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The Dots that Don’t Connect

(concept cover design by Nick Caro)

Rod’s post on foresight and hindsight reminded me of one of Malcolm Gladwell’s better essays, which treats the same problem in the context of intelligence gathering. He begins by describing the events in Israel on October 6, 1973, when the Syrian army had been massing on the Israeli border:

Israel’s director of military intelligence received an urgent telephone call from one of the country’s most trusted intelligence sources. Egypt and Syria, the source said, would attack later that day. Top Israeli officials immediately called a meeting. Was war imminent? The head of AMAN, Major General Eli Zeira, looked over the evidence and said he didn’t think so. He was wrong. That afternoon, Syria attacked from the east, overwhelming the thin Israeli defenses in the Golan Heights, and Egypt attacked from the south, bombing Israeli positions and sending eight thousand infantry streaming across the Suez. Despite all the warnings of the previous weeks, Israeli officials were caught by surprise. Why couldn’t they connect the dots?

If you start on the afternoon of October 6th and work backward, the trail of clues pointing to an attack seems obvious; you’d have to conclude that something was badly wrong with the Israeli intelligence service. On the other hand, if you start several years before the Yom Kippur War and work forward, re-creating what people in Israeli intelligence knew in the same order that they knew it, a very different picture emerges. In the fall of 1973, Egypt and Syria certainly looked as if they were preparing to go to war. But, in the Middle East of the time, countries always looked as if they were going to war.

In fact, similar scenes had happened again and again in the preceding years. “Between January and October of 1973, the Egyptian Army mobilized nineteen times without going to war.” And the source who had warned them of the upcoming attack had issued identical warnings twice before and had been wrong.

Israeli intelligence didn’t see the pattern of Arab intentions, in other words, because, until Egypt and Syria actually attacked, on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, their intentions didn’t form a pattern. They formed a Rorschach blot. What is clear in hindsight is rarely clear before the fact.

The problem of Adam Lanza is this problem on a small and local scale. “Wasn’t it obvious that this kid was dangerous?” No. It wasn’t. School counselors knew that Adam was troubled, but, one of them said, “At that point in his life, he posed no threat to anyone else. We were worried about him being the victim or that he could hurt himself.”

Because people quite rightly want so much to prevent anything like this from ever happening again, we desperately want to believe that the dots could have been connected — which is to say, that in the future we can find ways to connect them all, to head off the horror. It’s very hard to accept that patterns are sometimes impossible to discern before the fact — that the tragic event is the very thing that yields the pattern. And it’s equally easy to neglect the danger of false positives: of discerning pattern when there is none, and making innocent people pay for what we believe we see.

No writer has ever understood these quirks of the human mind better than Philip K. Dick. Consider for instance his story “The Minority Report”, with its picture of a city made crime-free by “precogs,” people who can foresee future events that will come to pass — but whose precognitions allow us to intervene to stop that future from happening. It’s a great wish-fulfillment fantasy: we can predict the future; but we can also change it.

If we could acquire such power, Dick asks us to muse, what would we be willing to do, to the precogs and to others, in order to maintain it? And how far would we be willing to go to convince ourselves that our predictions are never wrong? It is typical of Dick’s powerful but deeply suspicious imagination to grant us the fulfillment of our wishes and then to unravel the idealistic vision right before our eyes.

In the real world, all too often the dots are just dots. They will form a pattern, a horrific one; but only when it’s too late for us to do anything about it.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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