The Years of Magical Thinking

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by Susan Faludi (Metropolitan/Holt, 351 pages, $26)

Reporting from the site of the World Trade Center on the morning after it was attacked, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman bore witness to the "strangely silent precincts" around where the two towers once stood. The piles of rubble in their place "defied comprehension," he wrote. A medic on the scene stood by to treat survivors who never came, and Gellman noted the look on her face: "It was not the horror that she had seen," he wrote. "It was the impotence."

Ten days later in the nation's capital, the same reporter described a markedly different scene: "Monday morning in the Oval Office," and a "transformed" President Bush was barking orders at aides ("I want to see a draft of that speech tonight"). Gone were the strange silence and the feeling of impotence. Meanwhile, at Camp David, the president's advisers were dining on buffalo steaks and already talking about "taking the fight to Baghdad." Bush's own views on that subject were "pretty damn clear," in the words of one adviser.

It took only a few days for America's leaders to take us from rubble and confusion to "pretty damn clear." They did it, Susan Faludi argues in her new book, The Terror Dream, by taking us from an infinitely complicated global present to a simple, mythical American past. We recovered our national confidence by means of a retreat into "adolescent fictions," borrowed from 19th-century dime novels and mid-century westerns, which distorted our view of ourselves and the real threats we faced. Armed with false courage and blinded by these obfuscating myths, we chose the wrong targets and ended up hurting ourselves. As Faludi tells us, "There are consequences to living in a dream."

But if we take her argument, the man to blame for all this is not George W. but John Wayne, or the version of him that swaggered forth from the crypt of our national consciousness immediately after the attacks, summoned to reassure us of our fundamental goodness and indomitability. A thirsty American public tuned in to TBS's 20-hour John Wayne marathon that Christmas. Strut and bluster were back in vogue after a long hiatus, for politicians as for pundits, who broke out their most muscular and uncompromising patriotic prose.

There were a few notable exceptions: Susan Sontag, whose famous 450-word New Yorker piece was published only days after the attacks, was one. She began by decrying "the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric" of national leaders, calling it "a campaign to infantilize the public" that was "startling, depressing," and, "well, unworthy of a mature democracy." "Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together," she wrote.

That Sontag reserved her greatest outrage and indignation for the American response, rather than the attacks themselves, put her among a tiny minority of public figures, who would shrink to virtually nil when they saw what happened to her. She was called "deranged," "an ally of evil," and "a despicable woman"; former New York City Mayor Ed Koch declared that she belonged in the ninth circle of hell.

With the reaction to Sontag's piece, the window slammed shut on this kind of analysis and critique, and it stayed shut for years. Six years later, with the damage to our national security, diplomatic aims, and civil liberties made plain, it has opened again, and now the nation's bookshelves are sagging with portentous titles seeking to measure the consequences and allocate blame. Reading any one of the outraged accounts of these all-too-familiar years is a daunting but cathartic experience, a little like tearing into a buffalo steak after a long hungry spell.

Faludi's latest book is as factually rich and insightful as any of them, and it offers something the others don't. It retells the story in a way that reveals its strangeness to us, showing us for the knuckle-draggers we became, despite ourselves. Her book borrows from the suspense genre: "There is a mystery here," she writes: Why, faced with a sophisticated airborne attack on the nation's military and financial hubs, did we react by "distracting ourselves with imagined threats to femininity and family life"? Why did we fall reflexively into exaggerated militarism and primitive gender roles, and how did we stay there for so long?

And rather than point the finger at Raytheon, neocons, or Al Qaeda for dragging us into it, Faludi ends up blaming -- warning to you innocents, spoilers ahead -- a cultural myth, one that she says is embedded in our national heritage and to which we have historically turned in times of trouble, from the Indian wars to the war on terror. As she tells it,

A young nation was struggling to make sense of a troubling legacy of episodic rampant terror in the homeland, a terror that its male settlers and soldiers had not been able to check at the familial front door. This was the experience that a national myth was called on to address -- by remaking its shame into triumph.

When the hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they "stirred some distant memory" and returned us to the primal scene of our nationhood: the frontier community under assault. Our collective response was to circle the wagons and order off the Wild West menu. We collectively endowed our leaders with "a cartoon masculinity" and based our sense of security on "a mythical male strength that can only measure itself against a mythical female weakness" -- in short, we exhibited "the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction."

