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"The Foreseeable Future": Thoughts on the Continuing Significance of 9/11

Shortly after 9/11, I was asked to reflect on what significance, if any, the great Athenian leader Pericles might have to our understanding and response to the terrorist attacks. What follows is a version of what I wrote. It is, I know, monstrously long for a blog post. You'll know after a few paragraphs whether it is worth your time.

Midway through the long article on Afghanistan in the great eleventh edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, one comes across this description of the inhabitants of that ancient mountain country:

The Afghans, inured to bloodshed from childhood, are familiar with death, and audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain and insatiable, passionate in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner. Nowhere is crime committed on such trifling grounds, or with such general impunity, though when it is punished the punishment is atrocious. Among themselves the Afghans are quarrelsome, intriguing and distrustful; estrangements and affrays are of constant occurrence; . . . . The Afghan is by breed and nature a bird of prey. If from habit and tradition he respects a stranger within his threshold, he yet considers it legitimate to warn a neighbour of the prey that is afoot, or even overtake and plunder his guest after he has quitted his roof.

That refreshingly frank passage, by Colonel Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, was published in 1910. I hope that the American and British troops now enjoying the hospitality of the Afghans are acquainted with this travel advisory. It is as pertinent today—in early 2002—as it was 100 years ago.

I was put in mind of Sir Thomas’s insightful commentary just before Christmas, 2001, when The New York Times took its quote of the day from one Faqir Muhammad, an officer in one of the many squabbling anti-Taliban armies: “This is what Afghanistan is,” he said. “We kill each other.”

Indeed. And not only each other, of course.

Sir Thomas’s remarks are valuable not only because of their contemporaneity but also because they help us set today’s issues in historical context. “The farther backward you can look,” Winston Churchill once observed, “the farther forward you are likely to see.” Early in the Peloponnesian War, a plague swept through Athens, killing thousands and demoralizing the survivors. In a rallying speech, Pericles (himself soon to die) noted that “When things happen suddenly, unexpectedly, and against all calculation, it takes the heart out of a man.” Against the temptations of apathy and acquiescence, Pericles urged his listeners to recall the greatness of Athens, to face calamity with an “unclouded mind and react quickly against it.”

As the shock of September 11 gives way to the reality of America at war, it is useful to take a page from Churchill and cast a backward glance. The pressure of contemporary events crowds us into the impatient confines of the present, rendering us insensible to the lessons of history—not least the lesson that tomorrow’s dramas are typically unforeseen by the scripts we abide by today. Language itself conspires to keep us in the dark. I will return in a moment to Pericles. But I want first to dwell briefly on our tendency to use language to emasculate surprise.

Consider only that marvelous phrase “the foreseeable future.” With what cheery abandon we employ it! Yet what a nugget of unfounded optimism those three words encompass. How much of the future, really, do we foresee? A week? A day? A minute? “In a minute,” as T. S. Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” So much of life is a juggling with probabilities, a conjuring with uncertainties, that we often forget upon what stupendous acts of faith even the prudent conduct of life depends.

Had I been asked, on September 10, 2001, whether New York’s Twin Towers would continue standing for “the foreseeable future,” I should have answered “Yes.” And so, in one sense, they did. Only my foresight was not penetrating enough, not far-seeing enough, to accommodate that most pedestrian of eventualities: an event.

An event is as common as dirt. It is also as novel as tomorrow’s dawn. “There is nothing,” the French writer Charles Péguy noted in the early years of the 20th century, “so unforeseen as an event.” The particular event Péguy had in mind was the Dreyfus Affair. Who could have predicted that the fate of an obscure Jewish Army captain falsely accused of spying would have such momentous consequences? And yet this unforeseen event, as Proust observed in his great novel, suddenly, catastrophically, “divided France from top to bottom.” Its repercussions were felt for decades. We plan, stockpile, second-guess, buy insurance, make allowances, assess risks, play the odds, envision contingencies, calculate interest, tabulate returns, save for a rainy day . . . and still we are constantly surprised.