On the Unimaginable

I made a mistake tonight. I turned on the radio to listen to the news about the foiled terrorist attack discovered in the United Kingdom. Over and over again the news anchors, the commentators, and even the police used the word ‘unimaginable’ to describe the plot. The root of all this hyperventilating seems to have come from this quote:

Paul Stephenson, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said: “We are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and commit mass murder. This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”

To tell you the truth I worry about the intelligence of the human race. Constantly.

So before I broke down and had a Network moment I wisely went for a walk. It’s a beautiful night here in Ann Arbor, a full moon, and cool temperatures.

So far the outlines of the plot talk about blowing up 10 jumbo jets as they cross the Atlantic. I can think of many words to describe this - horrific, tragic, sadistic, terrifying. But unimaginable just makes whoever says it sound stupid.

Allow me to be crass for a moment and contemplate the possible number of people that might have been killed in a terrorist act like the one described so far. I’ll even double the number of planes and put 400 people on each of them. That would leave us with 20 planes times 400 people or 8000 dead. This would be tragic. I hope such an event never happens.

But to say that this is an unimaginable scale of violence or mass murder is to ignore all of the history of the twentieth century. Human beings have routinely killed each other in mass murder at a scale much higher than 8,000 or 10,000 deaths. That number of dead people is small potatoes. For example:

So I implore the reporters and journalists to stop. Stop using this phrase. It is meaningless. All it does is create fear.

But my expectations are low. Today I’m ready to believe that journalists are too stupid to change. They are sheep. I try not to judge a group of people based on the actions of individuals, but this may be the end of the pass I can give to journalists. You do good work but first learn what the English language actually means, and study some damn history.

What really worries me are politicians and public officials using this rhetoric. They are paid to imagine the unimaginable in order to protect all of us. I’m an amateur. If the professionals can’t imagine these things then we really are in trouble.

I actually believe there are sober professionals who do imagine these things and they are the ones who caught the terrorists today. But anyone who appears in the media seems suspect.

Boing Boing weighs in with more silliness about liquid explosives in crowds

Finally this statement by President Bush angers me almost as much as his request for us to all go shopping after 911.

“This country is safer than it was prior to 911,” Bush said with Air Force One behind him. “We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously we’re still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in.”

In what was an apparent reference to this year’s controversies over the administration’s surveillance programs, Bush told reporters: “It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America. And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people.”

It’s a statement that takes and receives at the same time. Be afraid, but really we’re trying. Ah, hang it up already.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.