Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, October 20, 2016

The signs were all there.

This is what jumps out at you in perusing postmortems of the two greatest surprise attacks in American history. In the days and weeks leading up to Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001, there were numerous clues that seem neon in hindsight, but which no one pursued.

Or, as then-CIA Director George Tenet famously said of 9/11: “The system was blinking red.”

In response to each attack, exhaustive probes were launched to determine whose incompetence allowed the disaster to happen. While there’s obvious value in sifting through tragedies past in hopes of preventing tragedies future, it has always seemed to me the ultimate failure in those calamities was not of competence but, rather, imagination. Those in charge did not guard against what happened because what happened was literally beyond their ability to conceive.

That lesson of security and military unreadiness has chilling application to our unreadiness on another front:

Writing in this space a few days back, I scored the GOP for pretending there is some debate over whether human activity is raising the temperature of the planet when “that finding is accepted by 97 percent of climate scientists” — a figure I got from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general science group. After 20 years writing this column, I am not often surprised by reader reaction. I know a certain segment of my audience will go ballistic if I argue some controversial point — like that racism exists or Muslims are human.

But I admit, I was very surprised at the amount of emails — and anger — that sentence engendered. There is not nearly enough space here to get into the weeds of every objection, but they boiled down to this: The statistic comes from a flawed or skewed study.

I checked this with the AAAS’s Dr. Marshall Shepherd, who is the director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and in 2013 served as president of the American Meteorological Society. His response: The 97 percent figure is consistent across “numerous studies, not just one or two, so there is consilience” — a convergence of different streams of knowledge into a consensus.

Even so, my critics have a point when they say the 97 percent figure quoted here and numerous other places is misleading in one sense. Turns out it is not 97 percent of climate scientists who believe human activity is causing global warming, but 97 percent of those who have expressed an opinion. Sixty-six percent of studies by climate scientists actually express no opinion, according to one source. It’s an important distinction.

On the other hand, 97 percent is 97 percent, even if it’s just 97 percent of those who have an opinion. Virtually no scientist (0.7 percent) rejects the idea of human-caused global warming outright. Moreover, the price we pay if the 97 percent are right and we do nothing is infinitely greater than the one we pay if they are wrong and we take action.

All that said, I tend to believe the resistance here — at least among politicians and lay persons — has less to do with a failure of science than with an all-too familiar failure of imagination. If it was impossible to conceive of terrorists using airplanes as missiles or the Japanese striking a Pacific fortress, how difficult is it to conceive the apocalyptic future climate change science is predicting — rising oceans, routine super storms, hellish droughts?

On those two awful mornings, Americans slept in the blithe assurance of what could never happen only to awaken to the awful reality of what already had. We had seen the signs. We simply convinced ourselves they did not mean what they did.

Well, the stakes now are vastly higher. And once again, the system is blinking red.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

Photo: “ma neeks” via Flickr

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

  • FireBaron

    But, but, but… OK, that is like saying President Obama was not legitimately elected because not enough Republicans went to the polls to vote against him (and believe me, I have heard that one, too!).

    • charleo1

      Paul Harvey, who’s stint on television was so brief, I couldn’t readily find the exact date. But it must have been in the mid sixties, in response to a spate of hijackings, I recall hearing Harvey sensibly call for the reinforcement of cockpit doors on airliners. But, like many sensible ideas that could be lumped in, and dismissed as just more onerous, and job killing governmental regulation. The airline industry was able to thwart the efforts of the security experts. And, what a price we paid that day, for the politicians acquiescing to the lobbyists, and their powerful clients in commercial aviation. So, in the aggregate, we find we are not just fighting for laws limiting carbon emissions to slow the effects of climate change. Or better oversight on Wall Street, to prevent another economic crisis, or you name it. We are actually fighting the same battle over, and over, against the same pay to play system. That plies key members of Congress to block bills, or barring that, insist on exemptions, or, failing to do that, take out the stick, leave in the carrot. And oh, by the way, could we get that tax break, and subsidy increase we keep talking about? The answer often is, I’ll put your subsidy in as an amendment, and tie it to my vote, they’ll need to pass the bill. So either way, pass or fail, it will cost you nothing. They put it in, the Bill is blown up, goes down in flames, or is tabled to keep it from doing so. Congress moves on, and so forth. The client is happy, the campaign gets funded. And I can just hear the question the day in the not too distant future, when the ocean engulfs Miami Beach, Galveston, or San Diego. Why this is an outrage! Who allowed this tragedy to happen????

