Fifteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, could creative thinking possibly prevent the next one? The 9/11 Commission Report condemned a “failure of imagination.” Likewise, Donald Rumsfeld, in the documentary “The Unknown Known,” suggested that the failure of the United States to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure of imagination. This supposition rings true, although it is far from a consensus position.
It has long been noted that Tom Clancy’s 1994 thriller “Debt of Honor” featured a pilot flying his plane into the U.S. Capitol. But there are numerous other examples where writers’ imaginations seemed to predict 9/11. Stephen King’s “The Running Man” (1982) — the novel, not the film — concludes with a pilot intentionally slamming a passenger jet into a skyscraper.
Don DeLillo’s “Players” (1977) and “Mao II” (1991) focused heavily on terrorism, but it was his novel “White Noise” (1985) where the protagonist reads from a tabloid story, in which psychics predicted the coming year’s events, that gave me chills: “Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House …”
In “Infinite Jest” (1996), David Foster Wallace uses an interesting metaphor for how a depressed person feels: “Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me,” he wrote. “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.”
This reads more like a vague Bible prophesy than a warning we could prepare for. But the other examples suggest we should be doing more than just writing about our apocalyptic intuition.
At least one creative thinker did more than just write about his premonitions. A retired Army officer named Rick Rescorla prepared for the attacks. As The New Yorker noted, “Drawing on his research for [a] novel on the air-cavalry unit, Rescorla [then working as head of security for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center] envisioned an air attack on the twin towers, probably an air-cargo plane …” Sadly, Rescorla died during the attacks while helping lead people to safety.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the accumulation of evidence that writers had envisioned something similar dovetailed with laments about a failure of imagination. There were enough eerie omens to support a modern cottage industry for prophetic novelists.
But more important than book sales was the notion that we might tap this creative talent to prevent the next attack. One of the voices calling for this was legendary blogger Rob Neppell, who then went by the nom de plume N.Z. Bear.
Noting that “during WWII, [science fiction writers] Issac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and yes, [Robert] Heinlein, were recruited to work at the Materials Laboratory of the Naval Air Material Center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard,” Neppell argued in 2002 that we should do it again. “Put the right 20 people in a conference room for a day, supply sufficient quantities of caffeine and alcohol, and I guarantee you’ll walk out of there with ideas that haven’t yet occurred to the CIA or FBI,” he insisted.
Someone was paying attention to voices like Neppell’s. In 2004, The Washington Post published a story headlined: “Homeland Security Employs Imagination.” Thriller writer Brad Meltzer was involved in what was called the Analytic Red Cell program after 9/11, and so was author Brad Thor, who told The Daily Caller’s Jamie Weinstein that this project was “easily the most aggressive, forward-thinking program I have ever seen the federal government stand up. They bring in creative thinkers from outside the Beltway to sit down with a range of government, military and intelligence people to create possible scenarios.” Others, like “The Alienist” author and historian Caleb Carr, have also offered insight to the government.
Will it matter? It’s obviously difficult to predict and avoid the next 9/11. We have to bat 1.000; the bad guys just need to be successful once. But the more we listen to offbeat creative types, writers and futurists, the better our odds of doing so will be. Not all heroes wear capes, or even badges or camouflage. The nerds who grew up reading sci-fi books might turn out to be our last, best hope.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.