The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by Susan Faludi
Reviewed by Art Winslow
Did the ghastly plume of smoke and detritus from the World Trade Center towers obscure anything beyond lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001? Susan Faludi, in The Terror Dream, asserts that it did, and while prevailing winds at the time trailed it east over Brooklyn, Faludi wafts it north toward colonial New England and west toward the historical frontier, and tracks its media-saturated shadow forward from that day through the past handful of years.
How does a culture react to trauma is the question, and Faludi's answer is that ours engaged in mythmaking on a scale that matches the monumentalism of the towers themselves. She does not mention Joseph Campbell and his The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert Bly and his Iron John, or Carl Jung and his theories, but hers is a work of cultural interpretation on the order of theirs. Quite possibly, the author would shudder at comparison with such company, for Faludi focuses largely on gender issues writ into societal themes (a post-attack rejection of female equality is one of the flux points she examines) and her feminist views are in no significant way aligned with the above in content. But in approach, in the shared belief that stories and archetypes can both morph and retain an essence, that they can be self-perpetuating, that they are widespread and serve a purpose, that they can skew perception, cloud it, that they are in fact both the emperor's new and old clothes -- in that they share much.
"The entire edifice of American security had failed to provide a shield," Faludi observes in the introduction to The Terror Dream, and in "the all the disparate nightmares of men and women after 9/11, what accompanied the sundering of our myth of indomitability was not just rage but shock at that revelation, and, with the shock, fear, ignominy, shame." The media spit out mantras like "Everything has changed" and spoke of "the death of irony," an environment in which a "cacophony of chanted verities induced a kind of cultural hypnosis."
The mystery, suggests Faludi, is that the United States, "the last remaining superpower, a nation attacked precisely because of its imperial preeminence, responded by fixating on its weakness and ineffectuality." To state what is a sweeping and nuanced argument by her loosely and reductively here, it is that after 9/11 we have been re-enacting a 1950s Western, John Wayne-style, "cocooning ourselves in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom's childhood" while trying to evade the terrifying knowledge of our own vulnerability.
"We dreamed ourselves into a penny-dreadful plot that had little to do with the actual world in which we must live" is Faludi's assessment. "The suddenness of the attacks and the finality of the towers' collapse and the planes' obliteration left us with little in the way of ongoing chronicle or ennobling narrative. So a narrative was created and populated with pasteboard protagonists whose exploits would exist almost entirely in the realm of American archetype and American fantasy." Concomitantly, "no official moral leadership emerged to challenge Americans to think constructively about our place in the world, to redefine civic commitment and public responsibility."
These are strong words, and Faludi is a hard-nosed writer -- polemicist, some would say; is that still a pejorative? -- and much of what she proposes may seem at first glance to be unlikely, or perhaps overstated. However, the journalistic documentation she provides to back up her assertions, particularly when she deals with the post-9/11 world, has such cumulative effect in its impressive precision and breadth that one is forced to accept many of her claims. One significant question that remains unanswered is, How extensively does media sloganeering, complete with its distortions (which she amply chronicles), represent wider social thought? How many among us knew, for example, that the effacement of women in public life and roles (Hillary Clinton excepted) was to be part of the 9/11 fallout? It is somewhat surprising to see this singled out as a phenomenon, but here Faludi offers extensive examples from press reporting and real-world statistics as proof. Of the 88 opinion pieces that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times in the week following 9/11, five were by women; on the televised Sunday news talk shows, including "Face the Nation," "Meet the Press," "This Week" and others, appearances by American women shrank by nearly 40 percent in the seven weeks following the attacks.
