Sex, Lies and Night Vision Video

Feminist Pundit Wakes from A Terrible Dream

 October 1, 2007

San Francisco author Susan Faludi is raising hackles again with her latest book.

If the name Faludi rings a bell, that's because this is the same author who gave us the controversial bestseller, Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women. Her new project, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America takes off in a more anthropological direction, this time exploring the use of mythology as a psychological tool in shaping the cultural response to national tragedies.

Granted, Americans are probably no different than the Ancient Greeks or Egyptians when it comes to fabricating a little fib here, a little exaggeration there, for the sake of posterity. Faludi's more interested in the present, however, and sets about unraveling the real-time manipulation of the events of September 11th.

Captivity Narratives

Terrorism is not a modern phenomenon.  In the early years of the American colonies, Indian raids left villages burned to the ground and women missing, spirited off into the woods on the back of a horse. Even in those days, the Native Americans were actually called terrorists. By the time the Victorian era came along, a storyline had evolved in which American men responded to by pursuing the attackers, rescuing loved ones and galloping triumphantly back to town for a hero's welcome.

The only problem with that version of events, Faludi alleges, is that in most cases it never happened.  Of all the first-person accounts she uncovered, the one written by Mary Rowlandson appeared to be the rule rather than the exception. After enduring 11 weeks of captivity, Rowlandson complained that the colonial militia refused to cross a river in pursuit of the Indians who captured her, even though the Indian party forded the stream without incident. In fact, the Puritan woman was never rescued at all.  She bargained with her captors instead, eventually winning her freedom with the help of a pair of knitting needles.

“There were a number of women captives who either defended themselves, negotiated, or, extraordinarily, about a third of female captives actually chose to stay with their Indian captors [and] preferred the Indian life,” Faludi said last September in an interview with Amy Goodman, host of the Democracy Now radio show.

After the Civil War, another more dangerous myth took root, Faludi went on, this one suggesting that white women were being defiled at the hands of black men. This was but the legacy of the southern confederacy after losing the Civil War. African-American men were lynched by the hundreds as a result.

Fast forward to 2003 and the war in Iraq.  In Terror Dreams, Faludi recounts the entire outlandish tale of how the Pentagon used a private named Jessica Lynch to spin a tale of capture and rescue in that country that was so beyond the pale of reality, it frankly resembled the Pat Tillman cover-up.  Lynch and her unit were separated during the American advance on Baghdad after an I.E.D. exploded under their vehicle in Nasiriyah.  Severely injured, she was taken to a hospital and treated by Iraqi nurses and doctors.  When her condition was stabilized, the hospital staff loaded her into an ambulance and drove her out to the nearest U.S. troop convoy they could find.

The episode would have ended there had the convoy not fired on the ambulance, forcing the vehicle to turn around and bring Lynch back to the hospital.  As Faludi tells it, while Lynch was marooned there, the Pentagon set into motion a plan to transform her “capture” into a media bonanza.

 “The story we heard originally was that these, you know, Special Ops teams of brave men, armed with a night vision video camera so they could film themselves, came battling into this Iraqi hospital, which was supposedly overrun with Fedayeen death squads, and they rescued Lynch,” Faludi told Goodman. “The military hustled out a video of this drama only three hours later and woke up all the reporters in the middle of the night so they could see it.”

Naturally, the negotiation of Hollywood film rights could not be far behind. Writes Faludi, “Nine months into this, this book comes out that purports to be her story.” I Am a Soldier, Too, penned by former New York Times reporter Rick Bragg, recounts Lynch’s biography, dwelling more on her time in kindergarten than her life as an adult. “I mean, it was as if they wanted to return her to a little girl. But, you know, Rick Bragg’s book hit the bestseller list immediately, because of what was really only one or two sentences that said that medical records indicated that she was anally raped.”

Lynch herself didn’t accept that part of the story.  “You know, I didn’t remember it then, I don’t remember it now, and I did not want this in the book,” the soldier informed Faludi.  Instead, the legions that appeared on her bottom may have resulted from the IED explosion that ripped apart her unarmored humvee.

The made-for-TV movie called Saving Jessica Lynch, based on Bragg’s reporting, aired on NBC in November, 2003. As in the case 200 years earlier, the myth of the helpless woman rescued from the savage, dark-skinned terrorist by brave American men was peddled to millions of unsuspecting viewers.

