The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, by Susan Faludi (Metropolitan Books, 368 pp., $26)
The attacks of September 11 presented Americans with a torrent of unfamiliar questions: What is al-Qaida? Is democracy promotion a viable way to challenge Islamic militancy? When do we use diplomacy and multilateralism? At what point does our push for security threaten basic civil liberties?
Americans could wrestle with these and similar weighty questions. Or they could go to a shrink. This is Susan Faludi’s apparent prescription in her new book, The Terror Dream. Faludi, most famous for her 1991 bestseller Backlash, sets out to examine “what the trauma meant for our national psyche.” And in this respect, at least, she’s not being metaphorical. She wants to probe the nation’s “cultural dream life,” its anxieties, its sexual neuroses—even its repressed memories.
Faludi’s diagnosis runs like this: September 11 so traumatized Americans that they released their John Wayne id out of its cage in the collective unconscious. Tormented by an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability, they sought comfort in “rescue fantasies” starring stereotypically fearless masculine heroes such as a cowboy president, New York City firemen, and ordinary male civilians who, with their “Let’s roll” war whoop, fought the hijackers of Flight 93.
There could be no room for powerful or even competent women during this sort of neurotic seizure, Faludi believes. In America’s fevered brain, men had to be the stereotypical protectors, women the protected. The media always showed pictures of firemen saving women, even though most of those working in the World Trade Center were men. The media ignored the six female rescue workers at the WTC and the stewardesses on Flight 93, who planned to use boiling water to ward off their attackers. The media swooned over weeping widows; wrote exaggerated reports that a rash of single career women, in the anxiety of the moment, were wondering if it wasn’t time to settle down and get married; and prattled on about “security moms.” Meanwhile, women who might have tempered some of this madness were disappeared from television pundit chairs and print editorial offices.
America’s unconscious fears, and the rescue fantasy that they inspired, also explain the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The nation imagined Afghanistan “as female captive abducted by molesting desperadoes and waiting passively for virile America to save her from degradation.” Yes, women had been oppressed in Afghanistan, but American policy was also chauvinistic, turning its back on female-run nongovernmental organizations and harping on sex trafficking, which reinforces the comforting image of women as passive victims. In Iraq, too, “a nation became the metaphor for the girl”; thus Bush vowed never to abandon a nation incapable “of defending herself.”
According to Faludi, rescue fantasies, particularly when they involve “dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants,” run deep in the American unconscious. Americans have obsessively feared Indian attacks and kidnappings since the early Puritan days, but the real “original shame” was the 1836 abduction of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanches in Texas. Her kidnapping eventually inspired John Ford’s classic film The Searchers, though like most Americans, the director could not bring himself to admit that the grown-up Parker, contentedly ensconced with a Comanche husband, did not want to be rescued. “The specter of the white maiden taken against her will by dark savages . . . became our recurring trope,” writes Faludi—a trope repeated incessantly throughout our history.
It should be clear from this summary that Frau Doktor manages to live up to a few stereotypes herself. True, The Terror Dream resurrects a host of cringe-worthy cultural moments following the attacks. Karen Hughes, for instance, saw in them “the dignity and worth of every life”—an argument against abortion. The Pentagon turned the Jessica Lynch rescue into pure suds. Faludi is also entirely correct that the attacks briefly fixated Americans on masculine heroism. “Out: dot com geeks. In: burly men with axes,” the Washington Post said in a September 20 article entitled “The Company of Heroes.”
But Faludi can’t begin to make sense of the raw human instincts that underlie such headlines, since she’s at heart a full-bore ideologue. Remember the 1980s cartoon that depicted a wild-eyed woman asking: “World War III? But what about my career?” Faludi brings her to life: “A horrific attack by a death-loving terror group? But what about feminism?” she says, in effect. The condemnation that greeted Susan Sontag’s callous words about American blame for the attacks as the towers lay smoldering, and the widespread criticism of Nation columnist Katha Pollitt’s reluctance to allow her daughter to fly the American flag? For Faludi, who evidently forgets the skewering of Michael Moore and Ward Churchill for similar comments, these were attacks on feminism. The conservative press’s “Swift-boating” of the Jersey Girls, the 9/11 widows from the Garden State, after they began supporting the Kerry campaign? Blame the fact that they were strong women in the middle of a “grueling traveling and speaking tour.” Had they been Bush supporters, though, their “we-are-no-safer-today” plaint doubtless would have earned Faludi’s dismissal as a “protection fantasy.”
Almost all of Faludi’s examples of regression into prefeminist traditionalism come from the three months following the attacks, when the nation was in a daze. To make her case that a gender trauma took hold of the national psyche, Faludi relies heavily on emotional statements made in those three months, and she cherry-picks her way past the many powerful women in political life—including, in case she hadn’t noticed, a secretary of state and a leading presidential candidate.
Faludi’s baroque feminism is troubling enough. But far more disturbing is her Freudian-tinged postmodernism. Islamic fundamentalism, foreign policy, the lumbering ineptitude of government bureaucracies—these interest her not a whit. All is text, a dream for the inspired doctor to interpret. Thus, in Faludi’s hands, a minor footnote to the aftermath of 9/11—the Jessica Lynch rescue—becomes pivotal not because it was historically significant or even because it seared itself into the collective memory, but because of its impressive sexual symbolism.
In other words, The Terror Dream epitomizes the refusal of the far Left to engage the reality of our enemy. Turning everything into symbol and metaphor, Faludi relieves her readers of serious reflection about the danger of Islamic militancy. That reviewers in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times pronounced the book “splendid” and “brilliant,” respectively, is an unsettling reminder that many elites remain in denial about our national predicament. But as Freud put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes the guys who want to kill you really are guys who want to kill you.