April 8, 2004

Black swan  

Nassim Nicholas Taleb looks at the nature of risk and the unexpected and comes to some smart conclusions about the 9/11 commission's task. I'm very sympathetic to his view; I've never felt the attacks were foreseeable, and while there are some strange circumstances surrounding the attack and its immediate aftermath that still need to be explained, I've never expected this to end with a strong indictment of, for instance, the Bush administration.

But the commission is going in a different direction; as EJ Dionne points out, their questions today made it clear that they think this tragedy was preventable. Part of that assessment may hinge on information the public doesn't have yet; part of it may be explained by Mr Taleb's black swan. But the Bush administration's handling of the situation - their unwillingness to declassify documents or give the commission access to key players - has created new avenues for suspicion. They've been combative from the start, treating every step of the process as a political fight. That has made it seem like they have something to hide. And yet what can they be hiding? I'm not ready to believe they could reasonably have stopped the attacks, or that anybody else would have done a better job up to that point...

By the way, I should point out that there is another commission getting underway, one that won't present its findings until after November. For that commission and the war it's investigating, there won't be any hiding behind unforseeable, outlying risks. In that case, the administration took postive action (to the point of invading another country) based on incorrect intelligence, and for that someone must be held accountable.


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