The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America
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In the weeks after 9/11, novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that closed with these words, "The mortal citizens of a planet are praying right now that we will bear in mind ... that no kind of bomb ever built will extinguish hatred." She was promptly vilified by Rush Limbaugh and a slew of other right-wing commentators. Shortly afterward, the Los Angeles Times received a letter, among many others, from a collection agency owner who called Kingsolver's op-ed "nothing less than another act of terror."
This is just one of many episodes that Susan Faludi recounts in her new book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. In this scathing critique of the media's response to 9/11, Faludi turns her critical eye to how, in the wake of the powerlessness many Americans felt on 9/11, a myth was spun -- one that stretches back to the time of America's first English settlers.
Faludi notes that the fixation on feminism began just days after 9/11 -- perhaps best encapsulated by the Houston Chronicle headline, "No Place for Feminist Victims in Post 9-11 America"; a seemingly out of place assertion that speaks volumes about the American fixation on a clear-cut vision of victim and hero, otherwise known as female and male. Indeed, while the bulk of the World Trade Center victims were male, it is the pictures of the woman being comforted by a fireman that we saw in the newspapers. And it was, as New York Magazine put it in a headline, the stay-at-home widows -- preferably pregnant at the time of the attacks, those "Perfect Virgins of Grief" that America's attention turned to.
As Faludi sees it, after 9/11, "We reacted to trauma ... not by interrogating it but by cocooning ourselves in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom's childhood." When search dogs at the site of 9/11 could not find any living humans to rescue, they became so demoralized that their handlers took turns hiding for each other's animals in order to simulate a "live find." It's a striking parallel to the American media's attempt to rewrite 9/11 as a moment of valor and glory, conveniently skipping over the sadness, the loss, the humbling gravity of a world in which America could be so vilified by those in other parts of the world.
Enter Faludi's concise and tirelessly reported critique. Drawing on hundreds of years of documentation and media narrative, Faludi's Terror Dream gives us insight into the revisionist myth that has ruled American catastrophe since its inception. From a 1678 sermon lamenting that men have become too effeminate to properly defend America, to the fear that feminism has effeminized a 21st century population, Faludi's narrative is a powerful wake up call.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri: What didn't make sense to you about our reaction to 9/11?
Susan Faludi: Immediately after 9/11, there was this desperate hunt for heroes in the media and the declaration that there would be scores of heroes to come of this. This was in contradiction to the reality of the nature of the catastrophe, which left very little room for anybody to rescue anyone. They estimate that there were about 19 people who survived in the World Trade Center who were at the fire line or above. 95 percent of the people who died were utterly unreachable.
People below the fire line for the most part unless they were infirm, walked out on their own two feet. Yet there was this rescue drama of early American male heroes, in this case firefighters, carrying damsels in distress down the stairs in our fevered imagination. Certainly on the planes there was no one to rescue. In the absence of that we invented hero and victim designations and we assigned them by sex. So the firefighter, in particular, the firefighters who died, were declared the heroes and the victims became the 9/11 widows.
OR: On top of the search for heroism on the ground, there was a need to the heroics on the planes.
SF: Which isn't to say that there wasn't a lot of courageous behavior, it's just that we had no idea what happened. The media took a few snippets of very fragmentary information and turned it into this drama of strapping football and basketball players hurling themselves at the hijackers while the women cowered in their seats. It's what we imposed on the story; we didn't really know what the story was.
OR: In fact, you write that what was depicted in the major media outlets contradicted what we did know. You write about the some of the comic book depictions of 9/11 and how the heroics played out.
SF: Yes, there's one that show only the male passengers vote on what to do to stop the hijackers -- which had this odd connotation that we had gone back to some kind of patriarchy where only the men were allowed to vote. Or worse, in some sort Taliban-like situation where the men make the decisions while the women sit behind a veil.
OR: What do we know for sure happened on Flight 93, particularly the women's role in the heroics?
SF: We know that one of the flight attendants, Sandra Bradshaw, called home and told her husband that she and other flight attendants were boiling water to hurl at the hijackers and her last words were that she had to run because they were about to charge up the aisle and see what they could do. So you have that phone call home and yet that phone call was elided over in the media accounts with a few exceptions. It was certainly given short shrift compared with some of the other phone calls that were much more enigmatic. Who knows what "Let's roll" means. Later the FBI report speculated that it meant that "let's roll the cart down the aisle." No one really knows. But the media made this a story of the male heroes and the possibility of female heroism was sidelined.
