Politics & Policy

Hindsight’s Not 20/20

Cutting through the conventional wisdom.

Most of the time, a billiards shot seems obvious after you’ve made it. The line of your cue, the angle of your eye, the trajectories of the balls, and finally, the way they carom off each other and the banks seem perfectly logical, even predictable. If you miss your shot, it seems obvious why you did. If you sink the ball as intended, it seems even more obvious. But, of course, if pool was as easy as it sometimes seems after the fact, we’d all be Minnesota Fats. Then again, sometimes you just whack the cue ball hard and afterwards marvel at the scattering chaos.

I bring this us for two reasons. First, it’s always important to avoid clichés like the plague (woops); so I didn’t want to say “hindsight is always 20/20.” Second, and more important, hindsight is not always 20/20. If everyone could see the past as clearly as this old saw implies, then we’d never have any arguments about history. We’d all see the Cold War, Vietnam, Shoeless Joe Jackson, etc. the same way. There would be few arguments between liberals and conservatives because either all conservatives would see the past through liberal eyes — Herbert Croly was a prophet, Joe McCarthy a villain, Jane Fonda a hero, Ronald Reagan a tragedy, etc. — or liberals would see the world through our eyes and Ronald Reagan would be on Mt. Rushmore and Jane Fonda would be eating prison porridge in the stony lonesome.

Indeed, if hindsight were always 20/20, married couples would never argue, for it would be clear to all who was to blame (rather than the current arrangement where the wife has enough clarity for both of them). If it were thus, Palestinians and Israelis could sit around a table and settle their disagreements before lunch. Many of the great schisms — between Eastern and Western Churches, the Shia and Sunni, Apple and Microsoft — might be minor schisms. Indeed all of the great eternal conflicts — save perhaps that between cats and dogs, for their grievance has no history — would be lessened or erased if we could all see the past with perfect and equal clarity.

Take the current brouhaha over the September 11 attacks. It’s funny how so many people can pay lip service to the idea that hindsight is 20/20 while simultaneously arguing about what actually happened. There are folks encamped on every square of the blame game, from those who see 9/11 as inevitable and unpredictable to those who say it was not only preventable but that it was so obvious that it could only have happened if the president of the United States was in on the murderous conspiracy. And yet, with few exceptions, these folks declare with secular piety, “We all know that hindsight is 20/20.”


The fact is, it’s not at all clear how or why the United States failed to avert the Sept. 11 attacks. I think you have to be a fool or nut to believe that Bush or anybody else in the administration knowingly permitted the attacks to occur for any motive or reason. But, it’s also obvious that the U.S. dropped the ball somewhere. This isn’t a complicated or controversial assertion. Whenever thousands of Americans get murdered in a terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, almost by definition, the government didn’t do its job as well as it should have.

But the government’s mistakes get scrutinized. Internal reviews, external commissions, duplicative congressional hearings, competing news organizations, whistleblowers, the general public, and, eventually, historians all take their turns exploring the what-might-have-beens.

Meanwhile the critics, the press in general, and, of course, Congress share in the responsibility. Take the famed Phoenix memo. Everyone had a grand old time slapping the FBI around for ignoring warnings about Middle Eastern men taking classes at flight schools. But we now know that one of the reasons the FBI agents didn’t follow through was that they were afraid of being charged with racial profiling. The head of the FBI even admitted in congressional testimony that this was a concern while simultaneously assuring Congress that the FBI would never profile.

The other night I caught some guy named Rich Lowry on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” making a similar argument. Bill Press, the former host of Crossfire, shot back “That is pure FBI spin that has no basis in reality. Look, if you — if you stop a black kid driving a car that’s doing nothing wrong simply because he’s black, that’s racial profiling. If you know there are people who are trying to fly jets and learn how to turn them and not how to land them and you don’t go after them because they happen to be Muslims, that’s just plain stupid.”

