It examines America's psychological response to the attacks and finds lots of answers in our Wild West frontier myths. So we caught up with her by phone last week, and posed our 10 (well, OK, 11) Questions to her:
1. You open "The Terror Dream" with a dream, a nightmare, you had the morning of 9/11…
I was in L.A. and it was very early, dawn or predawn. I had this strange dream that I was on an airplane and a young man came down the aisle and shot twice. One bullet went through my throat, the other went through the woman next to me. In the dream, I was still alive but I couldn't' speak.
I'm the opposite of a New Age person. I don't make any claims for this being any kind of psychic experience. What struck me later was the metaphorical properties of the dream. We were alive but we couldn't express what we had experienced. There was additional significance in this being two women in the dream. After 9/11, there was a dramatic decline in women's voices, on the ed pages, on talk shows, in addition to the female responders who had behaved heroically. Not only did they get no credit for it when women's rights groups attempted to recognize them, they were soundly rebuffed.
2. What prompted you to write this book?
After 9/11, as the weeks and months and then a year passed, it was as if we'd fallen into this fever dream where political leaders were spouting all this vigilante cowboy rhetoric. "Shoot 'em between the eyes." "Smoke 'em out of their holes." It was a return to this John Wayne masculinity, to our Indian wars.
And then on the feminine side of the equation, there were all these trend stories, that 9/11 would bring on a marriage boom, a baby boom, even that feminism had come to be deep-sixed.
So I set out to try and understand why, when symbols of our military and commercial establishments had been attacked, why was there all this focus on home and hearth?
3. And what did you find?
As much as we said at the time, America's never been attacked on home soil—or the continental U.S.—that wasn't true. For the first 200 years, early American life's main feature was being attacked, by the Indians. And it was on villages and communities, on home and hearth. The settlers had this feeling that they were being attacked by non-Christian, nonwhite "terrorists." And Puritan patriarchs would refer to the Indians as "terrorists."
On 9/11, despite warning, despite that August 2001 briefing that Bush got in Crawford, Texas, our executive office did not respond. We were not able to guard our skies, the FAA did not do its job, the military did not do its job.
Just as men on the frontier were often not able to protect their families, and they often failed to rescue the women taken captive. One estimate says that between the late 17th and early 18th century, a quarter of the women and 60% of the girls taken captive did not return. Out of that experience of vulnerability and fear and shame we developed a cultural mythology to paper over our humiliation: America as a dominant, invincible nation that always rises to rescue its helpless women.
4. The title of your book comes from a novel about the frontier...
I called the book "The Terror Dream" after the novel that the classic John Ford 1956 western, "The Searchers," is based on. In the novel, there's a young man who has a recurrent terror dream, based on the humiliating memory of himself as a boy, when he was hiding in the brush while his whole family was killed by Indians. He's buried that trauma so that it's no longer recognizable, and his dream is a lot of surreal red-flame-like visions.
What's interesting is that this whole story has been dropped out of the movie. The shame of the boy becomes the invincibility of John Wayne.
I chose this title because it seemed to me that the 9/11 attacks brought us face-to-face with our vulnerability. And rather than grapple with that vulnerability, we treated it with fantasy.
5. And this isn't always the way our country has reacted?
Our founding fathers were able to lift themselves out of their own fears and anxieties and embrace a vision for our country as a nation built on democratic principles, grounded in the expansion of civil liberties, not the contraction.
During World War II there was this vision, a collective solidarity. FDR was not dressed up in a flight suit but sitting by the fire, appealing to our hopes not our fears.
In the days right after 9/11, New Yorkers were treating each other with tenderness, it wasn't a time of chest beating. There was a glimmer we could have taken a different path.
6. What happened instead, what went wrong?
Some of it has to do with leadership, or lack of it. Then we had a cowed press that went along with it all. Our media is driven by image and appearance and celebrity.
Some of the articles after 9/11 are pretty shocking, and it wasn't just the conservative press. Even columnists in major newspapers and mainstream talk shows were engaging in this kind of vitriolic, bloodthirsty rhetoric, about vengeance and retribution, about these things that eventually came to pass—torture, curtailing civil liberties, secret prisons.
Out of this fear and humiliation came a willingness to go along with an attack on a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. We wanted a victory, we wanted to feel invincible again.
The way we reacted after 9/11 was a throwback to the 1950s, to the way we reacted after World War II ended.
7. Which was?
Thanks to our atomic bomb and guided missiles, we were no longer this distant nation. If you look at media commentary, about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there's this "deep fear psychosis," a feeling we were not safe, which played itself out as a gender drama. We needed to guard our ranch homes, we needed to create fallout shelters. Women were baking cookies and taking care of the kids.
