A Failure to Imagine
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
If you ask me, the press has this whole story about whether President Bush
had a warning of a possible attack before 9/11, and didn't share it, upside
The failure to prevent Sept. 11 was not a failure of intelligence or
coordination. It was a failure of imagination. Even if all the raw
intelligence signals had been shared among the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the
White House, I'm convinced that there was no one there who would have put
them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden was (or is) a unique character. He's a combination of
Charles Manson and Jack Welch - a truly evil, twisted personality, but with
the organizational skills of a top corporate manager, who translated his
evil into a global campaign that rocked a superpower. In some ways, I'm glad
that America (outside Hollywood) is not full of people with bin Laden-like
imaginations. One Timothy McVeigh is enough.
Imagining evil of this magnitude simply does not come naturally to the
American character, which is why, even after we are repeatedly confronted
with it, we keep reverting to our natural, naÃ¯vely optimistic selves.
Because our open society is so much based on trust, and that trust is so
hard-wired into the American character and citizenry, we can't get rid of
it - even when we so obviously should.
So someone drives a truck bomb into the U.S. embassy in Beirut, and we still
don't really protect the Marine barracks there from a similar, but much
bigger, attack a few months later. Someone blows up two U.S. embassies in
East Africa with truck bombs, and we still don't imagine that someone would
sail an exploding dinghy into a destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, a few years
later. Someone tries to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 with a truck
bomb, and the guy who did it tells us he had also wanted to slam a plane
into the C.I.A., but we still couldn't imagine someone doing just that to
the Twin Towers on 9/11.
So I don't fault the president for not having imagined evil of this
magnitude. But given the increasingly lethal nature of terrorism, we are
going to have to adapt. We need an "Office of Evil," whose job would be to
constantly sift all intelligence data and imagine what the most twisted mind
might be up to.
No, I don't blame President Bush at all for his failure to imagine evil. I
blame him for something much worse: his failure to imagine good.
I blame him for squandering all the positive feeling in America after 9/11,
particularly among young Americans who wanted to be drafted for a great
project that would strengthen America in some lasting way - a Manhattan
project for energy independence. Such a project could have enlisted young
people in a national movement for greater conservation and enlisted science
and industry in a crash effort to produce enough renewable energy,
efficiencies and domestic production to wean us gradually off oil imports.
Such a project would not only have made us safer by making us independent of
countries who share none of our values. It would also have made us safer by
giving the world a much stronger reason to support our war on terrorism.
There is no way we can be successful in this war without partners, and there
is no way America will have lasting partners, especially in Europe, unless
it is perceived as being the best global citizen it can be. And the best way
to start conveying that would be by reducing our energy gluttony and
ratifying the Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming.
President Bush is not alone in this failure. He has had the full cooperation
of the Democratic Party leadership, which has been just as lacking in
imagination. This has made it easy for Mr. Bush, and his oil-industry
paymasters, to get away with it.
We and our kids are going to regret this. Because a war on terrorism that is
fought only by sending soldiers to Afghanistan or by tightening our borders
will ultimately be unsatisfying. Such a war is important, but it can never
be definitively won. Someone will always slip through. But a war on
terrorism that, with some imagination, is broadly defined as making America
safer by also making it better is a war that could be won. It's a war that
could ensure that something lasting comes out of 9/11, other than longer
lines at the airport - and that something would be enhanced respect for
America and a country and a planet that would be greener, cleaner and safer
in the broadest sense.
Too bad we don't have a president who could imagine that.
Onward and Upward!