9/11 and the Failure of Imagination

Most Americans’ response to the September 11 terrorist attacks was one of absolute shock. Hijacked planes, explosions, collapsing towers, screams, sirens, chaos – this was the stuff Hollywood movies were made of. American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained that the collective surprise and panic in the aftermath of the attacks were due to "the poverty of expectations – failure of imagination." The director of the National Security Agency, Michael Hayden, compared the attacks to Pearl Harbor and said that "it was more a failure of imagination this time than last." The 9/11 Commission report also stated that across the government there were failures of policy, capabilities, and management that prevented the United States from acknowledging the possible danger. And among these, the Commission disclosed, the most important failure was one of imagination.

For Rumsfeld, Hayden, and the 9/11 Commission, the failure of imagination referred to the lack of foresight and preparation on the part of the United States government under the Clinton and Bush administrations. The failure of imagination was attributed to the governmental institutions and their top officials – the CIA, NSA, NORAD, FBI, and FAA. It was a failure of imagination in the use of counterterrorism policies, paramilitary operations, diplomatic priorities, plots, and sanctions in addressing the threat of Osama Bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. On the nature of the attacks, the 9/11 Commission reported:

It was carried out by a tiny group of people, not enough to man a full platoon. Measured on a governmental scale, the resources behind it were trivial. The group itself was dispatched by an organization based in one of the poorest, most remote, and least industrialized countries on earth.

From their point of view, the failure of imagination was about assessing "the gravity of the threat" posed by the enemy. The United States government had known of al Qaeda but had not understood the danger, had not imagined the devastation that could take place. A tiny group. With trivial resources. From a poor, remote, unindustrialized country. The emphasis remained solely on the external characteristics – proportions, supplies, and origins. "The primary mistake of warfare," American psychologist James Hillman declares, is "underestimating the enemy."

How does the American mind estimate the enemy? Facts: comparative firepower, tonnages, numbers of men under arms, vulnerability of command and control, technology. What about estimating the will to win, the stubborn capacity to endure, the importance of honor, and honor above death. What about cultural pride, national ambition? Human networking at subsistence levels versus high-tech networking? What about the sustaining strength of the enemy’s history, its myths?

In war and violence, part of the task at hand calls for imagining into the social, cultural, and psychic forces that sustain the Other; imagining into their beliefs, fears, and needs that drive their vision. But there is more. As a critical faculty of the human mind, imagination can help us become more aware not only of others’ outlooks but also of how we ourselves are perceived – in this case, by examining how we may be presenting ourselves to the world. In other words, the scope of the failure of imagination regarding the attacks on September 11 was also about America’s inefficiency, hesitance, or resistance to critically engage with and examine its own myths, ideas, and ideals. If one’s self-regard becomes too fixed, one-sided, or insular, it interferes with the understanding of one’s self. Furthermore, it interferes with one’s understanding of others, their differing views, values, and needs.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center housed some of America’s most prominent businesses – investment banks and commerce and technology companies. Their significance was not only financial, but also ideological. The Towers were a symbol of the heights American capitalism had achieved in the world. Contemplating their collapse, Jungian psychoanalyst Ronald Schenk offers:

If the towers reflected an American ideal of spiritual ascendance, political dominance, and economic self-interest . . . if the towers were glass mirrors through which America could only see itself as a dominating power, then their absence would create a void that not only would allow space for a new understanding of what America is but would allow the others in the world to inform America.

On September 20, 2001, just nine days after the attacks, President George W. Bush addressed the nation’s burning question, "Why do they hate us?," and said, "They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." On October 11, 2001, he picked up the same thread to continue highlighting America’s essential goodness, and therefore the irrationality of the alleged hatred:

[H]ow do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I’ll tell you how I respond: I’m amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. I am, I am – like most Americans, I just can’t believe it. Because I know how good we are.

On November 29, 2001, the president said: "They can’t stand what America stands for. It must bother them greatly to know we’re such a free and wonderful place." Speech after speech, President Bush stressed the virtuous qualities of the American life and people. His message was simple and straightforward: We are good and innocent – a message that also leads to the simple and straightforward deduction: Since they hate us, the good and innocent, they must be different from us, they must be bad and sinful. Innocence in such contexts imposes, even demands, division and conflict, a right and wrong view of the world. Carl Jung, warning against thinking of good and evil as exclusory and therefore entirely separate opposites, writes:

The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil, as it is posed today, has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion.

On November 25, 2002, further defying the opportunities for critical self-reflection, President Bush affirmed, "They hate us because of what we love," further solidifying the binary opposition – they hate, we love.

Such rhetoric consistently implies that the attacks were not motivated by political reasons, but by the terrorists’ mere hatred and envy of the United States. Later, the US Department of Defense challenged this view of depoliticized hatred and envy presented by the president; the 2004 Task Force report explained: "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. . . . When American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy." Feeling intruded upon, exploited, and humiliated by another is entirely different than feeling envy toward the other. The larger relational contexts in which such feelings arise pose moral questions that demand complex answers – answers that take into account historical, political, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of the issue at hand. They demand answers that are concerned with the intersubjective realm, rather than the isolating, dichotomizing "us" versus "them," "love" versus "hate" arguments.

James Hillman remarks, "So long as the United States cannot imagine the non-American components of the world’s society, who do not believe as we do, value as we do, measure as we do, we are imaginatively incompetent." Considered from this perspective, America’s failure of imagination was not solely a military matter with respect to the September 11 attacks as Rumsfeld and Hayden and the 9/11 Commission suggested; it also was an empathic and ethical one. It was a failure in recognition and appreciation of differences. A failure of reflexivity and respect. A failure in global consciousness. A failure in the relational work of imagination.

Excerpted from A JUNGIAN INQUIRY INTO THE AMERICAN PSYCHE, by Ipek S. Burnett, PhD published by ROUTLEDGE (2019), pages 47-50.

Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist and Turkish novelist living in San Francisco. She’s the author of A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence (Routledge, 2019).