May 18, 2003

Hindsight and pointing fingers

Connecting the Dots - This was published a couple months ago in the New Yorker, but they don’t keep content around very long and don’t publish everything online. Like everything else Gladwell writes this is thoroughly grounded in what is rather than what should be. In the guise of reviewing a book about 9/11 he discusses in depth the behavior explained by the simple aphorism, “Hindsight is 20/20.” What’s dangerous is when we forget that and, in our search for finding meaning and answers, place blame on people who were given an impossible task, and make systemic changes to “fix” an unfixable situation:

But, of course, Zeira gave an unambiguous answer to the question of war because that is what politicians and the public demanded of him. No one wants ambiguity. Today, the F.B.I. gives us color-coded warnings and speaks of "increased chatter" among terrorist operatives, and the information is infuriating to us because it is so vague. What does "increased chatter" mean? We want a prediction. We want to believe that the intentions of our enemies are a puzzle that intelligence services can piece together, so that a clear story emerges. But there rarely is a clear story--at least, not until afterward, when some enterprising journalist or investigative committee decides to write one.
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