Back in 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States cited a "failure of imagination" on the part of government officials as the primary anti-terrorism policy shortcoming in 2001. All evidence suggests we have now swung in the opposite direction, to an imagination overdrive that sees terror threats everywhere, without regard to plausibility.
Take the Miami Seven, a collection of street hustlers and martial arts fans who somehow convinced an FBI informant they were about to blow up the Sears Towers in Chicago. Or maybe vice versa: Perhaps because the Justice Department was in a fever to believe such a plot was afoot, a government informant was able to plant a wild idea with a fringe group eager to collect $50,000 in angel investment.
In any event, important counter-terrorism assets were spent on a group with no means to carry out an attack. One can construct, or imagine, any possible plot, but trying to head off all of them diverts you from the real ones. An overactive imagination then becomes as dangerous as an underdeveloped one.
Imagination now trumps plausibility at every turn, as the worldwide fright over smuggled binary explosives on airplanes demonstrated. Even assuming there existed a plan, at some level of initial formulation, to blow 10 planes out of the sky using liquid explosives, the next step in response is evaluating how plausible that idea is.
How hard would it be to acquire the component chemicals? Fairly, but not impossible. How hard would it be conceal them? Not very. How hard would it be to mix them into a bomb on a plane? Very. What is the response? In September 2006, you imagine 10 airplanes exploding and run screaming for the hills.
Terrorism also has become the first explanation of all puzzling actions. Muslim men buy up a bunch of prepaid cell phones at price clubs. Arbitrage by ethnic entrepreneurs looking for resale profits? Or raw materials for hidden IED factories?
Terror is now the go-to argument against anything you do not like. Too many Mexicans streaming across America's southern border for your taste? That becomes an "unsecured border" that also could pose a terrorist threat. Or consider the reason offered by Matthew Auer, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, for why America should not build more nuclear power plants:
As the United States ramps up nuclear power production, thereby generating greater amounts of reusable nuclear fuels and radioactive wastes, nuclear proliferation risks mount. The thousands of new jobs created to mine and process uranium, manufacture, load and unload fuel rods, and transport and store waste represent thousands of additional people with discretion over potent and greatly feared forms of energy.
A full-steam-ahead plan for nuclear energy means millions of additional chances for radioactive products and byproducts to end up in the wrong hands. Nuclear power plants offer one-stop shopping for terrorists: they can be sabotaged or their contents siphoned for weapons.
And most amazing of all, in order to thwart acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, you invade and occupy a nation of 30 million people with 160,000 U.S. troops. No lack of imagination there. In fact, it indicates the extent to which America's anti-terrorism policy has slipped the bonds of reality and made the leap to utter fantasy.