Sept. 11 and the Future of American History

Niall Ferguson

The public wants prophets. The historian writes stories about the past, but what the public wants is the history of the future. This leads to a paradox. The prophet since the time of Cassandra has largely gone unheeded. However, only the unheeded prophet has her prophecies fulfilled. If the prophet is heeded, then disaster may be averted — and the prophecy negated.

These reflections are prompted by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Before the attacks, there were prophets who foresaw such a disaster, not least Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council’s counterterrorism adviser. But it was precisely his inability to persuade George W. Bush’s administration of the imminence of al-Qaeda’s attack on America that ensured it happened. Similarly, if more people had been persuaded by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s warning in 1993 of a new “clash” between  Western and Islamic civilizations after the Cold War, perhaps that clash might have been averted and the prediction proved false. Instead, we had believed an earlier prophet: Francis Fukuyama, who in 1989 had proclaimed “the end of history.”

The disaster of 9/11 was deeply shocking: the ruthless fanaticism of the suicidal hijackers, the suddenness of the World Trade Center’s collapse, the helplessness of most of the victims. On top of the trauma came the uncertainty: What would happen next? We needed new prophecies. If you are in the business of prognostication, it is a good practice — indeed, it is one of the first principles of Philip Tetlock’s “superforecasting” — to look back and see how you did. I had mixed success.


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