Travel back six years in time. It's the summer of 2001. Lance Armstrong has just won his third consecutive Tour de France. President Bush signed an extension of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, reiterating that cooperation with other nations "is essential to pursuing the most effective approaches to solving the problems of proliferation and terrorism."
Anchorman Dan Rather is in hot water with the NAACP for saying on the Don Imus show that CBS news executives "got the Buckwheats" and were frightened into reporting on the smoldering scandal involving Rep. Gary Condit and missing intern Chandra Levy. The scandal itself is the most important story coming out of Washington as the Capitol empties for August recess.
Now imagine an alternate history that goes along with these events. Imagine that law enforcement officials catch a lucky break or that a particularly dogged FBI agent prevails over the inertia of her superiors.
Imagine that the news in early August 2001 also contains this blurb: "FBI agents made several arrests today in a plot to hijack U.S. airliners using box cutters. Some of the alleged conspirators reportedly received rudimentary flight training. Terrorism experts say they were in an early stage of planning and dismiss the plot as the work of amateurs."
Had history unfolded this way, had the 9-11 conspirators been discovered and deported, would anyone believe that they could have commandeered four aircraft, piloting three of them into U.S. landmarks and killing 3,000 people?
The world allegedly changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Watching people leap to their deaths and the twin towers come crashing down was supposed to be an effective antidote to what the 9-11 commission called "a failure of imagination."
But today, as a National Intelligence Estimate warns that the United States faces a heightened threat environment for terrorist attack, 9-11 is increasingly viewed as a one-off that's unlikely to be replicated. The inconveniences caused by heightened security no curbside parking at airports, only 3 ounces of liquids or gels on planes simply aren't commensurate with the risk of mass murder.
Neither are the many "freedoms" that the Bush administration, Congress and the courts have compromised including the freedom for individuals in the United States to participate in international conference calls with foreign jihadists without fear of surveillance.
Those are the ranks of the incredulous, who suffer not only from a failure of imagination, but also from a failure of recognition. When the FBI charged six radical Muslims, foreign nationals, in a plot to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., U.S. News & World Report carried the story under the headline, "Targeting Soldiers in an Amateur Plot."
In June, federal authorities busted an alleged plot by a retired airport worker and fellow Islamic extremists to inflict massive casualties by blowing up fuel pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Conspirators were recorded boasting of an operation more stunning than 9-11, one that would leave "the whole country in mourning."
The JFK plot wasn't even front-page news in the New York Times. Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt defended the decision to play the story inside the paper because "the accused men were a long way from action and that despite the apocalyptic comments of the U.S. attorney, their ability to carry out an attack on the airport was very much open to question."
Worse than those who suffer from failures of imagination and recognition are the cynics who reject the threat of terrorism as a mere tool to manipulate the masses. John Edwards summed it up nicely in a Time magazine interview in which he rejected the war on terror as political language "used to justify a whole series of things that are not justifiable, ranging from the war in Iraq, to torture, to violation of the civil liberties of Americans, to illegal spying."
The imaginatively challenged live in a Sept. 10 world of bliss. The cynics live in a Sept. 12 world of conspiracies. The plotters and victims of Sept. 11 are facts of history. And history has an uncanny way of repeating.