Since September 12, 2001, the American media have churned out a remarkable body of work on our nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The issue has been hashed out in newspapers and magazines, fiction and nonfiction books, documentary and feature films; yet the question of why we reacted the way we did—with a paroxysm of muscular rhetoric and military might—has never been addressed head on. Instead, the dialogue has generally centered on whether the way in which we reacted was appropriate, and, if it wasn’t, what we should do about it. Now, nearly six years later, Susan Faludi, the feminist author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written a sweeping historical analysis of why our nation—as reflected in the American media—reacted to the 9/11 attacks by “cocooning ourselves in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom’s childhood,” a domestic Leave it to Beaver-like fantasy. According to Faludi, our return to a fifties-era culture of masculine strength and feminine weakness was an attempt “to repair and restore a national myth” of invincibility. Faludi, whose previous two books, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of The American Man, were devoted to gender issues, broadens her scope in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, yet sticks with gender as her true north. “This is not a book about what September 11 ‘did’ to women or men, no matter how absurd or insulting the mantras of post-9/11 ‘new traditionalism’ may have been to its targets,” declares Faludi. “This is a book about why we responded the way we did to 9/11.” Our cultural regression, Faludi argues, belongs “to a long-standing American pattern of response to threat, a response that we’ve been perfecting since our original wilderness experience.”

Much like in Backlash, Faludi begins The Terror Dream with an elegant and highly readable introduction in a searing critical tone. Weaving together post-9/11 media snippets, bits of antiquated scientific and psychological theory, and film history, Faludi lays the groundwork for her most ambitious book yet: an explanation of the American psyche. If her aim is a bit grand, it’s hard to notice as Faludi wields her rhetorical prowess. And though she bolsters her introduction with evidence that is at times questionable (interpretations of Americans’ post-9/11 dreams) and unsubstantiated (“the most showcased victims bore female faces”), Faludi makes up for it in the first—and much stronger—half of her book with a highly detailed documentation of our reaction to 9/11. What she reveals is startling.

In the days after the attacks, Faludi received numerous calls from the media, “among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on ‘the return of the manly man’ and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on ‘the trend’ of women ‘becoming more feminine after 9/11.’” The irony of “heralding feminism’s demise” after an “attack hatched by avowed antagonists of Western women’s liberation” is not lost on Faludi, and it makes her account of the American media’s response all the more disturbing. From The National Review to The New York Times, Faludi cites endless columns and articles declaring that feminism was over and that America had grown soft and needed to reassert its strength. My favorite is an excerpt from a December 2001 Times column by John Tierney (I’ve quoted a slightly longer passage than Faludi used):

Since Sept. 11, the ‘culture of the warrior’ doesn’t seem quite so bad to Americans worried about the culture of terrorism. The ‘male paradigm of confrontation’ didn’t prove so worthless to the men who defeated the Taliban—or the women benefiting from the defeat. American males’ fascination with guns doesn’t seem so misplaced now that they’re attacking al Qaeda’s fortress. No one is suggesting a Million Mom March on Tora Bora.

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.