Ten Years After

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This has been a very bewildering decade,” New Yorker staff writer George Packer told an overflow crowd of 200 in the Renaissance-style auditorium of Columbia’s Italian Academy

On a gray, rainy anniversary, when memories seemed raw and talk promised comfort, Packer and a panel of writers whose fiction has touched on 9/11 — Claire Messud (The Emperor’s Children), Joseph O’Neill (Netherland), and Deborah Eisenberg (Twilight of the Superheroes) — addressed the cultural fallout of that day. By turns lively and dull, rambling and insightful, the discussion had, as Packer quipped afterward, “its own fitful trajectory.”

Andrew Delbanco, director of the Center for American Studies, and literary critic Adam Kirsch, who teaches a class at the center called “The New York Intellectuals,” introduced the panel, which was moderated by New York Times book review editor Sam Tanenhaus. The participants were attired mostly in grays and blacks, but the repartee was less muted. Tanenhaus, the bearded, bespectacled biographer of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, and Packer, with his elegant suit and polished manner, traded literary references like star students in a graduate seminar. And while no systematic cultural critique emerged, there was at least one consensus: that the impact of 9/11, notwithstanding two wars and some erosion of civil liberties, had been less profound than originally anticipated. 

Packer, the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq and Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade, said that his first thought after seeing images of the terrorist attacks, followed quickly by concern for the victims, was “‘Maybe this will make us better.’

“But I think on the whole,” he continued, “it did not. Our institutions, which were already in a state of early decadence, continued to decline, from banking to politics to the media. We’ve been in a state of perpetual reaction for 10 years.”

Eisenberg gave voice to the resulting muddle: “It’s hard to say any one thing — immediately, the opposite springs to mind. There’s a sense of fear, shame, defeat, and hope that everything will just change somehow the next time we wake up.”

“We overestimated it,” O’Neill said of al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat. “[9/11] was obviously a gigantic fluke. Why is that so hard to say?”

But Packer disagreed. He cautioned that al-Qaeda and its ideas remain a menace, and he credited the U.S. government with preventing more terrorist attacks. 

The events of 9/11 changed the relationship of New York with the rest of the country, if only temporarily, making it, said Packer, “an American city.” 

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