OR: One of the poignant things that you write about is our leadership's preoccupation with image after 9/11. There's a docudrama created of depicting Bush's valor after 9/11, Rove invites top movie and TV execs to a hotel to discuss the event, Peggy Noonan is comparing Bush to Superman. What do you make of all these narratives?
SF: It was as though what mattered to our political and media culture was not what we did but how we appeared as we were doing it. Instead of actual efforts to improve security, instead of actual strategies, military and investigative that might bring the perpetrators to justice, we seemed as a culture to be embarked on this prolonged effort to cast and produce 9/11 The Movie, the sequel where we emerge triumphant and super-inflated and muscular.
There were a number of meetings right in the weeks after 9/11 with those in the film industry -- meetings at a time when you would like to believe that our government officials had bigger things on their minds than seeing if Hollywood would cobble together a film about American heroism based on the splicing of old Westerns (which is what they ended up doing).
You would think that Bush and his cabinet would have better things to do than make themselves available for hours on end to be photographed by Vanity Fair . In his editorial note accompanying the cover story photo essay of Bush and his cabinet members, even editor in chief Graydon Carter wondered why they were so accommodating and he concluded, in this 21st century era of culture, that image is more important than anything else. There was little irony. He was basically proud that Vanity Fair was seen as the scene of image making.
OR: You analyze Kerry and Bush's fixation with their guns on the campaign trail. "Kerry's problem," you write, "was that he never fully grasped his role in that national play. Brandishing the gun was only half the protection script." Can you explain this?
SF: From the get-go, both Bush and Kerry seemed to be competing for the title of Daniel Boone-in-chief. Both of them made themselves available to the hunting and fishing media. Toward the end, when he wasn't granting any personal interviews, Bush made an exception for Field & Stream and Outdoor Life . He was extraordinarily accommodating, driving the reporters around the ranch in his pick-up truck, opening up his private gun cabinet, and bragging about all his guns.
Meanwhile, Kerry was running around to duck hunts every weekend, dragging these poor reporters in pre-dawn hours to watch him shoot wild animals, get blood all over his hands, and drop his g's to sound like a good old huntin' boy. But the Bush handlers are more skilled in intuitively understanding the cultural script and they understood that at the heart of American mythology is not only a brawny and rescuing cowboy, but a woman in need of rescue. The story doesn't work without that female weakness to set off male strength.
So we saw the Bush administration, during the 2004 campaign, playing off that. There was the ad "Wolves" where a young woman with a trembling voice provides the voice-over for an ad where wolves are stalking through the forest and this warbly voice says that Kerry won't protect the nation, but the message is more that she won't feel protected. Women won't feel safe if Kerry is the sheriff-in-chief.
More dramatically, the most expensive campaign -- roughly 17 million dollars -- that the Bush administration used actually saturated the airwaves in the last several weeks of the campaigns. This was the ad called "The Hug" in which Bush is seen hugging a girl whose mother died in the World Trade Center and the girl says, "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe."
OR: Didn't Kerry make a last ditch effort to buy some airtime, but it had already been bought out by Bush?
SF: The Jersey Girls [ 9/11 widows] had made two different ads in which they responded that we don't need a hug, we need actual policies that support our national security and answers to why that security did not hold up on 9/11. But even if those ads had run over and over in the last few weeks, I'm not sure it would have made a difference. The story of the Jersey Girls is women as outspoken and strong, independent, demanding answers and putting the lie to the male protective fantasy that the White House was offering. That was not part of the narrative that our culture wanted to console itself with.
OR: Soon after 9/11 you actually start to get phone calls to weigh in on whether or not feminists really have a place in post-9/11 America? It seems like a bit of a jump. What do these things have to do with one another?
SF: The first phone call was the weirdest and that was on the very afternoon of 9/11. This reporter who was doing a reaction story and he was based in L.A. I was living in L.A, so I guess he was just going through his Rolodex. I don't really know why he called me. It's not like I was going to have something to say about terrorism, airplane security or Islamic culture.
I think it was a time when peoples' filters were down; they were freaked out. This reporter blurted out something that evidently was on his mind, which was, "This sure pushes feminism off the map." He seemed almost gleeful about it -- Ha ha, you're agenda is gone . And certainly, in weeks and months ahead, in the conservative media especially, you saw that kind of gloating tone. It went beyond gloating to finger pointing, as if some American feminist had any effect on Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the rise of the Taliban. It was just bizarre.
