The U.S. government’s response to the spread of COVID-19 eerily reminds me of a podcast I listened to back in 2017. The former host of the Art of Charm, Jordan Harbinger, interviewed Richard Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism for the United States, on episode 645. They discuss his book, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.”
Richard describes that, "Cassandra in Greek history has a blessing and a curse from the gods. The blessing was that she could accurately see the future -- pretty good. The curse was that she could also see disasters coming, and when she told anybody a disaster was coming, no one would believe her…" He continued, saying, "She went crazy because she kept seeing these disasters and saying, Oh, we have to stop this. The fall of Troy is going to happen, and the king of Troy laughed at her and then of course, Troy fell and everyone got killed. All of her friends and family got killed. So she went mad that no one would listen to her."
"In the book Warnings, we talk about Cassandras being people who are experts, who are data driven, but who are outliers. They see things first, before the other experts do. And they're right, we know in retrospect, but they're ignored. We talk about Cassandra events as being the disaster that was predicted by the expert but happens anyway."
Hearing from the expert who accurately predicted the September 11th attacks explains that when he warned the Bush administration, they didn't believe him "because that's not in their experience. Intellectually it makes no sense because we all know that things are constantly occurring for the first time. And if you say to someone, 'isn't life about things occurring for the first time? Isn't history a list of things that occurred for the first time,' they all say yes. But when you actually sit them down and say, 'Look, this thing is going to happen,' in the back of their minds they're thinking, 'Eh, it never happened before.'" And now, here we are.
I thought this was important to share because, again, some people aren't taking this global pandemic very seriously, and unnecessary fatalities will occur because we've never had to respond this way before. Not taking precautions because of your experience will have consequences we haven't seen before.
The book contains 14 Cassandra case studies, seven which have occurred, and the interview goes through an example you might remember. Beginning a story about "Charlie Allen, who held the title National Intelligence Officer for Warning," a "job that came out of the review of the Pearl Harbor disaster" and why we missed the attack. "One day in July of 1990, [Charlie] was looking at the intelligence about what was going on in Iraq, and he saw troop movements and unusual troop movements." When he warned the CIA "that Saddam Hussein was about to invade Kuwait,"; "CIA people said, No, that's not going to happen." My first lesson of First Occurrence Syndrome, it hadn't ever happened before.
"Detained by the United States and interrogated -- he was asked, 'What would you have done in July of 1990 if George Herbert Walker Bush had picked up the phone and called you and said, 'Saddam, looks like you're thinking of going into Kuwait. Don't do that or we'll have to kick you out,' what would you have done? Saddam laughed in the interrogation and he said, 'Are you kidding? If I'd gotten that call from Bush, I never would have done it.'"
There was another lesson they discussed, the Ideological Response Rejection. Richard describes the rationale, "if I were to believe your prediction, it would be incumbent on me to do something to prevent this catastrophe. And the only things that you suggest -- the only things that make sense would be things that would make the government bigger and cause us to spend more money." I feel like we're experiencing the result of that hesitation playing out. Living in downtown Seattle, in an area that has the third-largest confirmed cases in the country, to think that someone was warned months ago and did nothing, feels unreal. If we don't know who's has COVID-19 and who doesn't, it's up to us to take the decision seriously to go into temporary isolation and do our part to keep this problem from being any more significant than doing nothing would allow it.
This episode is worth listening to. I'm sure you will find new insights, especially into the Cassandra Coefficient, and begin to acknowledge that possibility does exist for something catastrophic to happen for the first time; and that warning signs proceed it. To leave you with two recommendations from Richard:
Be as safe as you can be.
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