By Walt Amses
Editor’s note: Walt Amses is a writer and former educator who lives in Calais.
The last few weeks have seen the word “unprecedented” beaten like a rented mule. I’ve wielded the whip myself too often to cast aspersions at others, but collectively, we’ve all been habitually categorizing what should have been predictable as a surprise.
Not having seen it coming doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t have seen it coming. I’m realizing that much of the shock registered by officials in the face of one or another disaster is offered as a technique for dodging responsibility.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs, for example, The Onion goes after the usual NRA/GOP rationalizations with the same headline: “No Way to Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” illuminating the absurdity of shock and hand-wringing taking precedence over a comprehensive effort to overhaul our societal relationship with firearms.
What is also no longer surprising, unfortunately, is tolerating nearly 40,000 gun deaths a year as though it’s a reasonable price to pay for preserving the sanctity of the mischaracterized Second Amendment.
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which four hijacked jetliners crashed into the Pentagon and a farm field in Pennsylvania, and orchestrated the nationally televised mass murder and destruction of the World Trade Center. Certainly that clear, vivid September morning was as ghastly as anything most of us have ever seen or hope to ever see again. Shocking? Of course. Surprising? Yes, for most of us. But depicting the attacks as having no prior warning takes liberties with the facts.
Intelligence regarding planes being used as terrorist weapons goes back to at least 1995, when Abdul Hakim Murad was arrested in Manilla, detailing plans to blow up American airliners over the Pacific and to crash explosive-laden planes into CIA headquarters or other government buildings.
Al-Qaida embassy bombings killed hundreds in Africa in 1998; there were reliable indications Osama bin-Laden was looking to coordinate attacks inside the U.S.; and only months before 9/11, suspicions were raised over Middle Eastern men paying cash for flight training, with “large jets” their priority.
Speculation about having missed the signs leading up to 9/11 is moot at this point; 20-20 hindsight is too convenient a lens through which to make judgments. But one direct connection spans the decades: Afghanistan.
After trillions of dollars and thousands of deaths, the longest war in American history apparently left us with 20 years of experience insufficient to predict what an orderly, honorable departure might look like instead of the bloody chaos that ensued. After two decades, the events reportedly “took us by surprise.”
Last week the remnants of Hurricane Ida plowed into the New York metro area like an out-of-control I-95 tractor-trailer, inundating Central Park with 4 inches of rain in only one hour, and drowning people in their apartments, in subway tunnels and in their cars. Neighboring New Jersey had multiple tornadoes, flooded homes exploding, with several residents’ last moments the stuff of horror: swept away in raging rivers, sucked into unseen storm drains, their bodies found miles away, or witnessing their terrified children sinking into the rising, muddy water.
After superstorm Sandy, the region poured billions into resiliency projects designed to mitigate severe storms and a warming planet, yet was woefully unprepared, with impervious surfaces such as city streets and sidewalks becoming raging rivers, capable of tossing cars around like toys and sweeping pedestrians to their deaths.
According to the NYC website The Gothamist, “Part of the problem stems from how officials communicate uncertainty and how the public perceives those messages.” Initially, the National Weather Service had New Yorkers looking for “3-6 inches of rain with locally higher amounts possible”.
Not long after, though, the National Weather Service upped the concern and the prediction, calling for 3-8 inches of rain and warning of the possibility of “significant and life-threatening flooding.” But considering the number of people caught completely unaware, those forecasts should have been issued far earlier with much more emphasis.
Even as the city’s first-ever flash flood warning was issued, it appeared residents had no idea what to expect. When Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed the “New world” of climate change, The New York Post pounced: He acted “like climate change was news to him … as he’s failed to make a city slammed by Sandy in 2012 more resilient despite much talk of doing so.”
The 2008 financial implosion that shocked the entire world did not shock one hedge fund manager, who foresaw the crisis in 2005, first warning a riding-high-and-disinterested Wall Street and going on to develop what he called “credit default swaps,” betting on his instincts and making hundreds of million dollars when it all came crashing down.
Democrats were startled by both Texas’ draconian abortion legislation as well as the Supreme Court’s response. However, in 2015, Hillary Clinton reminded everyone the next president would likely have an opportunity to stack the court. Over 5 million indifferent voters picked either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, who together garnered over 5 million votes, tipping key swing states that Clinton lost by fewer than 100,000 votes.
Six years later, we are not where we might have been, but in the throes of a once more deadly virus spiraling out of control, looking down a darkening road toward another daunting winter. Early pandemic warnings went ignored, masking entreaties unheeded, and vaccines politicized, all conspiring to land us here, again taken by surprise at every turn.
We anticipate the vivid distraction of brightening hillsides while understanding the solace of autumn’s luminosity quickly fades, darkness deepens, and cold rules the coming months.