A favorite anecdote among historians who play the 'what if' game is the story of Annie Oakley and Kaiser Wilhelm. It is said that Annie performed a gun trick that involved shooting the lit end of a cigarette from the mouth of a male audience volunteer. The volunteer was a shill - her husband. But while on tour in Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Annie asked for a volunteer for the trick and got a real one: Prince Wilhelm of Germany. Though Annie had spent the night before in a beer garden, her aim was true and she performed the stunt without incident.
But, ask historians, what if she hadn't? What if she had shot the future Kaiser in the ear, killing him? If not for Kaiser Wilhelm we wouldn't have had World War One. Some say we are still battling the repercussions of that war: it spun itself out into the conflicts that engulf the middle east to this day. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was, according to Iraq anyway, predicated on the fact that Kuwait should not have been partitioned by the British following the First World War. In more obvious examples, the First World War gave rise to the bitter German who eagerly embraced fascism. Without the kaiser there wouldn't have been Hitler. Without Hitler there wouldn't have been the millions of deaths at the hands of his reich.
What if Thomas Jefferson hadn't been such a fan of John Locke's? What if George Washington thought like John Hancock and believed the United States of America should be ruled by a king? What if Abraham Lincoln weren't the president during the civil war? What if FDR wasn't president during World War Two. What if Kennedy wasn't president during the Cuban Missile Crisis? These are fortunate what ifs.
There are unfortunate what ifs, like the assassinations of Kennedy and Lincoln, of Martin Luther King, Jr. They fill my chest with a weight like buckshot. And today, August 6, 2007 the ghosts of two thousand nine hundred seventy four terror victims, the ghosts of four thousand six hundred and nine coalition soldiers, the ghosts of thousands of Afghanis, the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis beg the question 'what if?'
What if George Bush took seriously a memo entitled 'bin Ladin Determined to Strike in the US'? What if he asked the question 'How would that be likely?' What if our intelligence and law enforcement agencies were tasked with estimating how that attack might happen? What if FBI agents in Minneapolis and Arizona and Florida were granted the search warrants they had requested just days after the August 6th PDB for suspicious foreigners taking lessons at local flight schools? What if the president, upon reading the PDB, reached out to the Hart Rudman commission and implemented its recommendations, rather than the path he chose, which was to reject Hart Rudman and turn the issue of terrorism over to the vice president who did nothing but hand the issue over to FEMA.
Would there have been the Afghan war?
Would there have been the Iraq war?
Would Americans stand for the Patriot Act?
Would Americans approve of the suspension of Habeas Corpus?
Would Americans allow total information awareness data mining?
Would Americans have voted in record numbers to return the worst president in American history to office?
Would Americans agree that torture is situationally okay?
Would we have New Orleans rebuilt by now?
Would our bridges and tunnels get fixed before falling down?
Would we still be held with esteem by most of the other nations of the world?
Would we still be improving our country with the money in our 'peace dividend' account?
Would the towers still stand?
If that memo had been taken seriously, if the president acted with the same determined haste he managed to show for Terri Schiavo's parents, how different would our lives be today?
One afternoon. One piece of paper. One choice.
A frozen accident.
Thanks to tengrain for the picture and the inspiration for this blogswarm.