Sept. 11 and the Future of American History: Niall Ferguson

The public wants prophets. The historian writes stories about the past, but what the public wants is the history of the future. This leads to a paradox. The prophet since the time of Cassandra has largely gone unheeded. However, only the unheeded prophet has her prophecies fulfilled. If the prophet is heeded, then disaster may be averted — and the prophecy negated.

These reflections are prompted by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Before the attacks, there were prophets who foresaw such a disaster, not least Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council’s counterterrorism adviser. But it was precisely his inability to persuade George W. Bush’s administration of the imminence of al-Qaeda’s attack on America that ensured it happened. Similarly, if more people had been persuaded by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s warning in 1993 of a new “clash” between Western and Islamic civilizations after the Cold War, perhaps that clash might have been averted and the prediction proved false. Instead, we had believed an earlier prophet: Francis Fukuyama, who in 1989 had proclaimed “the end of history.”

The disaster of 9/11 was deeply shocking: the ruthless fanaticism of the suicidal hijackers, the suddenness of the World Trade Center’s collapse, the helplessness of most of the victims. On top of the trauma came the uncertainty: What would happen next? We needed new prophecies. If you are in the business of prognostication, it is a good practice — indeed, it is one of the first principles of Philip Tetlock’s “superforecasting” — to look back and see how you did. I had mixed success.

On Sept. 20, 2001, I observed that the U.S. lacked experience of terrorism within its own borders and would likely overreact to the attacks, ignoring the lessons learned by European governments over many decades, and lashing out in ways that might well backfire.

In an essay for the New York Times Magazine, published on Dec. 2, I hazarded four predictions. First, the need for higher levels of domestic security would transform daily life, introducing a range of intrusions and inconveniences that would be persistent. Second, 9/11 would not alter the country’s heavy dependence on imported oil. A new oil shock was coming, I predicted, especially if Osama bin Laden could achieve his goal of toppling the Saudi monarchy. Third, I suggested that the U.S. would likely retaliate for the attacks by expanding its already considerable military presence abroad. I anticipated a “transition of American global power from informal to formal imperialism.” Finally, I foresaw less a clash of civilizations than a continued process of political fragmentation (“From Yugoslavia to Iraq to Afghanistan, what the United States keeps having to confront is not a united Islam but a succession of fractured polities, racked by internecine war”).