The 9/11 Commission famously found a “failure of imagination” among the principal vulnerabilities that facilitated the terrorist threat.
We had accurately observed the predicates — USS Cole breaching, East African embassy bombings, vicious sermons, declarations of war, and more — that put a few on high alert.
After the attack other clues were nearly as obvious, tantalizing offers of operational warning and even tactical preemption. But we were mostly distracted and failed to imagine the possibilities that were percolating.
So on September 11, 2001 most of us were surprised and, it has seemed to me, many over-reacted. Both at home and overseas — especially in regard to Iraq — we unintentionally delivered strategic advantages to our adversaries.
In our response to 9/11 we hurt ourselves much worse than the initial horrific blow. We also planted seeds of further vulnerability and, even perhaps, self-destruction.
These are claims that over the years I have referenced here. I will understand if you insist I defend them again today, but my present purpose is prospective rather than retrospective.
I am concerned we’re doing it again: Being distracted and self-indulgent and dismissive of others and distorting unwelcome truths.
Some of this is innate to our human condition. As both a species and as individuals we are limited. We are especially constrained by the story-engine in our brains. Too often trapped in the same old story, indignant if any one seeks to shift our recurring narrative.
But reality is seldom satisfied with mere repetition, despite how much we prefer a familiar rhythm.
If there remains any “we” worth the term, we have mostly dismissed the suffering of tens-of-thousands in Syria. Public opinion surveys, political non-action, media reporting, and more all supply evidence that we have usually averted our eyes when confronted with the reality on the ground. It has been an especially messy and brutal reality. Confusion, hesitation, mistakes are entirely justifiable. But neglect and denial are not. We ought not have been so surprised by what has spilled-over from Syria into Iraq.
Our surprise is evidence of a failure to accurately observe and reasonably imagine.
I have been complicit in this dismissal of reality; more accurately, distorting of reality. After a few attempts to call-attention to the Syrian implications for homeland security, I retreated into the boundaries of a primarily domestic discipline. Yet this week we are attempting to address a Syrian-based strategic threat with TSA tactics and urging Norwegians to spy more on each other. Looking for symptoms, ignoring their source?
The same tactical myopia afflicts our surprised response to the Children’s Crusade marching toward and across our southern border. Both the anti-illegal right and the anti-xenophobic left are mostly preoccupied with what they perceive as urgent. Meanwhile the source of our problem is a cauldron of cartels and coyotaje combined with chronic poverty and violence that requires a long-term strategy creatively and cogently applied.
Whatever else, we face a reality where thousands of children are taking an extraordinary risk to come to us. I understand we ought not encourage such risk-taking. But dare we ignore the compelling threats that have driven these children into taking this risk? Do we seek to “secure the border” so that we can pretend these other threats do not exist? What are we prepared to do to address source as well as symptom?
Then Tuesday Chris Bellavita reported on the dismissive comments of some regarding the QHSR. This is a much smaller matter. But it is another example of the same intellectual reflexes: dismiss, distort, destroy. It is as if the — sometimes heated — discussions begun in late 18th Century Philadelphia have devolved into something much more similar to a junior varsity debating club. We self-validate by running up the score with reckless accusations, banal set-phrases, and an abject refusal to listen.
Ignore and ignorance share the same source. Imagination is spurred by authentic encounter with the unknown.