Book review: Unwelcome return of a damsel in distress - The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 AmericaBy Susan FaludiAtlantic Books, 368pp, £10.99

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

By Susan Faludi

Atlantic Books, 368pp, 10.99

SUSAN FALUDI'S CAT SCAN OF America's traumatised psyche is just one response to 9/11: the way in which America suddenly sought out ultra-traditional male heroes to help it come to terms with what had happened.

As a result, she argues, America sleepwalked into the Iraq quagmire, into hallucination, regression and psychosis.

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Although it was as infamous a day as Pearl Harbor, "the summons to actual sacrifice never came," she writes. "No draft ensued, no Rosie the Riveters were called to duty, no ration cards issued, no victory gardens planted ... What we had was a chest-beater in a borrowed flight suit, instructing us to max out our credit cards." Faludi argues that the hijacking of the interpretation of 9/11 by the White House hawks and right-wing commentators was a reopening of the culture wars. On the one side were grief counsellors, sisterhood, "femocracy", as well as such uppity critics of US foreign policy as Susan Sontag and Naomi Klein. On the other, triumphalist shore, making a Rocky/Rambo comeback, were traditional gender roles and rescue fantasies, medieval torture and the "alpha male" and "manly man": Rudy Giuliani with his "command presence"; "(Donald] Rumsfeld, the "babe magnet" secretary of defence; and New York City's firefighters, "Green Berets in red hats".

How, she wonders, did smoking out Osama bin Laden in his tunnel somehow morph, on the home front, into a "sexualised struggle between depleted masculinity and overbearing womanhood"?

Answering this question takes her from Ground Zero to the Oval Office, the op-ed page, the Hollywood studio, network television, 1950s sci-fi, and the captivity narratives of pilgrim and pioneer women. Along the way she interviews Jessica Lynch, who was written up first as a heroine of the war in Iraq and then as a victim, although she was neither. She disinters the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, whose abduction at age nine by Comanches in Texas in 1836 had to be improved upon by Alan Le May's novel and John Ford's film version of The Searchers, since she ended up preferring her Comanche husband to her Anglo relatives.

The script America reverted to in autumn 2001, she claims, was the oldest in its literary imagination, the frontier fear that savages would seize defenceless women while our girlie men were watching Oprah. Never mind that 9/11 had nothing to do with gender politics. If the US wasn't invincible, it must have been impotent. Somehow, the attack on global capitalism's main office had to be rewritten as "a threat to the domestic circle", and the US willed itself "back onto a frontier where pigtailed damsels clutched rag dolls and prayed for a male avenger to return them to the home". Think of the entire nation as a distressed damsel. Think of Homeland Security as Wyatt Earp. Think of hate radio and Fox News as Sergio Leone. Think of geopolitics as a video game. Think of Death Wish, High Noon, original sin, alien abduction, satanic day-care child molesters, demonic possession and job-stealing immigrant hordes.

There are other ways to look at 9/11, and account for a US grown so fearful that it feeds the Bill of Rights to its Biggest Brother.

But feminism is Faludi's compass. It has steered her inquiries and sensitised her apprehensions of a celebrity/media culture and national security state that honours men more as warriors, actors, cowboys, athletes and killers than for skilled labour, civic duty, steadfast fatherhood, homestead-ing, caretaking and community-building, and that tells women to lie down and shut up. Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book.