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George Packer: The Decade Since 9/11

The New Yorker’s George Packer on the decade since 9/11, and how it has changed the world.

Construction continues on the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site, Tuesday, May 10, 2011 in New York. On the left is 1 World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower. (AP)

Construction continues on the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site, Tuesday, May 10, 2011 in New York. On the left is 1 World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower. (AP)

It’s the week of reflection, on 9/11 and all the years and wars and ways we’ve traveled since 9/11. How we’ve changed in these ten years, and how we haven’t.

The New Yorker’s George Packer is with us today. The 9/11 attacks were the biggest surprise in American history, he says. One of just three sets of attacks that provoked the United States into major war. 1861, the Civil War. 1941, the Second World War. They changed our political culture, he says.

But after 9/11, says Packer, we’re stuck. Not changed –- yet.

This hour On Point: George Packer on the decade since 9/11.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

George Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker — his new article is “Coming Apart: After 9/11 Transfixed America, the Country’s Problems Were Left to Rot.” He is also the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq and Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade.

Highlights

Ten years after the worst terrorist attacks nation’s history, New Yorker writer George Packer has come to the startling conclusion that the attacks themselves really didn’t alter the course of the nation as much as we might think.

“The basic reality is 9/11 didn’t change this country very much,” Packer told On Point today. “It was a small event in the life of this country, in the sense that we were already on a certain course, that I think was a downward course, and we continued on that course, pretty much uninterrupted, after 9/11.”

Packer discussed numerous aspects of the past ten years, including the war on terrorism and how its emphasis has shifted, the way that the United States has interacted with the rest of the world, and the human and economic toll that the country’s war has taken here at home. In the end, Packer said that the ten years since 9/11 have been marked by big surprises and our national response to them.

Tom Ashbrook It’s all around us this week and, in some ways, we cannot resist looking back and reliving. In other ways, we’re very aware that ten years have gone by and that lots of problems have accumulated. Lots have not been solved. Where did you decide to put your fork in this, George, to look back on these ten years, this decade?

Packer It’s a good question Tom, because it has been a very strange decade — a really hard decade to get a grasp of. It doesn’t define itself easily. The trajectory of it is very strange. The way I see it is as a series of surprises that the country was not ready for. We were in this mode that we’re not used to.

We like to think of ourselves as being in command of our fate. That’s sort of been an American idea. Perhaps at times an illusion, but it has certainly guided us for a long time. And in the past ten years, we have been whipsawed from the fall of the towers, to the war in Iraq, the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, the rise of the insurgency, the surge, the return of the Taliban, the rise of Barack Obama, the financial crisis, the repudiation of Barack Obama, the killing of Bin Laden. All of these have been a kind of a series of shocks that for a lot of Americans there was not much preparation, and a hard time to really understand what the larger trajectory was. Instead it seems like a zig-zag course across the decade. So, the question of how to get a hold of it is a good one.

I started by writing about foreign policy, which is what I have been writing about on-and-off for most of the decade. And I just kept coming back to the fact that the real problem was here at home. There’s a lot to be said about foreign policy and what was right and what was wrong over the last ten years, but the basic reality is 9/11 didn’t change this country very much. It was a small event in the life of this country, in the sense that we were already on a certain course, that I think was a downward course, and we continued on that course, pretty much uninterrupted, after 9/11.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Yorker “The events of September 11th, as grim as they were, offered the prospect of employment to a generation of working-class Americans who were born too late for good factory jobs. If the Bush Administration’s “global war on terror” had gone the way of the Second World War, mass mobilization in the armed forces, combined with mass production in the factories, would have revitalized a stagnant national economy and produced a postwar boom.”

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