The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have been pegged as the moment that changed everything for Americans. Nothing was supposed to be the same after the attacks, and it was expected to usher in a new era for America.
Writer George Packer remembers having a moment of optimism.
"One of my earliest thoughts was [that] maybe this will make us better," Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "I had this sense that we needed to be slapped and woken up, that we were in an untenable state and that 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."
But Packer doesn't see it that way anymore. In a recent New Yorker piece, Packer writes:
"The attacks were supposed to have signaled one of the great transformations in the country's history. But the decade that followed did not live up to expectations. In most of the ways that mattered, 9/11 changed nothing."
Packer says that Sept. 11 did not detour America from the course the country was on before the attacks and is still on now. He says the path of decline --political polarization that started in the '90s and economic inequality that started in the '80s, for instance — has continued and gotten worse.
"All of these things were there before 9/11, and unless you were in the armed forces or loved someone 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."
While it may be harder to get on an airplane or into a building, these are trivial things compared to the way that Pearl Harbor changed America, Packer says.
"I don't want to say [Sept. 11] was a small event, but it was not an earth-shaking event in the life of this country at home," he says.
Packer admits he did not come to these conclusions lightly, saying it took many years to arrive at his belief.
It started with his reporting travels to Iraq for The New Yorker. He says the reality of the war and the war of ideas started to muddle his clarity of a post-Sept. 11 world.
"There are all sorts of things going on in Iraq that didn't fit with my ideas of 9/11," he says. "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."
A Generational Misstep
Many intellectuals say Sept. 11 was an opportunity to remake the world and plant the seeds of democracy. Packer says part of that reaction to Sept. 11 is what he calls "generational inferiority." He believes the current generation had missed out on the cataclysmic events past generations were challenged with, like World War II or the Great Depression. They were able to rise to those occasions and meet the challenges.
"I think people my age had wanted to rise to this occasion and might have created a bit of an illusion about how big the occasion was and what it meant to rise to it," he says. "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, it became an agent of our own division."
Packer says he saw some of his early hope played out in New York in the weeks following the attacks. That sense of fragility made the city the best place to live in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, he says.
"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 if that had to fade."
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.