This new year may be a bit happier because top foreign-policy experts—the “very people who have run America’s national-security apparatus over the past half century”—have yet again proved to be wrong.
Some 116 of these Very People were surveyed in 2006 by Foreign Policy magazine in a joint project with the Center for America Progress. The magazine stressed that its survey drew from the “highest echelons of America’s foreign policy establishment” and included the occasional secretary of state and national security adviser, as well as top military commanders, seasoned members of the intelligence community, and academics and journalists of the most “distinguished” nature. Over three-quarters of them had been in government service, 41 percent for over ten years. The musings of this group, it was proposed, could provide “definitive conclusions” about the global war on terror.
The Very People were asked to put forward their considered opinions about how likely it was that “a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11” would again occur in the United States by the end of 2011—that is, by last Saturday.
Fully 70 percent found it likely and another 9 percent proclaimed it to be certain. Only 21 percent, correctly as we now know, considered it unlikely. It looks like Dan Gardner might have some grist for a sequel to his brilliant and lively 2011 book on expert prediction pointedly entitled, Future Babble.
The Very People’s 79 percent error rate is especially impressive because, although there had been quite a bit of terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere during the four-and-a-half years between 9/11 and when the survey was conducted, none of these attacks even remotely approached the destruction of the one on September 11. Nor, for that matter, had any terrorist attack during the four-and-a-half millennia previous to that date. In addition, although terrorist plots have been rolled up within the United States, none of the plotters threatened to wreak destruction on anything like the scale of 9/11, except perhaps in a few moments of movieland-fantasy musings.
Considered in reasonable historical perspective, then, it was not unreasonable to suggest, even a year or two after the event on the pages of this magazine and elsewhere, that 9/11 might just prove to be an aberration rather than a harbinger. In 2004, Russell Seitz plausibly proposed that “9/11 could join the Trojan Horse and Pearl Harbor among stratagems so uniquely surprising that their very success precludes their repetition,” that “al-Qaeda’s best shot may have been exactly that” and that, as its forces wane, the shadow the terrorist group casts looks “ever less caliphal and more quixotic.”
But such unconventional, if plausible, interpretations of 9/11 were not only rare, but decidedly, even determinedly, dismissed or simply unconsidered. The vast bulk of the Very People were then—and mostly seem still to be—operating under the sway of the 9/11 attack, a dramatic and horrible event that created the impression (or delusion) that such events would now become the norm.