THE TERROR DREAM
Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America.
By Susan Faludi.
351 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $26.
a relentless reporter, an unapologetic feminist and a brilliant scourge, begins her CAT scan of our traumatized psyche with a demurral: “The Terror Dream,” she says, is about only “one facet” of the American response to the hijacker bombings of Sept. 11: the cover story and screenplay promptly confabulated by our government ministers and news media heavies, a “security myth” and a “national fantasy” starring John Wayne and Dirty Harry as the Last of the Mohicans. But after escorting us briskly from witch hunts in Puritan New England to regime change and Manifest Destiny on the Great Plains and lynching bees in the Old South, from hostage-taking by Barbary pirates to sleeper cells in the cold war all the way up to a patriarchal White House and a quagmired Iraq, she concludes with a curse: “There are consequences to living in a dream.” We’ve sleepwalked into hallucination, regression and psychosis.
As in her best-selling “Backlash” (1991), which roughed up Robert Bly and Allan Bloom while debunking news media myths about “the man shortage” and “the infertility epidemic,” as well as her underappreciated “Stiffed” (1999), which construed the baffled manhood of laid-off Navy shipyard workers and McDonnell Douglas engineers, Citadel cadets and Charleston drag queens, porn stars and Promise Keepers, so in “The Terror Dream” a skeptical Faludi reads everything, second-guesses everybody, watches too much talking-head TV and emerges from the archives and the pulp id like an exorcist and a Penthesilea. Sept. 11 may have been as infamous a day as Pearl Harbor, but “the summons to actual sacrifice never came,” she writes. “No draft ensued, no Rosie the Riveters were called to duty, no ration cards issued, no victory gardens planted. ... What we had was a chest beater in a borrowed flight suit, instructing us to max out our credit cards.”
What we also had, after a hijacking of the meaning of the event by chicken hawks and theocons, were the Culture Wars redux. On the one side, all of a sudden contemptible, were grief counselors, sisterhood, “femocracy” and anything remotely “Oprahesque,” plus “girlie boys,” “dot-com geeks,” “Alan Alda clones,” “metrosexuals” and what Jerry Falwell called “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” as well as such uppity critics of American foreign policy as Susan Sontag, Katha Pollitt, Barbara Kingsolver and Naomi Klein, all of whom were instructed to return immediately to their assigned seats. On the other, triumphalist shore, making a Rocky/Rambo comeback, were traditional gender roles and rescue fantasies, traditional medieval torture and the “alpha male” and “manly man”: Duke in “The Searchers”; Rudy with his “command presence”; “Rumstud,” the “babe magnet” secretary of defense; and New York City’s firefighters, “Green Berets in red hats.”
How, Faludi wonders, did smoking out Osama bin Laden in his Tora Bora tunnel somehow morph, on the home front, into a “sexualized struggle between depleted masculinity and overbearing womanhood”? Answering this question takes her from ground zero to the Oval Office, the op-ed page, the Hollywood studio, network television, ’50s sci-fi, “penny-dreadful” Davy Crockett westerns, the daydreams of James Fenimore Cooper, the nightmares of Increase Mather, and the captivity narratives of brave and resourceful pilgrim and pioneer women. Along the way she interviews Jessica Lynch, who was written up first as a heroine of the war in Iraq and then as a victim, although she was neither. (A useful bookend here might have been the Pat Tillman story, about a young man who quit pro football to volunteer in Iraq, only to die from friendly fire that the Pentagon lied about.) She debunks such wishful news media thinking as the post-9/11 rush to matrimony, “patriotic pregnancy” and a baby boomlet that never happened (not to mention articles in this newspaper, less factual than fanciful, about well-educated women opting out of high-powered careers and deciding to be moms instead). She disinters the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, whose abduction at age 9 by Comanches in Texas in 1836 had to be improved upon by Alan Le May’s novel and John Ford’s film version of “The Searchers,” since Cynthia Ann seems to have ended up preferring her Comanche husband to her Anglo relatives. (In Le May’s novel Faludi finds the original “terror dream” — “the fear of a small helpless child, abandoned and alone in the night ... an awareness of something happening in some unknown dimension not of the living world.” And she reminds us of indispensable history books by Richard Slotkin (“Regeneration Through Violence”), John Demos (“The Unredeemed Captive”) and Mary Beth Norton (“In the Devil’s Snare”).
What we gather from these books and Faludi’s is that the script America reverted to in the fall of 2001 was the oldest in our literary imagination, our frontier fear that savages (“dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants”) would seize our defenseless women while our girlie men were watching Oprah. Never mind that 9/11 had nothing to do with gender politics. If we weren’t invincible, we must have been impotent. Somehow, like Cynthia Ann’s kidnapping, “an assault on the urban workplace” (global capitalism’s edifice complex) had to be rewritten as “a threat to the domestic circle,” and so we willed ourselves “back onto a frontier where pigtailed damsels clutched rag dolls and prayed for a male avenger to return them to the home.” Think of the entire nation as a distressed damsel. Think of Homeland Security as Wyatt Earp. Think of hate radio and Fox News as Sergio Leone. Think of geopolitics as a video game. Think of “Death Wish,” “High Noon,” original sin, alien abduction, demonic possession, zombies, vampires, satanic day-care child molesters and job-stealing immigrant hordes.
There are other ways to look at 9/11, as anything from Armageddon to coup d’état. And other ways to account for an America so fearful that we feed the Bill of Rights to our Biggest Brother. Freud, Marx and Veblen are periscopes and magnifying glasses for oral fixation, overproduction and forced consumption. Through the green eyes of ecothink, nuclear winter and silent spring season the dread. Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” also comes to skittish mind. We are, besides, insecure and negligent in our parenthood and our citizenship, caught between a public sphere (bear garden, hippodrome, killing field) that feels hollow and a private sphere (sanctuary, holding cell) that feels besieged. We are no longer safe on the tribal streets, equally weightless in orbit or in cyberspace, tiddlywinks on the credit grid, lost and yet still stalked, void where prohibited. To the usual millennial heebie-jeebies, add a subprime mortgage mess and collateralized debt obligations up the Limpopo without a paddle.
But feminism is Faludi’s compass and her lens, her furnace and her fuel. Feminism — fierce, supple, focused, filigreed and chivalrous — has steered her inquiries and sensitized her apprehensions of a celebrity/media culture and national security state that honors men more as warriors, actors, cowboys, athletes and killers than for skilled labor, company loyalty, civic duty, steadfast fatherhood, homesteading, caretaking and community-building, and that tells women to lie down and shut up. Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson’s fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder’s love and death and Edmund Wilson’s patriotic gore.
John Leonard, who reviews books for Harper’s Magazine and television for New York magazine, is writing a memoir.