Not Your Stereotypical Feminist

Reyhan Harmanci of the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Faludi at a Nob Hill café in early October.  She says the 48-year-old writer resembles Joan Didion in her middle years and is a soft-spoken woman who “tends to leave her more acidic comments dangling at the ends of sentences, almost as afterthoughts.”  Educated at Harvard, Faludi worked as a journalist for the Miami Herald and later the Wall Street Journal, where she snagged a Pulitzer for her reporting in 1991. Backlash won her the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award. She currently works as a contributing editor for Newsweek.

On the day her new book was released, Faludi said in a Newsweek interview that she hadn't really appreciated the potency of this American he-man rescue motif until she traveled outside the United States.  “It really struck me when I was in Europe during the London terrorist bombing in 2005, and I was reading the British press, watching the BBC,” she said.  “Both the government and the press reaction was pretty matter of fact: let's deal with this as a criminal matter, bring the perpetrators in and prosecute them. I, at least, didn't see stories about how "7/7" [the date of the London transit attacks] was going to bring about a return of the British manly man.”

The experiences of firefighters at Ground Zero on Sept. 11th offers equally disturbing evidence of truth manipulation by the authorities, Faludi explains in her book. According to the myth promulgated in most press accounts, the first responders willingly sacrificed their lives in New York in order to attempt daring rescue attempts inside the burning buildings. Yet sifting through the 500 oral records of the tragedy, Faludi found one comment that characterized all the rest. “The only difference between us and the victims,” a firefighter said, “is we had flashlights.” 

“What they didn’t have was working radios,” Faludi shared with Goodman of Democracy Now. The problem with faulty communications at the towers first surfaced after the terrorist bombing in 1993, but the City of New York had not corrected the situation during two terms of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani played down that oversight when testifying before the 9/11 Commission, claiming the emergency personnel chose to remain in the Towers, no matter the impending doom.

After all, that’s what real men do.

The Silence of Women

On the morning of September 11th, Faludi says she had a dream in which she and another woman were seated together on a plane when a young man approached and then shot two bullets.  “One went into my throat at a sort of odd angle, and one into her throat at an odd angle,” she recounted on Democracy Now.  “And I realized that we were both alive, but we couldn’t speak.”

That metaphorical impasse subsequently became a central thesis for her book.  In the days following the attacks, Faludi noticed that female commentators had almost disappeared completely off the newspaper editorial pages. While the four male airline passengers who stormed the cockpit on Flight 93 - Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick and Tom Burnett - became household names, the female flight attendants who participated in siege received comparatively little attention from the media.

Of greater concern to Faludi, however, were the regressive attitudes about women that began to emerge when the dust cleared around lower Manhattan.  The late Jerry Falwell, the dean of the evangelical movement, may have delivered the most memorable remarks, stating  “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”

Amy Goodman asked Faludi about that statement. “He was the most sort of ludicrously cartoonish in his expression of this, and even his fellow neocons said, ‘You know, please don’t express this so extremely.’  But if you go back and look at the kinds of things that were being said in the weeks and months after 9/11, there were an alarming number of articles and commentaries declaring, much like Falwell, although in more hedged terms, that 9/11 was going to cause the death of feminism,” she explained.  “There was this whole message to women that they needed to sort of back off their demands for independence or, you know, face being regarded as almost treasonous.”

While the Japanese were scapegoated in America after Pearl Harbor, Faludi pointed out in her Newsweek interview that public perception during World War II differed sharply from the propaganda circulating after September 11th.  That earlier war “was not about chest-beating and go it alone militarism. Tellingly, that was a time when women were encouraged to take more of a role in society, encouraged to enter the workforce, and when we had government-subsidized daycare. So, clearly, we are capable of rising above this mythology given the right leadership.”

In a twist of irony, in 2006 the country has witnessed its first viable female presidential candidate climbing to the top of the polls.  While inspiring fear and loathing among traditional conservatives, the Clinton candidacy has been generally received as a positive development in an otherwise relentless news cycle of natural disasters, military quagmires, product recalls and recession worries. Doubtless the abominal failure of FEMA and the Dept. of Homeland Security in Hurricane Katrina served to shatter the myth that any Americans, male or female, can trust their future to a group good ol' boys who know how to spin a wild fish story.


 Copyright 2007