Women had been working during World War II—remember Rosie the Riveter?—and men were feeling emasculated. This deep fear psychosis expressed itself as a domestic drama. Men needed to bulk up and be Cold Warrior heroes. After 9/11, you had the return of the manly man, these metrosexual men had gotten too wimpy with their pathetic Blackberry culture.
8. You write in your book about a phone call you received from a reporter the morning of the attack: "After a couple of vague questions about what this tragedy would 'mean to our social fabric,' he answered his own question with, given the morning's events, a bizarrely gleeful tone: 'Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map.'" How did you react to that? And six years later, what did 9/11 do to feminism?
I remember thinking, Why is he calling me? I wasn't exactly an expert on terrorism. I think I said, Huh? Sadly, I did not deliver a disquisition on misogyny.
I don't think 9/11 brought on all by itself an attack on feminism but accentuated a process long underway. An important and nefarious phenomenon to come out of 9/11 was an ugly silencing of feminist women and feminist critics, and all this saber rattling. Women were called bad mothers, moral idiots, deranged.
9. You have one chapter titled "Precious Little Jessi," about Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old soldier whose company was ambushed in April 2003. Eleven in her company died, five were taken hostage, and Lynch was injured and spent nine days in an Iraqi hospital. A dramatic midnight rescue by American troops followed, a scenario straight out of Hollywood. Later it turned out the details were different. You devote a whole chapter to her story, and she comes up frequently elsewhere in "Terror Dream." Why?
Jessica Lynch's story embodies the mythical rewriting of experience that's quintessential to 9/11. It wasn't enough just to tell the story about an American soldier who had been ambushed and left with her company. It was billed as a dramatic middle-of-the-night rescue, with special teams and fancy weaponry, battling into this hospital teeming with death squads to extract Jessica Lynch.
The American press was gushing, writing it was fantastic, straight out of Hollywood movies. But the British press reconstructed what happened, and there was no fierce battle, no fedayeen death squads. It was just a bunch of doctors and nurses trying to take care of her, trying to return her.
The story has all the elements of the American myth: Women need to be weak in order for men to be strong, women need to be helpless and in need of rescue. TV movies and biographies painted a picture of this "tiny little girl" who liked pink and didn't even want to be there, ignoring the fact that she had re-enlisted. When I interviewed her, she said, I was there to do a job, I knew what I was getting into. I don't consider myself a passive little girl.
It was important to find a male hero in all this. Meanwhile, Jessica Lynch was very clear on who the hero was. Another woman, a 23-year-old Hopi Indian single mom who had joined the military, who had voluntarily gone to Iraq even though she had been injured. They had been roommates at Fort Bliss, she had rescued Jessica Lynch during the mad race to Baghdad, and she was later killed.
10. You write that we live at a moment of great possibility. What is it? What should we do?
Another way of looking at this whole story is that what we went through on 9/11 was a trauma much like the original trauma that produced our national myth. And now the attacks present us with this opportunity to revisit the myth and confront it, to inspect it and come up with a way to resolve it. These feelings of vulnerability and fears and threats are part of being human, and you can't wish them away with some kind of myth.
As has already been demonstrated six years out, it hasn't made us any safer, we've devastated our moral standing in the world and quashed constitutional principles.
When you look at America's public attitudes now toward the war and Bush's performance, you see an opening for America to begin asking the hard questions. Can we see our frailties in a realistic light, other than this buckskin bravado and these dangerous delusions?
We could start by electing some competent political leadership, who would prepare us for a catastrophe, not just say, Heck of a job, Brownie. In the past, we've responded by saying, This is a wakeup call. Now is an opportunity to put our intellect behind solving our problems in a rational and realistic way.
11. Speaking of elections, we wanted to ask you about Hillary Clinton's candidacy…
Speaking in the context of my book, Hillary Clinton is one of a number of candidates who seems to be pursuing a different approach to politics than we've seen the last seven years. In fact, the other day in Oakland, she said, If elected, I will put an end to cowboy diplomacy. It's not because she's biologically different because she's a woman, but she's practical. She approaches issues in a substantive, practical way.
Obama and Edwards do too. Obama was asked why he wasn't wearing an American flag lapel pin. He pointed out that some people wear that pin but they don't put their money where their mouth is. If you're not supporting veterans' health care, he said, that's not patriotic.
With Hillary Clinton, in the last couple months, I think there's been this shift in the way she's been portrayed in the press, she's being seen as a serious candidate. It's part of the larger dismay with where this Wild West bluster has gotten us.