Surprises are hard to deal with. We all felt shocked on 9/11 when terrorists
- destroyed iconic buildings in New York,
- part of the Pentagon in Washington,
- killed nearly 3,000 people and
- aimed at the White House or Capital
before passengers overcame the hijackers, preferring to crash in a field than let terrorists have their way.
Since then we have learned a great deal about
- what clues the CIA and the FBI had beforehand and
- whether they could have stopped it.
- We’ve learned how long it took before our air defenses finally took to the skies, too late to avert any of the tragedies on the ground.
It’s easy to sit back and point fingers.
I was an infant at the time of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A generation of Americans agonized over what we knew then and whether we could have averted it. Surprise leaves us flat-footed, blind-sided. It seems part of the human condition.
What we call expertise is mostly about repetition. We can study patterns and predict the next. Our best vulcanologists and seismologists can’t yet predict volcanoes and earthquakes; they know a lot about what causes them and how they work, but not when. They need to find the patterns. Our meterologists do somewhat better once the hurricanes have formed, but even then they are often wrong more than a few hours ahead of the storm.
The same is true of law. The jurist who is trying to deal with a new idea is criticized as a poor craftsman, because he or she can’t rest on precedents and has to step off solid ground, no matter how important. That leaves everyone hesitant.
- This hasn’t happened before.
- There’s no precedent for this.
- My calculations might be wrong.
- I’ll be the laughing stock.
- And then the final coup – the boss says cool it.
It takes a rare person like the scientist James Hansen (the NASA astrophysicist and climatologist), to persist in his warnings despite the way officialdom circled its wagons against him and the story he was trying to tell.
I think a lot of the reaction to the 9/11 attacks was counterproductive. But some scientists are trying to figure out our vulnerabilities and likely forms and places of attack. Their work is complicated by the resistance we all feel to dealing with real threats that haven’t happened yet. We are all like the experts mapping our patterns and we have no pattern to map.
Actually the most likely threat to the United States, already beginning to be felt, is from global warming, but so many in positions of power and influence resist meeting that challenge. We are much too bound up with attacking government, instead of demanding that it do what it can to protect our children and grandchildren, and us too.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 2012