America's failure of imagination

Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times

Washington: If you ask me, the press has upside down this whole story about whether President George W. Bush had a warning of a possible attack before Sept. 11, and didn't share it.

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 FBI, the CIA 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 did. Bin Laden was (or is) a unique character. He's a combination of Charles Manson and Jack Welch - an evil personality, but with the organizational skills of a top corporate manager, who rocked a superpower. In some ways I'm glad that America is not full of people (outside Hollywood) 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 Americans are repeatedly confronted with it, we keep reverting to our natural, naïvely optimistic selves. Because our open society is so much based on trust, and that trust is so hard-wired into the American character, 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 destroyer 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 CIA but Americans still couldn't imagine someone doing just that to the Twin Towers on Sept. 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 Sept. 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.

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 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 Sept. 11 other than longer lines at the airport - and that something would be enhanced respect for America and a country and that would be cleaner and safer in the broadest sense. Too bad we don't have a president who could imagine that.