The other calls I got were reporters doing trend stories which are usually based on something their editor thinks is true, or they have two friends who said it was true and that's about all the evidence they have. These calls went like this: Isn't it true that women are returning to traditional family arrangements, isn't it true that women want to be protected and that women want to bake cookies as a reaction to 9/11? There were lots of people who wanted to bring cookies and other things to the firehouse. My own mother did that. Everyone I know did that in New York. But that's an act of sympathy and condolence, not a trend to return to full-time home-making as the media was very eager to turn it into.
OR: You write, "They weren't investigating the possibility of a trend, they were trying to induce one." But something very real seem in the media was lack of coverage of women's role on 9/11.
SF: There were plenty of men and women rushing to the site to see how they could help. There were plenty of female first responders. There weren't a lot of female firefighters, but that's because the New York Fire Department is perhaps the most misogynist fire department of any urban fire department in America. Women fought a very bitter lawsuit in the late 70s to get the fire department to even begin to consider admitting. Then, women were treated in ways that just make your jaw drop. Their safety equipment being purposefully damaged, sexual assault, fellow firefighters urinating in their boots. So there's a reason why the NY fire department had .3 percent female profile.
Aside from the fire department, there were female police officers, female port authority officers, female paramedics and doctors. But afterward, we saw the reversion to language where we had firemen and policemen instead of firefighters and police officers in the media. When the women's rights organization National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund (NOW LDEF) made a very short film which highlighted a half dozen women and their courageous attempts on that day to be of some service, the media responded as if this were some kind of offensive. In the words of one conservative commentator, it was "obscene," and somehow desecrated the memory of the male firefighters.
OR: What has happened to female bylines in the media since 9/11?
SF: Geneva Overholser, former editor-in-chief of The Des Moines Register back in the 80s and early 90s and then was the ombudsman of The Washington Post . When she opened up The Washington Post on September 12th, she saw that they had expanded the opinion pieces from five to ten, but not one of them was a woman. As it turned out, that was no anomaly. Various studies and counts from different people, including me, repeatedly found that there was a dramatic decline in women's voices in the opinion pages of major newspapers and on the news shows. The White House Project found that in the first seven weeks after the attack, women's appearance as guests on Sunday morning policy news programs shrank by 40 percent. Even women who were the obvious choices -- like Senators Feinstein and Boxer -- who were heads of congressional subcommittees on terrorism at the time were not invited to do shows.
OR: You write that, "The unimaginable assault on our home soil was in fact anything but unimaginable." We've seen the sentiment of the phrase before. Slavoj Zizek says that this has happened over and over in our imagination, citing pop culture Hollywood films in which we have these great disaster epics. But you actually trace this to a more concrete historical parallel with captivity literature. How did you connect the two?
SF: I remember watching War of the Worlds which was so informed by 9/11. It was like taking 9/11 and turning it into an intergalactic Martian attack. The movie has the posters of the missing, people standing with their video cameras, and their jaws dropped, and it began in the New York/New Jersey area.
What also struck me was that the ending was a reprise of The Searchers . That started me wondering about why we were returning to the Western. At the same time, there was all this media commentary that kept referring to how the war on terror was a return to our Indian wars, back to taming the frontier. John Wayne kept coming up. That led me to our frontier mythology and captivity narratives. Our frontier mythology drops about the first 200 years. This frontier mythology that we live by, that we replay over and over again, is in direct contradiction to the actual experience of our original frontier trauma of Northeastern colonies. We sort of covered that all up with the triumphal Great Plains tale that is 75 percent concoction.
OR: Can you speak more specifically about Mary Rowlandson's narrative?
SF: For the first century and a half, all our bestsellers with the exception of Pilgrim's Progress , were captivity narratives. They by and large were told from the woman's point of view and were stories of how women taken captive grappled with it, not by being rescued by a man, but by rescuing themselves through a greater awareness of God, human weakness and dependency on God. It was a worldview shared by men and women and while women predominated in these early captivity narratives, these narratives were read avidly by both men and women. The Mary Rowlandsons were held up as an archetype for both men and women to emulate.
But ultimately, with the passing of Puritanism and with the repeated inability of male leaders and male husbands, to protect families in frontier towns, and with the society falling into a crisis over their inability to enact real security and protection, we begin to see the rewriting of these narratives into a fantasy narrative. In this narrative, the male hero comes to the rescue of the helpless and grateful maiden. The story is rewritten so that women taken captive are in danger of that most female of jeopardy's -rape--and the white man comes to the rescue. This is in the face of the reality that most Northeastern Native American tribes rarely raped captives. Though you couldn't say the same for the white settlers who raped Native American women.
