Imagining the Unimaginable

by William Hausdorff

This political season seems to consist of an unending series of unimaginable statements and behaviors—can you top THIS?--on the part of the Donald Trump campaign. The latest are Trump calling into question the legitimacy of the coming presidential election, and implicitly advocating violence against his opponent. We are alternately fascinated and stunned. But why is so much of the public repeatedly shocked by what he says? I wonder if it is because of a restricted mindset that doesn’t take into account how a significant portion of the population, both in the US and abroad, see the US government and, in fact, reality.

In 2003 I was enjoying cocktails with several European pediatric infectious disease specialists at an international meeting when I was jarred by a colleague’s seemingly flippant comment about the 9/11 attacks. It prompted me to spontaneously and informally poll the physicians from the 7 or 8 different countries present. I was shocked to learn their virtually unanimous opinion that the much-reviled then-President Bush was previously “aware of,” if not actually “behind,” the attacks. Where did this come from? At the time, I attributed this to a blind hatred of the Bush administration and its policies. Yet these were all well-educated Europeans, and so that explanation was a bit unsatisfying.

More recently, I relived the experience in a very different locale. I was with several colleagues at a restaurant in Karachi, Pakistan on the edge of the Arabian Sea. All were Pakistani with post-graduate training in the medical, business or public health fields. Most were between 25-40 and dressed in western clothes except for two of the women wearing more traditional Pakistani dress. I can still savor the delicious meal and the humid evening breezes off the water. I recall marveling at my heightened sense of well-being in this improbable setting.

I suddenly thought of my experience a decade earlier. I turned, smilingly, to the group, and said, “I’ve got to ask you this.” People returned expectant smiles. “Who was behind the 9/11 attacks?” (Note to self: Why do I do this?) There was a slight degree of stiffness and puzzlement. I was, after all, the only foreigner and American at the table, and though several of the folks had known and liked me for a few years, it was my first visit to Pakistan. I immediately tried to put them at ease: “I’m just interested to hear your responses. It’s a scientific poll.”

The atmosphere relaxed, and the person to my left asked, “Do you mean who orchestrated it?” and I nodded. He responded, slightly tentatively, “Bush.” I nodded again, reassuringly, and said, “That’s what I was guessing you’d say.” As we went around the circle, it was unanimous for Bush, with some offering short explanations (“How otherwise could they possibly have gotten through airport security so easily?” and “The plan was so complex there’s no way the US government couldn’t have been behind it or at least facilitated it.”).

In other words, it was simply unimaginable by some of this group that such a sophisticated technical feat could have been carried out by Al Qaeda alone. Arabs [read “someone from a developing country”] couldn’t possibly have accomplished that by themselves.

At the time, this perception struck me as a perverse corollary to the myth of American omnipotence—that nothing major happens unless the US either does it, engineers it, or allows it to happen. This, of course, is a staple of traditional American thought. The US didn’t ‘win’ in Vietnam because we didn’t really try our hardest, hamstrung by the Congress and the media. The US, specifically Ronald Reagan, “caused” the Soviet Union to crumble. We “allowed” Putin to take over Crimea. We can “create” democracies in the Middle East out of thin air. The most recent Trump (and Cruz)-flavored versions merely substitute “I” for “the US” as in, “I will end ISIS by carpet bombing them into the stone age. And then I will force Mexico to build a wall.”

In Karachi, after everyone had answered, one of my colleagues looked straight at me and demanded, in a friendly way, “What do YOU think?” I reflexively offered the answer I had provided a decade earlier. “I hate Bush more than any of you, because he was MY president. Obviously I didn’t vote for him! But I don’t think any American president would bomb or allow others to bomb his own people.”

On later reflection, I’ve wondered if I also had a failure of imagination. I still can’t imagine a US president allowing other countries to bomb his/her own people for his/her own political gain. But if you are a Pakistani, you are aware that your own governments have done all sorts of nasty things to your own people. If you are Spanish, you know that Generalissimo Franco asked Hitler to test out the Luftwaffe’s bombing skills on the inhabitants of a small Basque town in 1937. And if you are German or Italian, the history of the fascist period alone provides many examples. From their perspective, it may not be so difficult to imagine another country’s leader—in this case, the US--allowing 9/11 to happen.

Perhaps, then, our ability to imagine all sorts of horrible things in the future depends on personal experience and memory. While shocking, Trump’s recent “sarcastic comment” that a 2nd amendment supporter might find a way to “prevent” a President Hillary Clinton from naming liberal federal judges might be interpreted as merely an unfortunate rhetorical flourish. However, it’s different for those who recall the sequence of events, barely 20 years ago, in Israel. There the steady—and politically calculated—build-up of frightfully violent rhetoric demonizing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for his peace negotiations with the Palestinians actually culminated in his assassination.

