As we move toward the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there will be plenty of reminiscences. And that’s fitting. A couple of thousand people died on that day, and those attacks set in motion a series of conflicts that killed many of thousands more.
We live in a different world today because of 9/11.
But there are limits to my own personal sentimentality. Not long after the attacks, I was sick of hearing Bush administration officials, television commentators, and others describe the attacks as “unimaginable”. That word — and variants of it — became a meme that played out in all sorts of insidious ways.
Quite literally, 9/11 was obviously not unimaginable. I don’t know how many people knew about the attacks in advance, but clearly a few dozen people did more than simply imagine it: they planned it and made it a reality.
So Americans’ use of “unimaginable” is obviously a troublesome choice. “Only evil people could imagine it.” “Only people who aren’t really people could imagine it.” Et cetera. This is a rhetorical path that makes it easy to shift into the warmongering language — “evil”, “evildoers”, “the war on terror” — that led us not only into a justifiable war in Afghanistan but into a war of choice in Iraq.
And, let’s be clear, there were lots of experts right here in America — people who were paid to assess security threats — who fully understood the threats of hijacked planes. There was nothing unimaginable here. 9/11 was a tactical success for Al Qaeda, and it was the result of failures of American intelligence and politics.
The Washington Post’s 5 myths about 9/11 by Bryan Michael Jenkins began with this myth a few days ago: “1.Sept. 11 was unimaginable.”
In 2002, the White House described 9/11 as “a new type of attack that had not been foreseen.” An understandable response to being caught off guard, perhaps — but the fact is that the possibility of hijacked airliners crashing into buildings was neither unimaginable nor unimagined. The idea dates at least to 1972, when hijackers, during a protracted domestic incident, shot the co-pilot of a Southern Airways flight and threatened to crash the plane into the nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
After the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, a “red team” of consultants (myself included) hired by the center to explore future threats to the site identified a plane crashing into one of the towers as a possible scenario. In 1994, hijackers of an Air France jet reportedly considered crashing the aircraft into the Eiffel Tower. And a terrorist plot discovered in 1995 involving Ramzi Yousef, one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described architect of 9/11, contemplated crashing an explosives-laden plane into the headquarters of the CIA.
As Jenkins suggests in his piece, perhaps after 9/11 we too quickly embraced the possibility of worst-case scenarios — after we had spent years ignoring them.