A Point of View: See no evil

See no evil Image copyright Thinkstock

Some things we know but prefer not to think about, says John Gray - whether it's the truth about the invasion of Iraq or the failures of the financial system that led to the banking crisis.

We'd like to think the financial crisis is safely in the past. The events of 2007-2008, when the world's banking system was on the brink of collapse, seemed like a once-in-a-century upheaval, and it's natural to imagine we've returned to some kind of normalcy. Disaster has been averted, and there may be some signs of recovery in the economy. But have we emerged onto a sunny upland of stability, or are we fooling ourselves? History suggests an upheaval on this scale isn't left behind so easily. Could it be that we know the crisis hasn't been resolved, but prefer not to think about the fact?

Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld's distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns has passed into everyday speech. It's not the things of which we know we're ignorant that we should worry about, he pointed out. It's the things we're unaware of not knowing that can really cause trouble. It's a useful reminder of the vastness of human ignorance. But might there not be another kind of unknown, which Rumsfeld didn't mention - one that consists of things we choose not to know?

Looking back, the purpose of Rumsfeld's distinction may have been to lay the ground for the invasion of Iraq that followed just over a year later. Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction were the main justification for the war. As we now know, he had no such capability at the time of the invasion. He'd used chemical weapons in the past - in the war with Iran in the 1980s and later in attacks on the Kurds, for example. But as American-led forces found when they searched the country, any WMD programmes that had existed had long since been abandoned.

Even at the time of Rumsfeld's remark there were good reasons to doubt Saddam was supplying terrorists with weapons. The fact that Saddam had kept Al Qaeda out of Iraq was well known to diplomats, military strategists and security experts. Possibly this is why, when asked at the press conference if the link between Saddam and terrorism was an unknown unknown, Rumsfeld replied, "I'm not going to say which it is."

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Image caption Gertrude Bell

Anyone with a little knowledge of history understood that Saddam was unlikely to be in league with Al Qaeda. But for those who launched the war, the history of the country they were planning to invade was irrelevant. Partly this came from a misplaced sense of invincibility. Many 20th Century wars ended with massively superior forces being obliged to accept defeat - think of the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam. Despite this record, few if any of those who supported the invasion considered the possibility of a long drawn-out conflict. They believed that once Saddam's forces had been defeated the whole country would unite in welcoming the occupiers and setting up a US-style democracy.

Yet 80 years before the war, the British civil servant who as much as anyone created the state of Iraq knew it could never be democratic. Cobbled together from a former province of the Ottoman empire in the early 1920s, the state was to a large extent the work of a single British official - a remarkable woman, the first to have a senior position in the colonial service, called Gertrude Bell. A fluent speaker of the languages of the region and widely respected by its rulers and peoples, she recognised that because power had been placed in the hands of the Sunni minority, any move to majority rule would mean intense and protracted sectarian warfare, along with the secession of the Kurds.

Bell foresaw the chaos that was bound to ensue if there was ever any attempt at democratic regime change. She wouldn't have been surprised when the National Museum of Antiquities, which she had founded as a tribute to a civilisation she admired, was looted soon after the US-led invasion. Dying in 1926, Bell chose to be buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad, which was also vandalised at the time of the invasion. When he heard of the looting, Rumsfeld's only comment was, "Stuff happens." Insignificant events of this sort, he implied, couldn't upset the grand plan that lay behind the war.

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Image caption An Iraqi Museum official sits amid looted wreckage just after the 2003 invasion

Much has been alleged about disinformation in the run-up to the invasion. But if some of those who launched the war were presenting a distorted picture of the facts, they were also deceiving themselves. Contrary to a common view, it wasn't that Rumsfeld and his fellow war-planners failed to prepare for the situation that would come about in the country after the invasion. If they'd known the chaos and conflict that would follow, they might not have been able to launch the war. So rather than confront the facts, they chose to remain ignorant of them. For Rumsfeld and others who thought like him, the risks of the invasion weren't unknown unknowns. They belonged in another category of human ignorance: that of unknown knowns - things they decided weren't worth thinking about.

It's an attitude that hasn't gone away. A similar denial of reality prevails today in Britain and many other countries in connection with the financial crisis and its aftermath. The bankers and politicians seem genuinely to have believed that a new type of capitalism had been invented in which booms and busts would no longer occur. In the new era we'd entered, they were convinced, a level of prosperity had been reached that would only increase for the foreseeable future.

Again, anyone with a passing acquaintance with history would have known that this had been believed many times in the past, and always mistakenly. Only days before the 1929 stock market crash, one of the best known economists of the time, Professor Irving Fisher of Yale University, announced that "stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau". Even after the crash occurred, Fisher insisted it was only a market correction that would soon be over. Losing most of his own fortune, the distinguished economist was as deluded as nearly everyone else. In case you're wondering who anticipated the crash, two who did were the mobster Al Capone, who described the stock market in the boom years as a racket, and Charlie Chaplin, who unsuccessfully pleaded with his friend, the songwriter Irving Berlin, to sell out the day before the market collapsed.

A great depression of the kind that followed the crash of 1929 has been avoided, but we've not returned to anything like stability. Near-zero interest rates have led to the near-impossibility of saving, along with a bubble in the stock market and house prices. It's an abnormal state of affairs that can't last. It wouldn't take much to trigger another upset - a worsening in the European situation or a faster-than-expected slowdown in China, for example. But that's an unnerving prospect, so we've decided not to think about it.

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The acute fragility of our economic system is just one of many facts we all know but have decided not to think about. Some people suggest this refusal to think is produced by the system itself - it's the only way our current economic and political arrangements can keep on going. This may be so, but the resolute avoidance of unsettling facts is a deep-seated human trait.

While we live surrounded by unknown unknowns, we live on the basis of unknown knowns - intractable facts that we prefer to forget. We'd do better to confront these awkward realities and muddle through more intelligently. We humans are sturdy and resilient animals, with enormous capacities of creativity and adaptability, but consistently realistic thinking seems to be beyond our powers. This may well be the biggest unknown known of them all - in an age that prides itself on its advancing knowledge and superior understanding, we're as anxious as ever to avoid facing up to our actual condition.

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