Myth, Reason and Life in America After 9/11

By Susan Faludi
Metropolitan, 351 pages, $26

I’d best come clean. On Sept. 11, while the twin towers burned, I was living on a vineyard in the South of France, where I’d moved three years previously. Like most Americans, for the harrowing days and nights that followed the attacks, I was glued to my television set. Unlike most Americans, I was glued to a clunky little box that only emitted French state television. The cultural gulf was stunning.

Night after night, French viewers were treated to geostrategists discussing, for example, what the Sept. 9 assassination of Commander Massoud, America’s Afghan ally in the war against the Taliban, might presage for U.S. efforts to capture Osama bin Laden. Me, I was still a New Yorker at heart. I was crying out for tributes to fallen firefighters, not dissections of Afghan tribal politics. I was longing for a decent period of mourning, hands on our hearts, flag at half-mast, before we started thinking. The trouble is, the American media, encouraged by the Bush administration, never started thinking. At least, not until it was too late.

Susan Faludi, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Backlash (1991), which examined the end of feminism as a mainstream ideal, and of Stiffed (1999), which argued that American men had been disenfranchised by the demise of church groups, unions, sporting clubs and traditional blue-collar jobs, is a clever cultural observer. The Terror Dream offers a lively analysis of the mythmaking that substituted for the work of reflection that 9/11 required.

Much of this mythmaking, of course, was government-engineered: To commemorate the two-month anniversary of the attacks, Ms. Faludi relates, Karl Rove “invited more than 40 top movie and television executives to a five-star Beverly Hills hotel” for a tutorial on how to sell the war on terror. Governments will always try to push their luck; what’s disgraceful is that media moguls should have proved such willing pupils.

An obvious template might have been the Second World War. Yet, as Ms. Faludi recalls, when ordinary citizens flooded New York to offer their blood and skills, when Americans wondered what collective sacrifices were required for this new kind of war, President Bush told us that our patriotic duty was to keep on spending money. Don’t bother your little heads, Big Daddy and his wise men are taking care of things, was the message. Instead of rolling bandages or even conserving gas, we were urged to go shopping.

Thus infantilized, the nation was reduced to squabbling in the back seat. The media, unable to find Osama, were quick to find the “Osama-lovers” who had made America “soft”: multiculturalists, East Coast liberals, “sissy boys” who were into moisturizer and psychotherapy, and, above all, feminists.

Americans, the media trumpeted, were reverting to simpler gender codes. Our new heroes were firefighters and cops, the working-class toughies who “keep us safe.” More disturbing was the simplification of our moral codes, the ease with which certain public intellectuals suddenly announced that torture, targeted assassinations, secret prison camps—all the atrocities that during the Cold War distinguished the Soviet bloc from the Home of the Free—were the way “real men” won the War on Terror. “No one is suggesting a Million Mom march on Tora Bora,” joked one New York Times columnist.

Our new female model was the “Security Mom” who, as a Time magazine cover story in 2003 informed us with apparent approval, “believes the Pentagon should have whatever it wants. … Her civil liberties seem less important to her than they used to, especially compared with keeping her children safe.”

The Orwellian assumption that freedom makes us unsafe went unchallenged. Civil liberties were now presented as a matter of individual choice, a luxury item that patriots should willingly sacrifice.

Why did 9/11 provoke such a mass relinquishing of common sense?

Ms. Faludi has an unexpected answer. Sept. 11 was so destabilizing not because it was new, but precisely because we’d been there before. Watching our buildings burn under the onslaught of a band of radical Islamists recalled a “foundational drama” deeply embedded in the American psyche: the Indian raids that long ravaged colonial New England—“murderous homeland incursions by dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants under the flag of no recognized nation … who attacked white America on its own ‘soil.’”

Myth, Reason and Life in America After 9/11