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

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

Susan Faludi, . . Holt, $26 (351pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-8692-8


Reviewed by Richard Rodriguez

Susan Faludi has written a brilliant, unsentimental, often darkly humorous account of America's nervous breakdown after 9/11. “The intrusions of September 11,” she observes, “broke the dead bolt on our protective myth, the illusion that... our might makes our homeland impregnable... and women and children safe in the arms of their men.”

Drawing on political rhetoric and accounts from the New York Times and the major networks, as well as Fox and talk radio, her book makes clear just how sexually anxious Americans became in the aftermath of that terrible day. But “the tragedy had yielded no victorious heroes, so the culture wound up anointing a set of victimized men instead: the firemen who had died in the stairwells of the World Trade Center.”

The woman's role, she argues, became that of victim. Husbands had lost wives, but it was on the surviving wives of September 11 that America's grief was fixed. When some widows—“the Jersey girls”—rejected the victim's role by asking pointed questions about governmental incompetence, they were quickly ostracized by the press.

After September 11, we read that Donald Rumsfeld had been a wrestler at Princeton—and that became his legend in news accounts. Even the president clearing brush in Crawford, Tex., became the stuff of legend in the National Review , which juxtaposed Bush's “refreshingly brutish” demeanor with the way “the president sizes up the situation and says, 'You're mine, sucker.' ”

A late chapter on Jessica Lynch rehearses how the myth of the imprisoned woman rescued by male warriors was manufactured by the government and the media. But I wish Faludi had appraised the more important Abu Ghraib scandal. Arguably, the photographs of Private Lynndie England standing over naked Arab men shocked many of us out of any remaining childish belief in our own heroism.

The last third of the book traces how the American male's determination to see himself as protector (and the woman as dependent) derives from colonial Puritan wars against the Indians and the cowboy conquest of the West. In the end, Faludi judges our invasion of Afghanistan to be “inept” and tthe war in Iraq “disastrous.” It is essential, she says, not to confuse “the defense of a myth” with “the defense of a country.” A nation given to childish fantasy ends up with a president dressed like Tom Cruise, “a chest beater in a borrowed flight suit.”

Richard Rodriguez is the author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America (Penguin).