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The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America

Review

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America

Although it’s been a little more than six years since the
terrorist attacks of 9/11, in this comparatively brief span it
seems the events of that awful day have been examined from every
imaginable perspective. Yet it has taken that length of time to
produce a work of cultural criticism as cogent and unsparing as
Pulitzer Prize winner Susan Faludi’s THE TERROR DREAM, a
passionate attack on this country’s retreat from the painful
reality of that day into a national mythology of female
subservience and male protection.

In books like her National Book Critics Circle award-winning
BACKLASH, Faludi has shown she isn’t afraid to tackle
controversial subject matter, marshalling reams of evidence
forcefully to support a provocative thesis. That observation is no
less true here. Taking as her theme the biological metaphor that
“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” Faludi argues that
“the ways that we act, say, in response to a crisis can
recapitulate in quick time the centuries-long evolution of our
character as a society and of the mythologies we live
by.”

In crisp prose, supported by some 40 pages of notes, Faludi
meticulously documents the working of the political and social
forces served by a querulous media willing to allow anecdote to
supplant evidence, all operating in consort to reinforce a
pernicious cultural myth. Whether it was canonizing the (male)
firefighters and police officers who lost their lives on 9/11, or
demeaning the (female) critics --- like Kristen Breitweiser and her
“Jersey Girls” --- of our government’s
preparedness to deter the terror attack, what Faludi calls the
“cultural smoke machine” bent its efforts toward
reinforcing the myth of female vulnerability and male strength that
has been a recurring theme throughout our history. By the time of
the 2004 presidential campaign, perpetually anxious, pro-defense
“Security Moms” had supplanted their liberal
“Soccer Mom” elder sisters, and voters were treated to
the faintly comical spectacle of President Bush and Senator Kerry
competing for votes on the basis of which one was more enamored of
guns and hunting.

As Faludi describes it, “That machine operated in the service
of myth, not reality. Its mission was to restore the image of an
America invulnerable to attack, to conjure a dreamscape populated
by John Wayne protectors guarding little captive Debbies, a reverie
in which women were needed to play the helpless and dependent
foil…”

The effort reached its apotheosis in the riveting tale of Jessica
Lynch, the American soldier whose capture in March 2003 and
“rescue” from an Iraqi hospital seized America’s
attention in the heady early days of the Iraq war. The breathless
initial accounts of Lynch’s courage as she valiantly battled
her attackers quickly were supplanted by what Faludi describes as
the more palatable narrative of a “helpless white girl
snatched from the jaws of evil by heroic soldiers.” Coolly
dissecting press reports of these events, Faludi demonstrates how
facts were manipulated in the service of this powerfully deceptive
narrative.

Part Two of Faludi’s book, while denser and less engaging
than Part One, traces the “terror dream” through three
centuries of American history, from its origins in the
Puritans’ first encounters with America’s Indian
population and culminating with the subjugation of that native
population as the country expanded westward across the frontier.
She painstakingly reviews numerous examples of the female
“captivity narratives” that have played a prominent, if
subtle, role in defining gender relationships in our society,
dwelling at length on the way one of those narratives was
transformed into the John Wayne film The Searchers, a story
that has influenced directors from Steven Spielberg to Martin
Scorsese.

In the end, THE TERROR DREAM is more descriptive than prescriptive.
“By September 12,” Faludi writes, “our culture
was already reworking a national tragedy into a national fantasy of
virtuous might and triumph. …But rather than make us any
safer, it misled us into danger, damaging the very security the
myth was supposed to bolster.” In the face of the powerful
forces of history and culture that have shaped our response to
9/11, one can be forgiven a degree of skepticism at Faludi’s
expressed hope that we can achieve “a national identity
grounded not on virile illusion but on the talents and vitality of
all of us equally, men and women both.” But if we’re to
take even the first halting steps toward that goal, THE TERROR
DREAM can serve us as a valuable resource and guide.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America
by Susan Faludi

  • Publication Date: October 2, 2007
  • Genres: Current Events, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books
  • ISBN-10: 0805086927
  • ISBN-13: 9780805086928