"To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything." -- Albert Einstein
The elites who could have prevented 9/11 and the financial meltdown have excused themselves on the grounds that these defining catastrophes were "unimaginable." Since it would have been impossible for anyone to conceive of these events, let alone take action, the rationalization goes, no one need be held accountable.
After National Security Adviser and soon-to-be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "No one could have imagined [terrorists] taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon... into the World Trade Center, using planes as a missile," the bipartisan 9/11 Commission revealed that U.S. officials had in fact been warned that Al Qaeda could "seek to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark." (Years before, the Tom Clancy best-seller "Debt of Honor" depicted a terrorist flying a Boeing 747 into the Capitol.) The Commission soft-pedaled the Administration's negligence, concluding that "the most important failure [concerning the 9/11 attacks] was one of imagination."
Michael Lewis, in his fascinating new book The Big Short , tells the tales of several non-lock-steppers -- armed with nothing more than computers and open minds -- who made fortunes betting on what they deduced was the inevitable subprime financial disaster. Ben Hockett, one of the winners, observes that the lemmings who ran the financial system "believed that the collapse of the subprime mortgage market was unlikely precisely because it would be such a catastrophe. Nothing so terrible could ever actually happen." Standard and Poor, whose phony Triple-A ratings of worthless financial instruments were a key catalyst for the meltdown, were apparently so sure the market couldn't go south that the mathematical models they built to game various scenarios didn't even allow computers to accept negative numbers, even hypothetical, imagined ones!
On Good Friday, conservative commentator Peggy Noonan trotted out the "unimaginable" explanation with regard to the Catholic Church's growing worldwide sex abuse scandal. After portraying Pope Benedict XVI as a hero rather than a responsible party, she wrote that for
Benedict's predecessor, John Paul the Great, about whom I wrote an admiring book... the scandals would have been unimaginable -- literally not imaginable. He had come of age in an era and place (Poland in the 1930s, '40s and '50s) of heroic priests. They were great men; they suffered. He had seen how the Nazis and later the communists had attempted to undermine the church and tear people away from it, sometimes through slander... John Paul, his mind, psyche and soul having been forged in that world, might well have seen the church's recent accusers as spreaders of slander. Because priests don't act like that, it's not imaginable.
On the same day, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, the powerful preacher of the papal household, ratcheted up the Church-as-victim talking point, comparing the media's coverage of the unfolding scandal to the historical persecution of Jews.
Of course, stories of widespread sex abuse by priests have been reported, in depth, for decades. Does Noonan really mean that John Paul didn't want to imagine a truth that was, tragically, staring him in the face?
I'm sure there are plenty of unimaginable things in the universe, though it's impossible for me to imagine what they are. But flying a plane into a building, the crash of a financial system and sex abuse by priests, we can safely say, aren't among them. Not only were these events imaginable, they were imagined and anticipated by ordinary people with far less information than the exalted elites who could have taken action.
Isn't it precisely the job of political, financial and religious leaders to imagine disasters and then prepare for them? (Plausible ones, that is, as opposed to, say, anti-asteroid Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher's crusade for funds to combat "objects coming from space that could cause colossal loss of lives on our planet.") And if their imaginations fail them, and us, shouldn't they be held accountable -- morally and, when appropriate, criminally?
Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.
Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author's permission.