As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.
(Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002.)
In an earlier blog, I discussed a very weird experience a colleague of mine had in which airport security called the police after finding books on terrorism in his backpack and then decided to send the books back through the x-ray, presumably in case the words and paper were concealing some kind of threat that the first x-ray had failed to detect. I want to suggest that this experience is not an anomaly; it’s not merely an isolated case of some over-eager, ultra-cautious official. Rather, it is emblematic of the current paradigm of counter-terrorism thought and practice, and probably one of numerous similar examples of bizarre official behavior that occurs every day. Apart from searching old ladies and babies’ nappies at airports – practices I have personally observed – a few selected other examples of weirdness by counter-terrorist officials includes: worrying that terrorists could introduce biological weapons into the water supply through fire hydrants; worrying that terrorists might use hand-gliders to deliver suicide bombs; worrying about how candy machines might be vulnerable to terrorists; and worrying that America’s hundreds of amusement and water parks are all potential terrorist targets. What all these examples illustrate is the key role of fantasy in counter-terrorism; that is, officials imagining often unrealistic – or at least reality-enhanced or entertainment-based – possible terrorist scenarios and then treating them as real threats requiring a practical response.
How do we explain this tendency towards fantasy thinking in counter-terrorism? I believe the explanation lies in what we might call the epistemological crisis in terrorism knowledge today. This refers to the profound lack of knowledge about terrorism that officials and experts claim to have: ‘we just don’t know where, when or how terrorists might attack’, they maintain. Terrorism is, according to the experts and officials, fundamentally unknown, incalculable and unpredictable. It’s what Rumsfeld referred to as an ‘unknown unknown’: we don’t even know what it is we don’t know about terrorism. Once officials admit that they don’t know anything about terrorism, then the only way they can possibly detect them and deal with them is to try and imagine what they might do – and imagination inevitably leads to fantasy.
How did we get to this position where not knowing is the main thing we know about the terrorist threat? How did this epistemological crisis – this crisis of knowledge, of what we know or don’t know – first arise? I propose that it took five key steps. First, as sociologists like Ulrich Beck have explained, over the past few decades, traditional risk analysis has been replaced by precautionary thinking, and public officials have come to be preoccupied with the possible over the probable. That is, they’ve come to prioritize and worry about the terrible consequences of potential risks, rather than about the very low probability of those risks actually materialising. For public officials, what could happen in future acts of terrorism now assumes greater significance than what hashappened over the past centuries of terrorist violence or what might actually happen. At the same time, officials have come to believe that society expects them to adopt a zero-risk approach to public safety: no level of risk, even a one percent risk, can now be tolerated. Therefore, officials are bound to take every precaution to prevent public harm from materializing.
Second, terrorism, particuarly since 9/11, has been constructed by academics and the media as fundamentally ‘new’ (the so-called ‘new terrorism’) and catastrophic (‘catastrophic terrorism’ or ‘superterrorism’). Often, these assertions about the nature of terrorism have been accompanied by a series of collectively understood frames and metaphors, including the idea that terrorism can be understood as kind of infectious disease or poison, or a spectre or phantom. Unlike the so-called ‘old terrorism’ of political groups like the IRA or ETA, officials and many ‘terrorism experts’ now insist that today’s terrorism is unlike anything that has come before, and therefore all the evidence, data, and analysis of earlier terrorists is no longer relevant and cannot tell us anything about the current terrorist threat. In other words, it is official opinion that there is no previous knowledge on terrorism which is reliable for telling us about the current terrorist threat. Instead, we are starting from a position of zero knowledge about a threat which spreads like an unknown disease or phantom.
Third, as the famous quotation from Donald Rumsfeld suggests, counter-terrorism officials have come to focus on the ‘unknown’ element of terrorism, especially all the ‘unknown unknowns’ – all the things we don’t even know we don’t know about terrorism. As such, they have embraced ontological uncertainty as the fundamental condition of terrorism knowledge. In effect, they have severed all links to previous empirical evidence and knowledge: if terrorism is defined primarily by what is unknown, then there is no reliable empirical evidence or data which can help us ‘know’ terrorism. In effect, this means there is no reason for empirical evaluation or cost-benefit analysis of current counter-terrorism measures.
Fourth, as I have argued elsewhere, officials have also engaged in ‘knowledge subjugation’ – the process of maintaining a series of ‘known unknowns’, or things we ‘know’ but which we don’t want to ‘know’. This is achieved by suppressing evidence, knowledge and perspectives which challenges accepted ideas (or in this case, accepted ignorance) – such as the knowledge that anti-American terrorism is primarily caused by US military intervention overseas. Instead, officials, the media and many experts assert that we simply do not know why terrorists attack. We don’t know why they do it; it’s completely inexplicable that they would engage in such behavior against us. Unsurprisingly, the deliberate suppression of certain forms and types of knowledge further contributes to the epistemological crisis of counter-terrorism.
Finally, at the same time as terrorism has been constructed as unknowable and unpredictable, and officials have become preoccupied with the possible over the probable, they have also embraced the impossibility of ever completely securing the nation against terrorism. This is evident in the Prepare strand of the UK’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy: prepare, in this case, means prepare for catastrophe; prepare for the inevitable terrorist attack which will occur regardless of all the measures undertaken to prevent such an outcome. In other words, official policy is based on the assumption that no matter what they do, or what they know about terrorism, they will never be able to prevent future terrorist attacks.
It is easy to see that the combination of all these assumptions creates a profound crisis of knowledge about terrorism – an epistemological crisis. Faced with this profound lack of knowledge and seemingly permanent condition of uncertainty, counter-terrorism officials are thus forced to use their imaginations to try and detect, prevent and deter terrorist attacks before they occur. Forced to employ imagination rather than empirical evidence, data and scholarly analysis, it is inevitable that officials sometimes resort to fantasy thinking. In other words, in a field defined by a deep and profound epistemological crisis about the nature and threat of terrorism, bizarre counter-terrorism practices are not exceptions; they are the new normal; they are the inevitable response to the condition of unknowing. By my reckoning, you can expect to have your books x-rayed, and your baby’s nappies searched, and your duty free alcohol confiscated, for some time to come yet.