I wonder if certain vivid fictional “experiences” can also prime our imaginations, so the hitherto unimaginable become less shocking. For example, in the US torture used to be considered something done to us by our military enemies during wartime. In those rare cases where it was publicly revealed that US troops or police abetted or even engaged in it, it was blamed on rogue elements. No US government official would openly condone torture.

At least until the extremely well crafted television show “24”, debuting less than 2 months after 9/11, showed scenes, week after week, of “justifiable” torture by the “good guys”. Wouldn’t you torture if you knew that it would reveal crucial information to prevent the atomic bombing of Los Angeles? Did such a show “soften up” the collective American imagination so that it became okay for the Bush Administration to subsequently publicly defend the use of what everyone (else) in the world calls torture, even coming up with patently specious legal arguments to justify it? And make it somehow acceptable for Donald Trump to boast he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”?

Ironically, it may seem unimaginable now that not very long ago it was unimaginable there could be a black president. Did the repeated depiction of a supremely competent, wise black president, again in 24, help make this conceivable? And it is still stunning how the politics of gay marriage changed 180 degrees almost overnight. As recently as 2004, then-Bush advisor Karl Rove was able to state that opposition to gay marriage “is an issue on which there is a broad consensus," with voters in 11 states supporting amendments to ban it outright. While longstanding social forces were also, of course, at work, one wonders did the openly gay characters in the TV series “Will and Grace” and similarly-themed shows contribute to make the unimaginable quite conceivable, if not desirable?

To return to Karachi, a few of my colleagues caught up in the excitement called out, “Ask us another question! Ask us if Bin Laden is dead.” I dutifully re-polled the group, and there the vote was 4 to 4, with the doubters noting that the body was never seen publicly. This, however, did not generate much further discussion—not so unimaginable.

A brave one then called out, “Ask us if man really landed on the moon!” Stunned, I thought it was a joke. “No, really!” pleaded others. The results were again 4 to 4, with one respondent stating that he didn’t think the first landing was real—“the flag was waving though obviously there’s no wind on the moon”—but that the later landings were. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a compromise position. It seems that once there is a mindset in place that completely demonizes the American government, it can lead well-educated Pakistanis to imagine, even if half-seriously, that the US government would go to such absurd lengths.

Perhaps that is just Pakistan. But in a considerable portion of the US population, an unimaginable (to some of us) alternative universe exists which extends beyond politics to directly challenge much of current biological, geological, physical and astronomical understanding. Pollsters have repeatedly documented that at least 4 out of 10 adult Americans think God created the earth 10,000 years ago, including humans in their present form. .More than 40% of all Americans, and specifically 60% of Republicans, maintain that the warming of the globe over the past century is due more to “natural changes” in the environment than man- made causes, despite the views of the vast majority of climate scientists. And over 50% of Americans are still “not sure” whether vaccines cause autism, and another 6% are convinced they do —a long-disproven canard about a serious medical condition.
Fortunately 70-90% of US children are still vaccinated on time, depending on the state and vaccine.

These beliefs are shared by many among the highly educated leadership of the Republican Party (as shown here, here, and here.)   That there is a scientific “debate” over these religious or quasi-religious beliefs has been tirelessly promoted by Fox News and the alt-right, and in the case of vaccines/autism by the dopey left as well, and even by much of the mainstream media. But while creationists, global warming deniers, and anti-vaccine groups may seem like sideshows, each further undermines a fact-based view of reality. The vast majority of scientists and physicians are either dangerous fools or liars. The systemic demonization of the scientific, medical and political establishments by one of our major political parties means that the ravings of a Trump should not be so shocking, but may rather represent a logical next step.

We don’t need a re-run of the last time the integrity of a presidential election was called into question. Who could have imagined that the 100 million votes cast in the 2000 election could be considered so trivial as to be superseded by a one-vote majority of a very divided Supreme Court, with the justification that the continuation of vote recounting efforts in Florida would “threaten irreparable harm” to one of the candidates?

With the nastily conspiratorial Steve Bannon now at the head of his campaign, it would be prudent to imagine and start preparing for the hitherto unimaginable consequences of Trump’s words, including staged or provoked violent acts that could depress voter turnout, delegitimize the elections or even threaten candidates or their supporters. Whether or not Trump himself appears, at the moment, likely to be elected.

{Editor's Note: William Hausdorff received his PhD in Biology from the Johns Hopkins University/National Institutes of Health and conducted post-doctoral research in biochemistry at Duke University.  For the past 25 years he has worked and published widely in the field of international public health, initially with the US Centers for Disease Control/US Agency for International Development in Washington DC and Cairo, Egypt, and more recently within the vaccine development divisions of two pharmaceutical companies.  At present he is a freelance consultant based in Brussels, Belgium. He has closely followed presidential politics since the days of McGovern/Nixon.  His special interest is in the intersection of science and society, dating from his undergraduate thesis on the health effects of Agent Orange. His prior posts on DoL appear here and here.}