The Magazine

The 9/11 Commission Looks Backward

The 9/11 Commission has hindsight bias out the wazoo, and we should not be all that surprised.

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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But this is an undisciplined independent review commission, one that's transformed itself, to all appearances, into an elaborate and divisive fault-finding exercise, and little more. Just within the past two weeks, the Commission has invited the entire world to watch, in real time, as senior officials from two successive presidential administrations were raked over the coals for errors of judgment and omission--in the wake of a horrific crime whose key perpetrator is still at large. What's the most important thing that happened on September 11, 2001, apart from that business about 3,000 Americans getting butchered in cold blood? Washington screwed up, that's what happened. Such, at least, is the unmistakable aftertaste left by this latest round of 9/11 Commission hearings.

Former senator and current Commission member Bob Kerrey published a New York Times op-ed a few weeks back in which he announced, with striking confidence, that "9/11 could have been prevented." This is hindsight bias in spades--an altogether unwarranted and unreasonable judgment. And there's something vaguely indecent about it, as well. There's not a speck of extant evidence that any particular federal employee's incompetence or stupidity made possible a disaster that could otherwise have been "prevented." Why, then, are we so obsessively looking for such a culprit among a group of federal employees who by all accounts have many of them devoted entire careers--and even risked their lives--to protect the rest of us from the likes of Osama bin Laden?

In any case, by so carelessly tarring these people, the 9/11 Commission is almost guaranteeing its own eventual failure. However many nifty ideas the Commission comes up with in its final report, if it has meantime helped spread the poisonous notion that our own government is meaningfully responsible for a cataclysmic breach of duty . . . well, then our government will not be so kindly disposed toward any of those nifty ideas, will it? This really is a foreseeable result. And it really will have been preventable. And we really will know exactly whom to blame.

--David Tell, for the Editors