20/20 Retrospective Hindsight Monday Morning Quarterbacking

This is a piece about avian flu. I'll get to it in a second.

We're living in an interesting time.

I don't mean that in a sweeping, global sense, like "it's the age of the integrated circuit" or anything like that.

I mean right now. This week. Here's why:

One of the things that makes a catastrophe such an intriguing object lesson in what kind of culture we've become is the new sport of "Who should have prevented it?"

We dig up obscure letters about suspected terrorists learning to fly airplanes, about structurally suspicious levees, about fire code violations, etc. We use these to ferret out whose fault it was because how in God's name could they have failed to predict something so blindingly obvious?

There's a little bit of a problem here, though. While it may be true that there were letters about suspected terrorists learning to fly airplanes, there were several thousand other letters about suspected terrorists learning to operate bulldozers, suspected terrorists touring the Washington Monument, suspected terrorists driving across the George Washington Bridge, suspected terrorists learning how to drive buses, etc., etc.

There are also hundreds of thousands of letters warning that the Golden Gate is about to collapse, that Hoover Dam is about to collapse, that the Empire State Building is about to collapse, etc., etc.

There are hundreds of phone calls each day from people who dreamed that an airliner was going to crash.

If one of those things should come to pass, there will be major hell to pay because public officials ignored "the warnings."

There is no such thing as a disaster that somebody, somewhere didn't predict with uncanny accuracy.

To investigate every such warning would drain the federal coffers inside of a week. That's where judgment comes in. Most times it works; sometimes it doesn't.

I said this was an interesting time. The reason is that, right here, right now, there is a warning on the table about an impending pandemic of avian flu.

It didn't come from some crackpot psychic. It came from people whose business it is to know about such things.

When this pandemic strikes the U.S., it will kill more people than any other single event in history.

And when it's over, there are going to be Congressional hearings on who should have known and what they should have done about it. Mountains of evidence will be flung in all directions.

Some will say nobody knew how bad it was going to be. Some will say nobody knew when it would happen. Some will say there was no time to do anything about it anyway. Some will say it was unreasonable to take big, expensive preparatory measures because too many people disputed the predictions.

It will all be bullshit. All the retrospective rationalization will be just that.

When it happens, think back to this very moment, right now, as you read this sentence. This is the moment when you knew it was going to happen.

What you're hearing is not the alarmist rantings of self-absorbed scientists, or the self-interested propaganda of pharmaceutical manufacturers, or an obscure memo buried in a file along with a hundred other whacko predictions.

This is the real thing. Nobody will be able to say we didn't know.

When somebody asks whether it would have been worth it to spend a few billions dollars to save a few million lives, it will be the no-brainer of the century.

We're not doing it.

Don't say nobody told you.

Oh, one last thing: There is a reasonable probability that the avian flu pandemic won't occur.

That would be great. But it doesn't make any difference in what we should do right now.

Why? Because there is an astronomically low probability that an airliner is going to crash but we spend billions anyway, just in case it does.

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