Friday, July 23, 2004

9-11: 360 Degrees (as we go round and round)

Yesterday it was footage of the 9-11 hijackers passing through airport screening. Today it's the New York Post screaming: "They Failed Us" as the 9-11 Commission has delivered its final report. But I think we need to be honest here -- without the benefit of hindsight, nobody failed us and the mood of the late 1990s pretty much caused any intelligence about a cataclysmic threat to fall on deaf ears.

Think back to 1998/1999. Remember Y2K? Our computers were set to turn on us. Power plants would fail, communications networks would be disrupted, there would be a run on the banks and a global depression would follow. Was Y2K a real crises, averted by billions of dollars spent on key systems? Or was it a panicked waste of billions of dollars? We'll never know. But most people remember New Year's Day 2000 as the day that apocalypse stood us up.

Had you said to me, 6 months later, that Al-Qaeda agents were going to hijack commuter planes and crash them into buildings, well, I might have listened but probably would have ignored you. Seems like a lot of Richard Clarke's colleagues did that to him. He was known, to some, as a "one-note nut job" for his fanatical obsession with Osama Bin Laden. It's hard not to sympathize with Clarke's colleagues on that one.

These days, it's easy to persuade people by using dire threats. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said we had to attack Iraq on dubious intelligence because the smoking gun might be "a mushroom cloud." Well, she was wrong. Iraq had no mushroom cloud-making apparatus.

She got away with making this false claim. She still has her job. Seems there's an ebb and flow to our willingness to react to threat. In the late 1990s we ignored most everything. As the Millenium approached, we got a little panicky about Y2K, when the Y2K threat didn't materialize we got complacent again, then 9-11 happened and, ever since, we've been back in that Pre-Millenial "What if they do X? What if they do Y?" mentality.

But the truth is, the vast majority of dire predictions will never come true. People are, in general, really bad about predicting the future. That's one of the reasons that people tend to be a bit short-sighted. There's too much complexity in long-term predictions. For example: General Motors offers a service called On*Star in its cars. It's a dashboard cell phone that can connect you with some one who can give you directions to a hospital or restaurant. Neat. It was first proposed to GM in the Mid-1980s, though and it was pitched this way: "In 20 years, our cities will be so dangerous and decayed that car jackings will be common. All drivers will need to be able to contact the police instantly." Wrong! Fine product, but it works for completely the opposite reason -- it works because the economy grew so rapidly over the following two decades that drivers started using their discretionary income to add bells and whistles to their cars. What was pitched as a security device for our "Mad Max" Future became a convenience device for our indulgent, "Passion" present.

The lesson of 9-11 is not that we should have been more fearful or more compliant or more willing to believe in dire predictions. There will always be unexpected events and there will always be people, before unknown, who will emerge as all-knowing Svengalis. But for every Richard Clarke who got it right there are hundreds of people saying the most ridiculous things you can ever imagine. The real threat now is that, still wounded, we disrupt our lives by falling for their well-intentioned cautionary tales.


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