Cultural critic Susan Faludi's latest book, "The Terror Dream," paints a fascinating portrait of our social response to 9/11 and the wars since spawned. It is at once accurate, somewhat overtaken by events, and yet highly predictive of the road ahead in this long war against radical extremism.
Faludi observes that America reflexively re-traditionalized itself following 9/11's shock. We retreated into our past or, specifically, the 1950s childhood of our Boomers. Self-absorbed individualism was out, nurturing families back in.
Wimpy male icons were dumped for he-men, especially soldiers and firefighters. There were predictions of marriage and baby booms. Security moms ruled, body-snatching aliens threatened.
Our political leaders likewise indulged. Square-jawed, tough-talking Donald Rumsfeld suddenly morphed into a craggy babe magnet, and George W. Bush embraced his inner cowboy by donning a military flight suit and routinely giving out salutes.
More predictably, hawkish pundits gleefully blamed feminism for making America too pacific, too Oprah-ish, too emasculated.
In a recent book "The Enemy at Home," conservative Dinesh D'Souza even suggests that America should rein in its provocative women, lest their sexuality and outspokenness invite future attacks from Islamic fundamentalists.
"Button up, babe! You'll trigger a terrorist attack!"
I don't know about you, but that smells like something short of victory to me.
Delving deeper into the American psyche, Faludi also notes that, after 9/11, our media started resurrecting appropriately frightening archetypes, chief among them being the rescue of the vulnerable maiden snatched from the frontier homestead by savages. The classic movie that immediately springs to mind here is John Ford's "The Searchers," starring iconic John Wayne as the former Confederate soldier who spends years tracking down a young niece held captive by blood-thirsty Indians who "ruined" her.
This tale is a staple of American literature, beginning with James Fennimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans," and it's no myth. One of my male Barnett ancestors suffered this strange fate in western Pennsylvania in the late 1700s.
But these frontier attacks were less frequent than popularly portrayed. Most wagon trains traveling the Oregon Trail reported no violence from Native Americans, finding them instead quite helpful.
The 19th century's dime novels told a different story, as did later Hollywood films. Abduction and rape were not the biggest threats pioneer women faced but disease. Nor were they weaklings, needing constant male protection. Life was too hard and demanded too much.
But when you read Faludi's chapter on Army soldier Jessica Lynch, it gets hard to deny that the post-9/11 myth manufacturing got out of hand.
The lurid story lines of torture and rape by "Saddam's beasts" simply weren't true, and neither were the cartoonish portrayals of Lynch as either female Rambo or hapless hostage. Lynch handled the ordeal with admirable skill, despite all the media misrepresentation.
The real hero was lost in the intense media blitz about Lynch's rather staged rescue from an Iraqi hospital, where - by the way - she received great care by local doctors. That hero, according to Lynch herself, was fellow soldier and good friend Lori Piestewa, a Native American who acted with uncommon bravery when their unit was attacked. Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die in combat overseas.
As Faludi admits, much of this re-traditionalization phenomenon associated with the trauma of 9/11 has faded with time, and with Hillary Clinton poised to be our nation's first major party nominee for president, it gets hard to argue that the role of women in our society has suffered any permanent damage as a result.
But Faludi's larger point about America naturally dipping into the metaphors of its frontier-age past makes sense when you consider our age of rapid economic globalization.
When the global economy expands today, it naturally moves into the most traditional, off-grid cultures left to be found on this planet, disrupting patriarchal social structures and predictably eliciting violent fundamentalist backlashes.
Globalization's advance today is being led by real pioneers of all sorts - many of them Asian. But globalization's need for a bodyguard is also real, and America needs to cowboy-up whenever and wherever it can to help secure those frontiers.
Why? Because most mass violence today happens at the edge of globalization, like Kenya's Rift Valley right now.
If our effort takes a little myth-making, then there's worse things we could do - like staying home and just not giving a tinker's damn.