Alas, he missed the point. People like Press, and the press in general, made it impossible to carve out a public position on racial profiling that was anything less than zero tolerance. How many times had Bill Press pounded the table denouncing anything that even smelled of profiling as racist and evil? Press can claim now that targeting specific individuals who wanted to learn how to fly, but not land, would be reasonable. But the fact remains that it was people like Press who drained reasonableness from the political climate in the first place. Who can doubt that if the FBI rounded up Middle Eastern men at flight schools, Press would be up there on TV shouting “Amen!” to putrid rationalization offered by Jim Zogby?

Howard Kurtz writes today about how the New York Times more or less killed an article on al Qaeda and bin Laden on Sept. 9. It’s an interesting piece, but it only highlights the point that the media has to share some of the blame for 9/11, too. The media sets the political tone and supplies the political incentives for public servants to do the right thing the right way. You can be sure that the New York Times would have been far more eager to run a story lamenting the threat of Christian conservatives than it was of Muslim immigrants.

Take the story of Johnell Bryant as recounted in the New York Times last Friday (and discussed at length in Jay Nordlinger’s column today). A hapless woman who couldn’t take a hint if it were driven three inches into her brain pan with a ball peen hammer, Ms. Bryant was the Agriculture Department official who interviewed Mohammed Atta for a loan. Atta asked for the aerial map of Washington hanging over her desk. He inquired about the security at Washington landmarks and whether it was true that the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium had a hole in the roof. He wanted to borrow $650 thousand dollars to buy a twin-engine plane with a really big tank. He asked if he could get away with slitting her throat. And, oh yeah, he sung the praises of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and asked her to help the organization.

And, today, Ms. Bryant says wistfully, “Should I have picked up the telephone and called someone? . . . I don’t know how I could possibly expect myself to have recognized what the man was. And yet sometimes I haven’t forgiven myself.”

Could it be that a political climate which says it is unthinkable to think unkind things about certain groups contributed to her denial? If a Timothy McVeigh type asked similar questions would the light bulb have gone off over her head? Doubtless, the New York Times won’t ask itself such questions.

We all know that prior to 9/11 there were numerous successful attacks on U.S. interests around the world. What we forget is that there were plenty of unsuccessful attacks here at home. And yet, the press rarely treated these stories as if the threat was real or imminent. It’s a sad aspect of our political culture that people have to die in large numbers for us to take self-preservation seriously.

Let me interrupt this chain of thought to address the news that a would-be terrorist with a dirty bomb has been arrested. Almost immediately my e-mail box filled with people declaring “See: Racial profiling wouldn’t have stopped this guy! He’s Hispanic!” I guarantee we’ll be hearing much more of this in the days to come.

To which the only intelligent response is, “So what?”

Not even the most rabid advocates of racial profiling consider the practice to be a silver bullet. I don’t think racial profiling is the only tool America needs in the war on terrorism and I don’t know anybody who does. It is a useful tool, though, when used properly. But, more importantly, its use and acceptance — where warranted — is a sign that the government and the culture are serious about the war on terrorism. To shout that racial profiling wouldn’t have stopped Sept. 11, is to light a signal fire to let the world know you don’t get the big picture. It is akin to saying “putting U.S. troops in Belgium wouldn’t have stopped Pearl Harbor.”

Much like racial profiling, another hallmark of seriousness is the recognition that these terrorists are Muslims. This dirty bomber may have been born Jose Padilla but he goes by the name Abdullah Al Mujahir now. Indeed, while there are examples of non-Arab members of al Qaeda, there’s not been a single non-Muslim one. To date, this murderous band of fanatics has been unable to orchestrate a successful outreach program into the Quakers. And yet, there are still people who bristle and chafe at the idea the FBI should be concentrating its energies on Muslim groups.

Thank God he was caught. But, it’s sad to think that in a perverse way we might have been safer in the long run if Mr. Mujahir had been successful in irradiating Chicago. Maybe then hindsight would get closer to 20/20.


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