The Nostradamus Effect
Most people have heard of Nostradamus, the 16th century ‘prophet’ who was able to ‘see into the future.’ Almost 500 years after his death, Nostradamus’s books are STILL selling, so there are plenty of people who must think Nostradamus was on to something. Back in college I decided to read one of Nostradamus’s books to see what all the fuss was about. After spending about 10 minutes perusing his material I quickly figured out that Nostradamus’s ‘psychic abilities’ were just as phony as David Copperfield’s magic.
But how did Nostradamus do it? How could he predict the future? It’s actually pretty easy once you understand what he was doing. He simply wrote everything in the form of cryptic four line poems and let people interpret them after something happened. Here’s an example of one of these poems that some people believe foretells the rise of Hitler’
“Beasts ferocious with hunger will cross the rivers,
The greater part of the battlefield will be against Hister.
Into a cage of iron will the great one be drawn,
When the child of Germany observes nothing.”
Now your first impulse after looking at that may be “Histler, Germany, battlefield? Holy moly, he just predicted the Third Reich!” Well “Histler” actually was a region near the Danube river. Beyond that, what else do we have here except a bunch of randomly throw together sentences that could be interpreted a dozen different ways? After the fact, it’s easy to pick one passage out of hundreds in an attempt to prove Nostradamus’s prescience. But look at it like this; could anyone have predicted the rise of Hitler, in say 1920, based on what Nostradamus wrote? Of course, that wouldn’t have been possible. All of Nostradamus’s prophecies are meaningless until something has actually happened and you can look at Nostradamus’s words retrospectively.
This past weekend, some people made the same mistake looking at pre-9/11 intelligence that others have made when they look at the writings of Nostradamus. At first glance, obviously significant pieces of intelligence seem to have been missed. The President was told al-Queda wanted to hijack American planes. There was a report about the psychology of hijackers that said one of them might try to crash a plane into a building. Zacarias Moussaoui was acting ‘suspicious’. There was a FBI agent who believed al-Queda was trying to get its men into US flight schools. When you combine all of that together along with a few other details it appears to be quite damning. Why didn’t the FBI or CIA pick up on these ‘obvious’ clues?
It’s because the clues only appear to be obvious when they’re looked at post-9/11. Take the idea that terrorists ‘want to hijack planes.’ Since when have terrorists NOT wanted to hijack our planes? What we tend to forget is that there are also terrorists who want to walk into a pizza parlor and shoot everyone, drive a truck bomb into an apartment building, hijack a cruise ship, or carry out any one of thousands of other possible attacks.
There are so many possible things that terrorists MIGHT want to do that it would be impossible for a force with twenty times the manpower and budget of the FBI to defend against them all. Just looking at Israel should make that clear. Here’s a country with perhaps the best intelligence agency in the world (the Mossad), with much better human intelligence about their foes than we have, with a much more alert populace, with a smaller area to protect, and they still can’t stop the suicide bombers. That’s because no matter how good your ‘defense’ is, as long as the other side has an unlimited number of attempts to hit you, eventually they’ll succeed no matter how good you are.
That’s not to say that the CIA, FAA, and the INS didn’t make any pre-9/11 mistakes. However, we should focus on the policies, procedures, and institutional lethargy that left us vulnerable on 9/11 instead of blaming our intelligence agencies and the Bush administration for not being psychic.
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