A Nostradamus in the White House?
The verse proved spurious (it seems to have been composed well before the attacks by a student trying to prove just how open to interpretation a Nostradamus-style quatrain really is) but that didn’t prevent it from gaining wide currency on the Internet.
The idea that the attacks were predicted is deeply appealing. If they were predicted, if someone foresaw the disaster in the sixteenth century, then the hijackers weren’t truly operating in complete secrecy. The idea of terrorists in our midst, going about their evil under our very noses with no one aware of their sinister intentions, is terrifying: how can you thwart terrorists camouflaged as suburbanites? A foreseen disaster is somehow more manageable.
Perhaps with this in mind, in the months since Sept. 11 public officials have made dire predictions with opacity reminiscent of Nostradamus. On Oct. 10 and again on Oct. 29, the Bush administration warned Americans that another terrorist attack was imminent. Officials urged alertness. There was no word, in either instance, of the nature of attack planned or of potential targets.
The administration probably felt that the advantage of being able to say “I told you so” if another attack occurred outweighed the obvious costs of such ominous, vague warnings—that potentially holding bragging rights for clairvoyance was worth the price of alarming an already nervous populace.
If terrorists had attacked after the Bush administration issued those ambiguous October warnings—no matter how they struck, or where—the administration would have been able to say it had foreseen the threat. As all interpreters of Nostradamus worth their salt know, the advantage of vague yet dire prophecy is that it may be interpreted to describe almost anything that occurs after the prophecy is issued.
Specific yet dire prophecies do not have nearly the same benefits. When California Gov. Gray Davis said two weeks ago that his state’s bridges were terrorists’ targets—and the threatened attacks didn’t materialize—pundits criticized the governor for needlessly frightening the public. Fewer such criticisms have been leveled against the Bush administration’s cautions.
And yet these vaguer cautions are potentially more damaging. Unlike Davis’s warning, which could be heeded by avoiding major bridges (although few people actually did so), the Bush administration’s warnings are difficult to act upon. They have been met not by increased caution (how can you be on more than maximum alert?) but by increased xenophobia.
As the still-circulating “Nostradamus” quatrain attests, vague warnings are seductive. They create a feeling of our being in control of an otherwise uncontrolled and uncontrollable situation: We feel that we know what’s going to happen. But the future can’t be predicted—not by a sixteenth-century mystic, not by someone writing in the style of a sixteenth-century mystic, and not by the Bush administration. To imagine that it can is to succumb to the worst sort of superstition.