If evidence of our "affliction" is needed, Faludi's chapter on Pvt. Jessica Lynch offers it up in the most compelling and disturbing way possible. In the spring of 2003, shortly after the assault on Iraq was launched, Lynch was "rescued" from the Nasiriyah hospital where she lay recovering following an insurgent ambush on her convoy. Lynch, suffering numerous broken bones and other injuries from the crash of her Humvee, spent nine days in a hospital, cared for by Iraqi doctors and nurses, before it was stormed by a team of U.S. special-ops forces who airlifted her out of the building. She was still wearing a dress leant to her by one of the nurses, had been fed with home-cooked food brought by her doctors, and had been infused with blood from their veins. The bed on which she had been lying, a special sand-filled bed designed to prevent bedsores and the only one in the province, was slashed by a member of the rescue team.

In the aftermath of her rescue, the media sought to establish her victimhood -- going so far as to speculate on the variety of tortures and humiliations to which they imagined she had been subjected, despite her not remembering anything of the sort. They also began the search for a hero to credit -- ignoring Lynch's words of praise for her fellow soldier Lori Piestewa, a young Hopi Indian American who became the first female soldier to die in the Iraq War -- and were frustrated in their attempts until Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, an Iraqi lawyer who was a fan of John Wayne movies, stepped forward to claim the mantle.

That Lynch had no recollection of meeting al-Rehaief, much less being rescued by him, did not prevent him from winning refugee status from the U.S. government and publishing a book about his heroics, for which HarperCollins paid $300,000. Three years after the ordeal, Lynch told The Washington Post, "I want people to remember me as being a soldier who went over there and did my job fighting for our country, our freedom." But of course that is not how she will be remembered.

Faludi provides us with a 19th-century parallel to Lynch in the form of the Texan settler Cynthia Ann Parker, who was just nine years old when a band of Comanche warriors captured her in a raid in 1836. Twenty-four years later, Parker was recaptured at gunpoint by a band of Texas Rangers and forcibly returned to white civilization. For years she sought to return to her Comanche husband and adoptive family; finally she stopped speaking and eating, and 10 years after her "rescue," she died.

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker's capture and rescue, minus these details, inspired the plot of Alan Le May's 1954 novel The Searchers, which two years later served as the basis for the John Ford classic film of the same name. John Wayne's role as chief rescuer in the movie is widely regarded as his finest performance.

Virtually all the 9-11 books agree that we were stupid; Faludi is one of the first to say we were stupid together. On the phone last month, I asked her how we came to be duped. Even if we weren't too smart for it, I asked, weren't we too diverse for an obsolete frontier myth to hold sway? Why would such a myth have power for Americans of non-Anglo stock, whose ancestors had no memory of the American frontier, or who had been on the other end of Anglo-settler conflicts? Why would the John Wayne myth speak to women, who stood to lose their status from it?

"It's hard to say," she said. "No one knows how a myth works." And yet, she said, as an American, "you swim in those waters," soaking up American myths and illusions as part of the assimilation process. "The curious thing," she said about the frontier myth, "is how hermetically sealed it seems to be, ready to be activated in a moment's notice."

In fact, the explanation for our post-9-11 cultural shift might be even more straightforward than that. John Judis' recent article in The New Republic reports on research into how the terrorism threat has shaped our political prejudices by disadvantaging progressive ideas and politicians. Three psychologists who have been researching the implications of "mortality salience" for several decades came out with a book in 2003 called In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The book received relatively little attention, perhaps because we were still in the throes of the phenomena it described.

Some of its observations overlap heavily with Faludi's, but the mechanism the psychologists propose to account for them is far simpler. Fear of death, they explain, makes people more conservative, more resistant to social change, more fearful of differences, and more hostile to outsiders; the Bush administration has artificially heightened this fear through the terrorism alert system and through its rhetoric of an epic clash of values.

The arguments in this book make sense to me, and the research is compelling, but I prefer Faludi's headier account, with its focus on the displacement of anxieties onto the domestic sphere. For all its heavy psychology talk, Faludi's analysis seems to offer more autonomy to the beleaguered citizen who labors to make sound political choices in an unfamiliar world despite the persistent lure of atavistic fantasy. After years of growing alienation, I find it cheering to think that there is still a "we" in American society, even if "we" were duped. To the extent that Faludi's book holds all of us responsible for our own culture and the failed policies we pursued, it reaffirms our faith in the democratic premise.

As Faludi put it to me, one positive thing to come out of these awful years is a reduced faith in politicians and political commentators. "A year ago," she said, "the scales began to fall off the eyes of a lot of people." Increasingly left to our own devices, Americans have a chance to come up with something other than the false sense of protection afforded by a paternal figure. "If we did let go of this invincibility myth," she said, "we would be free to find our way back to some extraordinary and humane principles that this country has."

"The stakes are so high," she added. "If we're going to wake up, this would be the time."