Nassim Taleb, a scientist-philosopher-businessman, makes the case that 9/11 was a black swan. A black swan is a unpredictable event that defies prediction. An outlier. I agree. He expands:
A vicious black swan has an additional elusive property: its very unexpectedness helps create the conditions for it to occur. Had a terrorist attack been a conceivable risk on Sept. 10, 2001, it would likely not have happened.
In their analysis of black swans (which by definition will likely never be repeated), human beings engage in what is called hindsight bias. This is the tendency to believe that the event was predictable based on knowledge gained after the event occured. In effect, people unknowingly substitute current knowledge of outcomes into the gaps of knowledge that were present when building earlier expectations of potential events. In regards to 9/11, Nassim points out the following (with additional analysis from this weblogger given the complexity of the topic):
- We will focus on specificity at the expense of the holistic. 9/11 analysis has unearthed specific facts (the Phoenix memo for example) that may have enabled the prevention of the event. These factual revelations have resulted in a useless blame game. The flaw is that specific facts taken out of context prevents sufficient consideration of the larger informational landscape. A better approach is to develop general knowledge that can be used to improve future responses (improvements in intelligence information flow for example).
- We won't compare the negligence in this single case to the normal rate of negligence. It is impossible to guard against everything. We don't have infinite resources. That is as true today as it was before 9/11. A real test of negligence during the pre-9/11 time period is to examine whether resources applied in other areas of security were ineffective too. If they weren't effective, there are major systemic problems that need to be fixed.
- We will assume that is possible to incentivize behavior that prevents future black swans. Prevention of uncertain events is almost impossible to quantify in any meaningful way -- a necessary step for the establishment of incentives. Notice how few people in the government lost their job due to 9/11. This is an example of the failure of incentives to guard against black swans despite assumptions to the contrary.
His recommendation: the government should hire creative thinkers that can imagine the impossible. The reason, unstated, is that these people will challenge existing expectations.
This analysis is smart. Here is my attempt at creative thinking. The attack on 9/11 was an outlier in scale, scope, and breadth in comparison to previous terrorist incidents. In many ways was a continuation of an existing pattern (see the Terrorist Deathmarch). That "Deathmarch" pattern should be considered an essential element of the general knowledge we can use to prevent future attacks. However, despite this knowledge, future attacks will likely be black swans too. The reason is that terrorism is in the process of evolving into a new forms. Strategy is a dynamic process, it evolves (sometimes quickly). This is because the collective minds of both warring parties are constantly innovating to best the other.
Creative thinking on what these new forms of terrorism will likely be is essential. This is the reason I created this weblog (and the reason I am writing my book).