- Future’s Shock: Plausibility, Preemption, and the Fiction of 9/11
All plots have something in common with prophecy, for they must appear to educe from the prime matter of the situation the forms of a future.—Frank Kermode (2003)
[T]he method of infallible prediction, more than any other totalitarian propaganda device, betrays its ultimate goal of world conquest, since only in a world completely under his control could the totalitarian ruler possibly realize all his lies and make true all his prophecies.—Hannah Arendt (1976)
I want to begin with a question—not my own, but one posed by FOX News’ Brit Hume during a May 2007 Republican primary Presidential Debate:
The questions in this round will be premised on a fictional, but we think plausible scenario involving terrorism and the response to it. Here is the premise: Three shopping centers near major U.S. cities have been hit by suicide bombers. Hundreds are dead, thousands injured. A fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured off the Florida coast and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they are being questioned. U.S. intelligence believes another attack is planned and could come at any time. How aggressively would you interrogate those held at Guantanamo Bay about where the next attack might be?
Hume takes the hypothetical inquiry common to ethical philosophy and to the law and transforms it into a predictive “scenario.” His description involves no statistical projection or mathematical measure, but is self-consciously imaginative: the scenario is specific (“three shopping centers,” “off the Florida coast”), temporally complex (the simultaneity of “where they are being questioned”), and, tapping the urgency of the present perfect (“have been hit”), suspenseful. [End Page 41]
As Hume admits from the outset, the scenario is clearly “fictional,” so what makes it “plausible”? The answer to that question lies, I would argue, in the candidates’ own answers to Hume’s query. While most of the replies were unremarkable, Congressman Tom Tancredo answered as imaginatively as the question allowed: “You say that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States and we’re wondering about whether waterboarding would be a bad thing to do? I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you.” Jack Bauer is, of course, the name of Keifer Sutherland’s vigilante terrorism fighter on the television series 24. Tancredo’s reference to 24 reveals not only that the scenario could have been taken straight from any number of 24 plot-lines but also, and more significantly, that the scenario is plausible precisely insofar as it is narratively credible. Hume’s speculative prediction is not, according to most intelligence reports, a likely scenario, but, like so many 24 episodes, it is a plot for which we are willing to suspend our disbelief. Because the scenario relies on narrative rather than statistical logic, the question to ask of the forecast is not “Is it probable?” but “Is it believable?” The sense that the future is uncertain yet describable, and the tendency of those descriptions to be narrative and subjective rather than statistical and objective, is, I will argue, a symptom of the very political transformation that Hume’s scenario describes: the emergence of the doctrine of preemptive military action.1
This essay brings together a diverse set of discourses about the future—narrative models of corporate “scenario” forecasting, the legal history of the doctrine of preemption,2 and, as an instance of the emerging genre of “9/11 literature,” David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel”—in order to show how a new relationship between the historical imagination and narrative form produces the preemptive futurity unique to our post-9/11 moment.3 The doctrine of preemption develops its narrative logic from the corporate practice of “scenario thinking.” Tracking scenario thinking from its invention as a Cold War forecasting method to its use by business “futurists” in the 1980s, I will show how the doctrine of preemption emerges at the intersection of law, politics, and business as a way to capitalize on (if not [End Page 42] produce) the perception of 9/11 as a constitutively “unpredictable” event.4 Bringing scenario...