Failure of imagination

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A failure of imagination is a circumstance wherein something seemingly predictable (particularly from hindsight) and undesirable was not planned for.[1]

The field of epistemology studies knowledge and human understanding, and failures of understanding. Failure of imagination is related to unknown unknowns and black swan theory, used by Nassim Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan, describing unexpected or unpredicted incidents with significant negative impact, with Russell's teapot as counterpoint.[citation needed]


The earliest known use of the phrase was by Graham Greene in his 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory: "Hatred is just a failure of imagination".[2]

Intelligence failures of imagination and the 9/11 attacks[edit]

Failure of imagination is invoked as a reason that intelligence agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the NSA, failed to prevent the September 11 attacks. During the summer of 2003, after the now-declassified report about the September 11 attack, many government officials, such as Senator Bob Graham began to make criticisms that the September 11 attack might have easily been predicted and even prevented.[3] Following these criticisms, President Bush declassified the August 6, 2001 President's Daily Brief, Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US, which indicated that hijackings might be one possible mode of attack.[4]

After the attacks, representatives of the Bush administration claimed in early 2004 that "nobody could have imagined that ... hijackers would intentionally crash ... hijackers usually want to live."[5] To the contrary, the apparently intentional crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 by its co-pilot on December 31, 1999,[6] and a similar intentional crash of PSA Flight 1771 by a disgruntled former airline employee on December 7, 1987,[7] and especially the case of AFR 8969, offered precedents that indicated otherwise. Similarly, nobody imagined that hijackers would use commercial aircraft as weapons. In 1997, The Gore Commission, created by President Clinton in 1996 as a result of the TWA Flight 800 crash, published a report on the shortcomings in aviation security in the United States.[8] The report focused mainly on the dangers of placing bombs on aircraft and did not mention suicide hijacking or the use of aircraft as weapons.[9]

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, a number of foreign nationals were taking pilot training in the U.S. and raised suspicion by being uninterested in learning how to land safely. The 9/11 Commission found that this failure to "connect the dots" and imagine what was being planned was an important contributing factor to the September 11 attacks, stating "the most important failure [concerning the 9/11 attacks] was one of imagination."[10]

Accidents related failures of imagination[edit]

Failure of imagination has also been invoked in regards to the Apollo 1 fire by astronaut Frank Borman in 1967 when he spoke at the Apollo 1 investigation hearings (dramatized in the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon in 1998).[citation needed] It has also been mentioned in reference to design flaws in the RMS Titanic. Donald Rumsfeld, in the documentary The Unknown Known, suggests that the failure of the United States to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure of imagination.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of Black Swan, BuzzWord from Macmillan Dictionary". Retrieved 2020-05-18.
  2. ^ The power and the glory by Graham Greene, 1940
  3. ^ Mother Jones interview with Graham
  4. ^ National Security Archive
  5. ^ White House briefing with Condoleezza Rice
  6. ^ NTSB report
  7. ^ report
  8. ^ The Core Commission Report
  9. ^ 9/11 Commission Report
  10. ^ "Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: Executive Summary". National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. 2004-01-27. Retrieved 2009-09-20. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ "The Unknown Known".