Magazine Article - Foreign Policy

A Failure to Imagine the Worst

| January 25, 2010

In his first speech to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged members to think about the impact of a single nuclear bomb. He said: "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people." The consequences, he noted, would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life."

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, assault on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, who could have imagined that terrorists would mount an attack on the American homeland that would kill more citizens than Japan did at Pearl Harbor? As then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified to the 9/11 Commission: "No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon ... into the World Trade Center, using planes as missiles." For most Americans, the idea of international terrorists conducting a successful attack on their homeland, killing thousands of citizens, was not just unlikely. It was inconceivable.

As is now evident, assertions about what is "imaginable" or "conceivable," however, are propositions about our minds, not about what is objectively possible.

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. “A Failure to Imagine the Worst.” Foreign Policy, January 25, 2010.