Fear and fantasy in the ‘war on terror’

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

Susan Faludi

Scribe Publications, $35

COULD SEPTEMBER 11 really be blamed on the women’s movement? Why did the US respond to the assault on its global dominance with calls to restore “traditional” manhood, marriage and maternity?

Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America argues that the shock of September 11 threw American society into a dream-like state where popular culture retreated to the “frontier”, a fantasised yesteryear of cowboys, Indians and vulnerable maidens.

“From the ashes of September 11, arise the manly virtues” Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan claimed. “I am speaking of masculine men, men who push things and pull things” (Wall Street Journal). Because of the women’s movement, American men had “grown soft” leaving the US vulnerable to attack. In propping up their myth, the media settled on its archetypal manly man: the 9/11 New York firefighter: “an American hero” (People).

But when the towers came down there was little anyone could do and no one left to save. In reality, the firefighter “heroes” faced the traumatic, thankless task of sifting through rubble in search of human remains. What’s more, many of the 343 firefighters killed would have survived had their radios worked. The call for evacuation went unheard when they malfunctioned-just as they had during the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. Firefighters’ low wages and inadequate training also missed the headlines. Two weeks after 9/11 more cutbacks to the fire department were announced.

The White House establishment would also be shoe-horned into a John Wayne frontier classic. It wasn’t easy. The National Review tried “The Stud: Donald Rumsfeld America’s New Pin-up”. He was an obvious pair with the “refreshingly brutish” George Bush. The 2004 presidential race was a nauseating masculinity competition as Democrat John Kerry lassoed himself to the bandwagon. The media went a-huntin’ with both candidates, discussed their favourite guns and gushed over their outdoorsy boys own adventure stories.

Meanwhile, enter the bogus rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. Blonde, blue eyed, small and shy, Jessica Lynch inadvertently became the “damsel in distress” poster girl. According to US journalists an “assault force” battled their way into the heavily fortified hospital that doubled as headquarters for Hussein’s Republican Guard “death squads”.The truth: bewildered hospital workers reported the assault on their unguarded hospital as “like a Hollywood film” with American soldiers kicking down unlocked doors and terrorising patients. The media played down Lynch’s profession as a soldier. She also did not require rescuing. “The nurses were wonderful”, she said.

On the home front, the media began feverishly preparing for a post 9/11 spike in marriages and a baby boom. Following 9/11 women were allegedly rethinking their priorities.

The media quoted itself as evidence “Talk of married, professional moms dropping out of the workforce to rear kids is all over magazines, talk shows and book store shelves” (Daily News). The baby boom never happened. Official statistics showed that the birth rate had fallen to the lowest level since national data have been available.

The Terror Dream is brilliant but not without its faults. The second half of Faludi’s book recounts a little too laboriously the origins of the frontier myth. Depicting the European colonisation of America as “the original war on terror” is plainly false. A much clearer political parallel is with McCarthyism where journalists were also terrorised into churning out government propaganda. After 9/11, the sledging of liberal journalists was not isolated to women and the misrepresentation of women was one of a multitude of lies used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Nonetheless, there is a message of hope in Faludi’s book. Thousands of American men and women dropped everything to rush to ground zero, standing in five-hour queues to donate blood or showing up with garden trowels and beach buckets to help dig for survivors. The family of deceased firefighters heckled Rudy Guiliani during his testimony at the 9/11 Commission: “radios, talk about the radios!”

The Jersey Girls, four women whose husbands died in the World Trade Centre, refused to play their “frail widow” role. Against vicious opposition they almost single-handedly forced the creation of the 9/11 Commission.

Jessica Lynch dropped out of the media circus, refused to try on wedding dresses for a cheesy “in love” article for People magazine and nominated her own hero, fellow soldier Lori Piestema, a 23 year old Hopi Indian and single mother of two, the first native American to die in a (foreign) American war.

US public opinion has shifted. Another source of inspiration is to compare the cowboy politics of the presidential race in 2004 with the one brewing for 2008.

melissa slee


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