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A narrative sketch from George Packer’s “Interesting Times”

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In our latest Notable Narrative, “Iraqis Pass the Safety Test,” The New Yorker’s George Packer draws an arc through three apparently unrelated points by doing little more than setting up and repeating quotes from as many stories: The first centers on the father who recently fell to his death over the rail of a ballpark in Texas. The second addresses the 128 people who died when a cruise boat went down on the Volga River this week. And the third relates to visas for Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military in the war effort.

Using narrative shorthand, Packer jumps from Texas to Russia in the first two sentences of his post. What is going on? Even the quotes he later offers about these two tragedies are off-kilter or unexpected: Nolan Ryan, owner of the Texas Rangers, seems to reject the idea of doing anything in response to the death of a fan at the ballpark. In contrast, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev delivers a surprisingly direct admission that the Volga accident might have been preventable, saying that something needs to be done about Russia’s aging ships.

But Packer has tucked the heart of his post into the third story – that of the Iraqis who have helped the U.S. yet who remain behind as its soldiers leave their country. Linking to a New York Times story on foot-dragging by officials in charge of getting these Iraqis into the U.S., Packer makes clear that people seen as collaborators will be targeted as soon as the soldiers leave.

He gives the problem a face by quoting a man who has gone into hiding after two years of waiting in vain for a visa, noting that before long, America will face the same issue in Afghanistan. Then, in two short sentences, he binds his narrative together:

So here is another preventable tragedy for which culpability is diffuse. But unlike the ones in Texas and Russia, the one in Iraq is ongoing.

The question at hand: What would you do if you knew that someone would die, and you could stop it? And perhaps even a little appeal to patriotism: Could America really be so heartless?

Narrative devices most often compel readers to wonder what happens next. Packer can’t deliver an answer in this story, because it isn’t over yet. But he makes clear that if we continue to do nothing, we have a pretty good idea how it will end.




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