After Sept. 11, A 'Missed Opportunity' For America Sept. 11 has been hailed as the moment that changed everything for Americans. But writer George Packer says America had been on a decline before the attacks and that the country failed to respond to its wake-up call.
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After Sept. 11, A 'Missed Opportunity' For America

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After Sept. 11, A 'Missed Opportunity' For America

After Sept. 11, A 'Missed Opportunity' For America

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GUY RAZ, host: George Packer was among the most influential reporters who covered terrorism in Iraq after 9/11. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who became part of a group known as the liberal hawks, people on the left who supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, at the time, Packer says he was convinced 9/11 had changed America for good. These days, though, he's not so sure. But it took Packer a long time before he came to that conclusion.

GEORGE PACKER: I did think that this was an ideological struggle that had been brought to us and that we're now required to join, and it would take years and years and would demand a great effort across our government and across our citizenry. And war would be a part of it, but so would writing and thinking and reporting and that it would involve nothing less than changing the political culture of the countries that had bred the ideology that was behind the attacks.

RAZ: In your latest piece in The New Yorker, you write, and I'm quoting you, "September 11th was a tragedy that in the years that followed tragically consumed the nation's attention," including your own, you imply.


RAZ: What happened?

PACKER: Well, I started going to Iraq. And what I saw in Iraq was not just what war looks like but what ideas of war look like. And suddenly, the clarity that I wanted after 9/11 began to dissolve. There are all sorts of things going on in Iraq that didn't fit with my idea of 9/11. I began to lose some faith in the words and the ideas that I had embraced in the first year or two after 9/11.

RAZ: After 9/11 and the subsequent years, immediate years afterwards, it was described as a generational struggle by our politicians and our media and institutional leaders that 9/11, quote, "changed everything." But you write in your most recent piece in The New Yorker that in most ways that mattered, 9/11 changed nothing.

PACKER: And it took years for me to see that 9/11 did not detour us from the course that we were on before it, and that we're still on now, which I think is essentially a course of decline. The political polarization that began in the '90s has continued and gotten worse. The economic inequality that began in the '80s has continued and gotten worse. All these things were there before 9/11.

And unless you were in the Armed Forces, or love someone who is in the Armed Forces, or unless you were a victim on that day on 9/11, it didn't really change daily life much at all and even the deeper aspects of daily life. You know, getting on airplane is harder now, getting into a building is harder, but these are trivial things compared to the way Pearl Harbor changed America. 9/11, it turned out, was actually a rather - I don't want to say a small event, but it was not an earthshaking event in the life of this country at home.

RAZ: Many intellectual saw 9/11 as an opportunity to remake the world, to plant the seeds of democracy. And at the time, you were sort of captured by that idea as well. I'm wondering if there were other opportunities that you believe we missed as Americans over the past 10 years of - opportunities we may have had perhaps to strengthen America.

PACKER: Well, I think you're right about the way intellectuals reacted to 9/11. I think it was partly a sense of generational inferiority. People my age, and a little older and a little younger, had really been through very little in the way of cataclysmic events. And there was this envy for earlier generations that had been to those things that had risen to those occasions. And I think people might wanted to rise to this occasion, it might have create a bit of an illusion about how big the occasion was and what it meant to rise to it.

And I think in the course of giving in to that illusion, the country missed the fragile state of our own democracy, and instead, not only was it a missed opportunity, but it also became an agent of our own division.

RAZ: Looking ahead, do you see a moment or an opportunity where that course may be reversed?

PACKER: It's hard to see now. On the other hand, I do remember vividly, the very morning of the attacks, one of my earliest thoughts was maybe this will make us better. I had the sense that we needed to be slapped and woken up, that we're in an untenable state and 9/11 was a brutal wake up. I had an expectation or at least a hope that something good like that would come out of it.

And that was born out over the following weeks. I mean, New York has never, in my experience, been a better place to live than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Now, that was bound to fade, but I don't know that the sense of - the fragility and the worth of our democracy, I don't know that that had to fade.

RAZ: That's George Packer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His latest piece is called "Coming Apart." He spoke to me from our studios in New York. George Packer, thanks so much.

PACKER: My pleasure.

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