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Sept. 11 and the Future of American History

Autor:
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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