      • sigrid28

        Who allowed this tragedy to happen? And how soon will the government compensate us for these damages?

        • charleo1

          That’s right. I was so just dumbfounded, for about six months after 9/11, I had forgotten until your comment reminded me. At the time, I had heard something about the airlines bailout, and there was something for Wall Street to buck up the Stock Market, too. And heck, maybe they were handing out $100 dollar bills in front of my house, for all I knew at the time! Looking back, it was all very unsettling of course. I was aware I was living through this major historical event. But at the same time, there was for me, this sort of fog like surreality to it all. I remember driving through the same familiar streets, and going into shops I regularly visited. And thinking to myself how everything looked the same, but having the feeling that everything had somehow changed, and would never be exactly the same as it was only yesterday, or last week. And yes I’ve been told on very good authority, I,m weird. But, it truly was that line: “And, how soon will the Gov. compensate us for these damages?” That that kind of brought that whole experience back for a moment.

          • Russell Byrd

            Charleo1, I am out of the loop on this topic, but I had to come just to whine. You sent me two, three, four interesting posts that I was going to return comments on. One or two of them anyway. I was rather tired, and angelstench decided that he needed special treatment by filling my inbox full of crap.

            I came home tonight, and all your posts are gone from my mailbox. I have A.T.&T. and I despise them greatly. They use Yahoo mail, and it just sux. Slow, slow, slow. And you never know what it will do. I cannot even sort by sender with this crap. And if I do delete something, only SOME posts go to my trash folder. I have no idea how this works, or is decided. I got this at $10 a month, guaranteed forever, because we have Bellsouth phone service. I am paying $31 a month now, guaranteed to go up whenever Ma Bell needs some feel good cash.

            Well, that is a good start on a rather lengthy rant. But, have you ever heard of such a thing. If you deleted your posts, would the notifications disappear from my inbox? I am not going to die over this, but I am offended that someone, or something, is monkeying with your posts that I wanted to read. Any thoughts? I really should have responded right then, but I was too distracted and tired. Or, am I just crazy and am just hallucinating. If I am just hallucinating, please shoot me before I become a Repub. 🙂

            I guess I am getting a little “repub,” because this seems a little paranoid. Could angelstench and his vendetta against truth, be having him flagging everyone’s posts? Can it even do that?

          • charleo1

            I have AT&T as well, and it drops my mail sometimes too. I’ll see if the boards we were having
            a very insightful talk on are still up, and try to resend them. If they were flagged, which has never happened on NM, they’ll be gone, and I’ll be mad too!

          • Russell Byrd

            Charleo1, don’t put yourself to any trouble. I guess it is just me. Of course, they say I will be just fine after my double session of electroshock therapy this morning. 🙂

          • charleo1

            You know what they say say makes those double
            electroshock treatments easier, is to completely
            clear your mind before they turn the machine on.
            That’s what I did, and makes your brain like Teflon!
            Now, absolutely nothing sticks to it! Good Luck!

          • charleo1

            Well, Russell my friend, all I could find that was not responded to was one, which I re-posted. There’s always another day!

          • Russell Byrd

            Well, my A.T.&T. service stinks in general. Slow, slow, slow, and unreliable. It is not expensive, but it is not exactly cheap either.

            So, after a little Thorazine, and some electroshock therapy, I will be as right as rain. Well, as soon as I catch some of those butterflies.

  • sigrid28

    The right, so addicted to confirmation bias they’ll still be arguing against climate change when the ultimate unimaginable tsunami swallows them up, holding signs over their heads, as they sink into the deep, insisting: “Global Warming: Democrats, You Lie.” Their dilemma is that “they will not be dictated to by fact-checkers,” so facts are against the rules. When facts cannot be admitted, neither can “not facts”: a peculiar yet stubborn sticking point when it comes to logic, something many on the far-right gave up long ago. Facts help us figure out what is imaginary and what is real. In the world of the far-right, divorced from facts, imagination has no decent function. Every world view seems like just another video game premise–not a provable theory that could get your feet wet.

