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The Cassandra Conundrum
by Ronald Bruce Meyer


The night before my sister flew to Boston on business, she dreamed of airplanes crashing. She arrived safely on Monday, September 10. The next day, along with the nation and the world, she watched in horror as the news developed of the terror attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Could her dream have been a prophecy?

Of course not. My sister, a psychology major in college, knows that like every other human being, she dreams every night. She probably dreams about planes crashing before every flight she takes, but forgets about the dream when no planes crash. A statistician would say it's biased sample selection to label as "prophecy" only those dreams that were followed by adverse events, but to discount the others. That is why we hear about Nostradamus and other so-called prophets only after the fact. This conveniently skips the warning phase and goes directly to the I-told-you-so phase.

Any number of editorialists and columnists claim that the US had warning, or should have had warning, that a "big attack" -- the words in a September 22 Washington Times news story -- was imminent. They, too, have skipped the warning phase and gone directly to the I-told-you-so phase.

But indulge me a moment in a thought experiment. Let's imagine my sister's business was terror threat analysis (just for the record, it isn't). Instead of a dream, let's suppose that she analyzes reports from field agents and electronic devices. And -- why not go all the way? -- let's suppose she received pretty good intelligence that the terror attacks in those two cities were about to take place. If my sister's job was to warn of the attack, what should she have done?

I'm not an intelligence analyst, either, but I'm pretty sure the proper agencies get warnings of terror threats almost daily. And I'm sure that only the warnings we fail to heed bring recriminations when they come true. There is great reluctance to take every perceived threat seriously, and rightly so. For example, the Secret Service bodyguard who yelled "gun!" at every balloon pop in a photo op would have a short career.

Of course, intelligence analysis and threat assessment take skill, experience and an almost prophetic good judgment. In Greek mythology, Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, but Apollo made sure no one believed her. He needn't have bothered: it's human nature not to think the unthinkable. In this case, by the same twist of human nature, I think our intelligence agencies were doing the best they could. Up until September 11, such a monstrous act was so remote, so unthinkable, that even to suggest its possibility might have ended a promising career or two. Up until September 11, that is.

Indeed, I believe that even if our intelligence agencies had had reliable intelligence of the attacks, there is nothing they could have done to prevent them.


Why? The reason, I think, is that the analysts would not have been believed. That's what I call the Cassandra Conundrum. In this case, the reason the Cassandra Conundrum is so applicable is that the attack was, until it actually happened, unthinkable. Such attacks are thinkable -- now. We have no choice because we have seen them. And we are preparing for terrorism -- now.

But what about then -- before September 11? Yes, we were unprepared. And it is natural to cast about for someone, anyone, to blame for what is widely perceived to be a failure of intelligence. But how do you prepare for the unthinkable? You don't because you can't; you can't because no one would believe you. What could the president have done? Shoot down planes full of American citizens?

As Cassandra found out, even the gift of prophecy can be a curse.
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.