sure sign of the fantasy's endurance. But if you've had enough and want to understand the psychic wreckage wrought by 9/11, Faludi's provocative book is the place to start.
• Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and writes frequently about US History.