I thought that this passage from Terry Eagleton’s book Reason, Faith & Revolution (2009) — summarising Susan Faludi’s observations on 9/11 and US culture — was neat. It also helps to explain, I think, the mentality of many on the far right in Australia, their vicious hatred of feminism and feminists, and its particular expression as a paranoia regarding vulnerabilities to foreign invasion.
That many in the United States learned absolutely nothing from the onslaughts of 9/11 is clear enough from Susan Faludi’s brave study The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America. 9/11, Faludi argues, was a crisis of American virility from which the nation very quickly recovered. Only weeks after the attack, George Bush called on a clutch of Hollywood moguls to help market the war on terror; and part of the project was to herald the return of traditional American manliness after what one writer quoted by Faludi called the ‘‘pussiﬁcation of the American man.’’ Under the emasculating inﬂuence of feminism, American males had grown ﬂabby and gelded, shaved-and-waxed male bimbos whose limp-wristed lifestyle had laid the nation open to the Islamicist assault. The phallic symbol of America had been cut off, one blogger fantasized, and at its base was a large, smoldering vagina. ‘‘Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!’’ was one U.S. reporter’s response to the loss of three thousand lives. A Band of Brothers ethic, so one news magazine put it, could not take root in a female-obsessed Sex and the City culture. The U.S. had lost its balls along with its immunity to foreign invasion. A nation that had traditionally had some difficulty in distinguishing fantasy from reality was now busy conﬂating the two at every turn.
The aftermath of 9/11, so Faludi reports, witnessed a vicious lampooning of U.S. feminists. The Taliban’s oppression of women, much touted for a while, began to evaporate as a cause for concern as the bombs fell on Afghanistan. Meanwhile, squint-eyed Donald Rumsfeld was being celebrated as ‘‘the Stud,’’ ‘‘a babe magnet,’’ and—such are the egregious illusions of ideology—‘‘the sexiest man alive.’’ Square-jawed, short-haired, gun-toting America, thrust into neurotic self-doubt by an army of castrating bitches, had ﬁnally come out of hiding, beating its collective chest. Not long after the attack, men’s fashions began to favor hard-hat, military chic and ﬁrefighters’ jackets. The wide-eyed United States, unlike endemically cynical Europe, has always felt a hunger for heroes, and having an aircraft slam into your office somehow turned you into one.
Or if that was a hard one to argue, there were always the New York ﬁrefighters. The grim truth about 9/11, Faludi claims, is that the death toll would have been considerably lower had the ﬁrefighters not been sent into the World Trade Center. About three times more ﬁrefighters than office workers died on the ﬂoors below the impact of the aircraft. But in they were sent anyway, and the media response was to make Sir Galahads of them all. One demented U.S. journal raved that the New York Fire Department were heroes in possession of godlike prowess, beneficence, and divinity. Many of the firefighters themselves begged leave to demur. The fact that they died partly because their radios were not working was swept decorously under the carpet.
It was not long before the ﬁrefighters were erotic ﬁgures as well as heroic ones. A lust-for-ﬁremen trend was launched. ‘‘Firefighters Are a Hot Commodity in the Dating Game!’’ shrieked one newspaper headline. Women painted their toe-nails ﬁre-engine red. All this was seen less as kinkiness or hysteria than as a welcome return to sexual normality. The presence of women helping at Ground Zero was coolly ignored. Instead, there was a morbid cult of 9/11 widows, glossily packaged victims who were required to stick submissively to a script written for them by the media. Those who rebelled against their all-American-housewife image were instantly suppressed. A non-victim called Jessica Lynch was non-saved by U.S. soldiers in a non-heroic non-event. Terrorism and domesticity were closely twined: the point of killing Iraqis was to protect your kids. ‘‘Goodbye, Soccer Mom, Hello, Security Mom,’’ announced Time magazine, maintaining that the terrorist offensive had shocked Americans into a new faith in their oldest values. Everywhere you looked, people were trying to scramble their way back into the womb. A neurotic desire for security gripped a nation newly conscious of its mortality. Women who had ranked their careers over marriage were said bitterly to regret their blunder. The cozy and connubial were in vogue once again. Who, after all, was going to hold your hand when the next blast came?
Some of the actual victims of 9/11, including ﬁrefighters, spoke not in the hubristic language of their leaders, but of bonds forged by the shared experience of weakness, fear, and vulnerability. Meanwhile, the Babel-like response of their masters was to consider building an edifice at Ground Zero even higher than the Twin Towers. The grim news was that the United States’s moment of tragic crisis was in no way a spiritual conversion. On the contrary, it was business as usual, only a good deal more so.