The most beguiling and vexing phrase associated with 9/11 was "Failure Of Imagination." It's an extraordinary phrase with wide-reaching implications. "Who could imagine etc.?" Ms. Rice wondered aloud into the universal camera. To imagine means vision. Lack of vision is at the root of disasters that swoop out of control.
The extent of wildfires in southern California might well eventually (or immediately) be traced to a lack of vision - to a failure to imagine what a house here and a road there and power lines overhead and undergrowth there and proximity of water sources all might mean. The houses built in the hills were acts of will and deferred city planning. They want it - we can build it - we can finance it - what else do we need to know - or imagine? Were the consequences of these fires imagined and then ignored? Or not imagined at all as houses, neighborhoods and clusters of structures sprouted on landscapes of kindling?
As people sit in traffic and on runways - for hours - who could imagine it would be like this? Was it failure of imagination that had money diverted and designs denied for smart growth and mass transit? Were there other priorities at work in decision-making? If so, something different than imagination failed.
In the coming days there will be high drama and public prayers - the governor will be praised as a man of action even as half of his national guard are in Iraq - comparisons to Katrina will be made - fingers will try to be pointed but the noble smiles and stifled tears of the good-hearted homeless homeowners and the irritated squint of the governor will put a stop to that. We will rebuild. Intrepid - forward - and most likely without vision or imagination.
Failure of Imagination tries to forgive a multitude of sins. Did anyone imagine what an American army on the Arabian peninsula might mean? Or what an invasion of Iraq would mean? Did imagination fail when the government sent paid armies to the frontlines? Who could imagine it would cause increased rage and resentment or that anymore rage and resentment in Iraq was even possible?
After election 2000 many of us succeeded in imagining what was in store for us. We did not get a seat at the table where decisions were bought and paid for. We were put into free speech zones and dubbed focus groups. Our imaginations did not fail - but what good has it done?
Failure of Imagination is conscious failure. The shrug and the responsorial hymn of "who knew?" has expired. Does anyone need to imagine what bombing Iran will do?
The perfect storm that the governor of California referred to is not a passive reality. Smart collective decision-making and wise, imaginative leadership should collaborate with all neutral and hostile realities to minimize damage and hardship to the people being led. What might lurk beneath the "failure of imagination" is our leaders' indifference or political expedience or the unconscious need for catastrophe - or the perfect storm of all three. Something besides imagination is failing us - and failing within us.