Who recognized that the "passivism" that infected public life was a disease, "and American women were its Typhoid Marys, American men its victims"? Or stopped to consider that modern fears of terrorism so closely paralleled anxieties of the frontier experience, where unpredictable raiding, massacres (on both sides) and hostage-taking occurred, which the armed forces or individually armed colonials and then pioneers were unable to fend off? Rather than facing a new type of war, in other words, "our foundational drama as a society" was exposure to parallel circumstances:
[M]urderous homeland incursions by dark-skinned non-Christian combatants under the flag of no recognized nation, complying with no accepted Western rules of engagement and subscribing to an alien culture at odds with modernity, who attacked white America on its "own" soil and against civilian targets. September 11 was aimed at our cultural solar plexus precisely because it was an "unthinkable" occurrence for a nation that once could think of little else. In was not, in fact, an inconceivable event; it was the characteristic and formative American ordeal, the primal injury of which we could not speak....Our ancestors had already fought a war on terror, a very long war, and we have lived with its scars ever since.
The Terror Dream is no Looming Tower or 9/11 Commission Report, nor does it aspire to be. Faludi uses a close read of press coverage and themes of newspaper and magazine "trend" stories in the years following 2001 to trace relations between them and the historical myth she seeks to elucidate, which is basically one of rescue. We are led through capsule discussions of many historical "captive narratives," dating back to the later 1600s, but are drawn jarringly up to date with the confounding circumstances and false claims surrounding the "rescue" of Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, and the uses to which she was put. As Faludi notes in another context, of the K-9 rescue teams sent to the World Trade Center site, "What was a rescuer without someone to rescue?"
Some of what Faludi reports has been covered extensively elsewhere -- not just the details that emerged in the repeated news cycles devoted to Jessica Lynch, but the extreme valorization of firefighters working at "the pile" (ground zero), for example, given that 343 of their colleagues had died in the disaster. When considered alongside reports that city officials 2 1/2 years later were fighting inquiries into problems with the fire department's radios, which by multiple reports did not work and left an evacuation order unheard, and that a 2004 study by Cornell University found more than half the firefighters complaining of inadequate or non-existent training for terrorist attacks, and 61 percent reporting problems with the communications system in critical situations, such things are amplified in their poignancy. And that is not to mention (which Faludi does) the National Institute of Standards and Technology study of the disaster, which pointed out the technology failure but was kept from public view by the mayor's office for 3 1/2 years and released only under court order.
Much of Faludi's book engages in an effective debunking of reporting -- and this by the country's biggest newspapers and magazines -- that is anecdotally based but will not stand up when poked by a fact she has found. As such, it is media criticism in the best sense, however one regards her extended historical interpretation of American mythos.
The invention of the "security mom" -- "sticking close to the hearth and stocking their pantries with canned goods and anthrax antidotes" -- who replaced the "soccer mom," is one such example, posited among others by Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Elizabeth in 2004 on CNN, and in USA Today by columnist Michelle Malkin, which became a catchphrase that supersized itself into "mainstream media gospel." Yet Time magazine's lead pollster admitted, "We honestly could not find much empirical evidence to support it," and pollsters for the Washington Post and ABC News had similar experiences: "Married women with children didn't seem to be expressing national security concerns that distinguished them from other voters." Faludi's explanation is that "the security mom was a character crucial to that larger American myth of invulnerability."
And so it goes, instance after instance, from life-affirming "patriotic pregnancy" to what the Washington Post called "Crisis Couture" -- "heavy on girlish peasant blouses, wispy baby-doll dresses and lace Victorian garb conveying, in the words of one fashion scribe, 'virginal innocence.' "
The shock of the 9/11 attacks startled us, momentarily, into a perception of our vulnerability. "It was too disturbing to bear and we soon turned away," Faludi asserts, in a reflexive reaction "weirdly disconnected from the very real emergency at hand." The leitmotif of protecting a retrograde idea of domesticity is strong here, versus coming to some accommodation with insecurity. "Why in this country is all the attention paid to just one young girl?" Diane Sawyer wondered during a Primetime special on Jessica Lynch. Faludi's answer is, "In the restoration drama of American might, the supporting actress was the essential dramatis persona."
Art Winslow is a frequent contributor to the Tribune.