    • Independent1

      Here’s a sculpture that’s not exactly as you describe it, but i think it gives the idea you’re trying to create with words in that it shows politicians standing around debating global warming legislation as the seas rise around them with some already underwater.

  • johninPCFL

    In fact, EJ, protocols in place preceding both attacks actually helped them succeed. The protocol for aircraft placement in Hawaii was to have them aligned wingtip-to-wingtip far from the fences to allow them to be better protected from local sabotage. The strafing Japanese aircraft could fly straight-and-true while destroying our aircraft on the ground.
    The protocol in place for aircraft being hijacked was to comply with the hijackers and let local law enforcement deal with them when they landed. Were it a ‘standard’ hijacking, and had folks on the plane interfered, they would have been charged with federal crimes when the plane landed.
    Both protocols have since been modified.

  • howa4x

    This has more to do with the oil/gas/coal industries controlling members of congress. No different from the insurance/Pharma industries controlling the healthcare debate, or the NRA controlling the gun debate. What we have arrived at is the pinnacle of capitalism where the self interest of the moneyed class takes precedence over the welfare of society. This is what keeps the debate going, not the science but the self interest and money. This is why the Koch bros. hire lobbyists to actually say global warming is good and try to convince states to act against their own interest by getting them to vote against wind and solar expansion in their states. This is what is happening in Kansas right now.
    The 1% don’t realize it but climate change will eventually be their undoing and their lackeys, the GOP. Once the effects are really felt by millions of people, the Koch’s might one day along with the CEO’s of the Oil companies might end up with a crimes against humanity charge and be sent to where they belong, prison, and the GOP to extinction.

    • RobertCHastings

      The fossil fuel industry has too much invested to stop doing what they do. They already have trillions invested in in leases for exploration and harvesting of fossil fuels,so much fossil fuel, in fact, that if all their leases are used up and all the fuel they are committed to harvesting is actually used, we will be well beyond the tipping point of our planetary ecology. It is not a question of lack of imagination, but a question of simple greed.

  • elw

    While I agree that the GOP lacks imagination and their policies are not for the greater good of the people they represent, I also think they are as strong as we let them be. Far too often the Conservative Right is not confronted when they stand before a crowd or large TV audience and called on their lies. We all saw what happened when Romney was called on his lie about when the President first called the people who were responsible for Benghazi terrorist, he slipped in polls and audience cheered. So until more elected official stand up and shout, more of the 99% make their voice heard through their votes and by contacting their elected officials, this shit will keep going on. The way I feel is if I do not talk and vote what I think, I have no right to complain. No ruler has ruled over masses for long once they have final had enough of his bad decisions or abuse.

  • TZToronto

    I’m surprised that we’re not hearing the deniers who lurk around here saying that only 34% of climate scientists have an opinion so, obviously, there’s no climate change.

  • ralphkr

    Another great column, Mr. Pitts, except for one small error. We certainly did imagine that we could be attacked in 1941. The army parked all the planes in the runways overnight to better guard them against sabotage by all the Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii and that made the planes a target rich environment for the Japanese NAF. In addition to that, the Army officers who were tasked to warn all Pacific bases of an expected Japanese attack on Dec 7 (We had decoded diplomatic messages ordering their diplomats to formally declare war on the US that weekend) did not wish to pay a premium cost for expedited transmission via commercial cable (the only way to communicate at that time) so their messages arrived in Hawaii and Philippines after the attacks began.

  • auntiegrav

    It’s not the imaginable or lack of imagination, but the overabundance of conditioned responses to civilized stimuli. In other words, all too much of our responses in life are conditioned to respond to the imaginary priorities of civilization, rather than the real dangers of reality and nature itself.
    People create reasons to go to war that are entirely based on ‘civilized’ reasons (religion, nationalism, fear of each other, etc.), but civilization itself is an isolation system that takes people out of their natural environment in order to create freedom from constant risks of living in nature. For too long, humans have failed to establish a replacement for real risk that ties us to reality.
    These “failures of imagination” are really a failure to acknowledge reality.