OR: You also say that about a third of the women who were captured when they were young women, chose to stay with their captors.
SF: In the case of many of these tribes, life was more congenial for women. Especially in contrast to the Puritan society's narrow roles allowed women daily in public life.
OR: This specter of rape is recycled through the racist plantation novels, the Cold War, and the 1950s.
SF: Over and over again in periods where we feel threatened, or penetrated on home soil, we reflexively reenact this drama. So, for example, after the civil war, the ceded South in its humiliation over not being able to protect its home soil from Yankee incursions, puts on this rescue drama in which the Klan restores its honor by fighting a mythical epidemic of rape of virginal southern white women by black freed men.
And then, starting at the end of WWII, with the emergence of the Atomic Age, you see the cultural reflex in response to the knowledge and fear that we are no longer this isolated nation and that anybody can lob a nuclear bomb at us. You see this retreat into a fantasy of men protecting women in fallout shelters where men are toting all the guns and women are canning the peaches, and taking care of the children.
OR: And decorating the shelters.
SF: Yes, because it's very important to have wallpaper on your fallout shelter so you'll have something to look at while the bombs are falling. At the same time, you see all these protection fantasies being spun. In particular, the completely bogus sex crimes epidemic that J. Edgar Hoover and company declared in the 50s. Supposedly, we were being overrun by sexual deviants and young girls were in perpetual danger of molestation even though the actual crime records showed a decline in sex crimes during this same period.
OR: How do these early narratives shed light on Jessica Lynch's story?
SF: Jessica Lynch's story, or supposed story, is a classic "Exhibit A" of how this mythology plays out. It has all the elements of the American security myth: The strong inflated man, the helpless woman in need of rescue, and a rape story. The tale that we were told by the military and that was repeated by the media, was that special ops teams descended on this Iraqi hospital in the dark of night and waged a fierce battle with Fedayeen death squads, to rescue Jessica Lynch. Fedayeen death squads who, it was insinuated without evidence, had raped her.
The reality of the story which we know thanks largely to the British media, is that it was a bunch of doctors and nurses trying to take care of her, there was no battle, there were no Fedayeen death squads in there as the military knew because hospital workers had informed the American military of this. These were doctors and nurses who actually went to fairly elaborate lengths to take care of her. She herself corroborated this later. These were hospital workers who actually tried to return her to the U.S. forces, bundled her in an ambulance and were driving her when they were stopped at a checkpoint and U.S. soldiers shot so fiercely at the ambulance that they had to turn around.
OR: The rescue itself was very choreographed -- with live video feed and Rumsfeld and Bush being kept informed every minute of the way of how the rescue was going.
SF: Right. As if this were some critical strategic turning point in the war. Before the video, seemingly for the advancement of the video story, not the real story, doors were kicked down, even though hospital workers had tried to give them a master key. The military was certainly in a big hurry to release this film. It must have been the fastest turnaround in moviemaking history. The troops went into the hospital around midnight and the film was available and reporters rousted out of their beds to watch it by three a.m.
OR: Talk about the title of the book that was then written about Jessica Lynch: I Am a Soldier, Too .
SF: Former New York Times reporter Rick Bragg was contracted to write the "Jessica Lynch tells all" story. The book was titled I Am a Soldier, Too which is a line from Jessical Lynch's own mouth the night of her so-called rescue when the soldiers burst into her hospital room in Nasiriyah. One of them said, "I am a U.S. soldier and I'm here to rescue you. We're here to take you out of here." And her answer was, "I am a soldier, too" which is the one quote that she was allowed for months. And then she disappeared behind American hospital walls and the media and the military spoke for her for months. OR: That line seems to throw a wrench in the Hollywood script. She essentially tells the rescuer, "Yes, I'm just like you."
SF: The media compulsively seemed compelled to dismantle that line. For months, we saw these articles in which Jessica Lynch is essentially transformed from a soldier who enlisted twice, into this delicate little maiden who loved pink ribbons as a girl. One of the reporters drove to her hometown to interview anybody who knew her before the age of six. There were repeated interviews with kindergarten teachers and grammar school playmates.
OR: In reality, she's a single mother and her daughter is named after the first Native American woman to die in combat, Lori Piestewa.
SF: Who herself was a single mom and who went to Iraq as an act of support. She was actually excused from deployment because she had injured herself in a training exercise right before they shipped out. She was the one soldier who, in the mad dash to Baghdad when Jessica Lynch's own vehicle broke down in a sandstorm, pulled over and picked her up.
OR: And that got very little coverage in the news.
SF: I thought it was telling that the only real major profile I could find which ran more than a year after the ambush was a profile in Rolling Stone and it was aptly titled, "The Forgotten Soldier."
OR: Your book culminates in the conclusion that our inability to confront the vulnerability and humiliation that we've experienced that creates this hollow protection myth. Talk about how we see this with the firefighters of 9/11.
SF: This goes back to the earlier point of image and appearance trumping the truth of our circumstances. Rudy Giuliani stood before the 9/11 Commission and said, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the firefighters who died in the collapse of the second tower had heard the mayday on their radios and chose to stay in the towers to "rescue other people." Now how in the world they were going to rescue other people when the tower was coming down, he never explained.
It's crystal clear from the hundreds of oral history accounts of the surviving firefighters that the vast majorities of the firefighters heard no mayday because the radios didn't work. That's something the officials had known since the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center when those same radios didn't work and they were supposed to be replaced. The families of firefighters called, shouted and then screamed from the audience, "No. This is not right. Talk about the radios. The radios didn't work."
And then Giuliani gave this very revealing impromptu speech about how the firefighters gave us a story of heroism, a story we needed to get through this. He said that otherwise it would be a story like the Andrea Doria where we didn't triumph. So, basically, our need to see ourselves as triumphant rescuers trumps the need to grapple honestly with the tragedy and think realistically and practically about how to prevent it from happening again.
OR: That's one of those moments where you can't believe that he actually said what he said.
SF: And then got to run for presidential candidate.
OR: It's interesting after a crisis, who is allowed to say what. The firefighters are given this title of heroism, and yet that's not necessarily what they want. There seems to be little room for the true narrative even from those being lauded as the heroes.
SF: The firefighters submitted all of this testimony to the FDNY and then a lawsuit had to take place, and go to the highest court in the state before the city was willing to release the accounts of their own experience to the public.
OR: Similarly, many of the 9/11 widows who are so sought after by talk shows and mainstream media outlets became frustrated because their interviewers either aren't interested in the particulars of what they have to say, or they even attribute false quotes to the widows.
SF: Even the widows who were most accommodating to the media like Lisa Beamer who finally recoiled in dismay and horror that the press was making her out to be happy because her husband was a hero, so it was all worthwhile. When, of course, she'd rather have her husband alive and home with her. Or the 9/11 widow Liz Glyck who in frustration told one of the producers of a show that she did not feel her husband had rescued anybody on Flight 93 because the government was going to shoot the plane down anyway. And she went further, asking why the government hadn't made more of an effort to heroically protect its airline passengers.
OR: Your book presents a scathing critique of media since 9/11. We see imbalanced coverage with a few voices -- Peggy Noonan, Independent Women's Forum, "W for Women" being given a podium repeatedly in order to fulfill these trend pieces. This kind of reporting leads to some incredible journalism. The most shocking to me was The Washington Post's article on the "worry divide" -- emphasizing that women are more worried than men after 9/11. You write, "The Post jumped from the three couples to the existence of perhaps a few million couples like them and speculated that gender difference in reaction to 9/11 were 'rooted in the varying size, chemistry, and physiology of male and female brains.'" That just sounds like eugenics. Any ideas on how we can combat this kind of media failure?
SF: I wish I had some formula, because it's so dismaying. Every year it gets worse and worse. What we're seeing is a consumer culture that devours itself institution by institution. Educating an arm a citizenry with real knowledge, information and analysis was once a counter to cultural myth is now just another arm of commercial culture. Its role is basically to entertain and sedate us and not ask any questions. We don't really have much in the way of journalism; we have media. Media is a medium, the terms itself is content-free. It's suggesting a delivery system, not a rigorous eye on the world.
OR: What do you hope your narrative provides readers?
SF: I hope against hope, knowing how our culture is and knowing how difficult it is to spark a meaningful discussion in this era, that it will be one of many contributions to launching an honest examination and confrontation of this myth system we live by to our own detriment and peril. I would hope that we begin to grapple honestly with the set of cards we have in our hands instead of painting them over with 10-gallon hat heroes and cringing bonneted girls on the prairie.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a San Francisco based writer and editor. She has written for AlterNet, The American Prospect, Salon, MotherJones, Truthdig, In These Times, Huffington Post, and Women's eNews.