Rappahannock’s Richard A. Clarke: A life spent focusing on what can go wrong

If they go hiking in Shenandoah Park, they don’t say, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’ They say, ‘Where are the bears?’

By Edward Dolnick
Special to the Rappahannock News

Two months before 9/11, on July 5, 2001, Richard Clarke and eleven other government officials met in the White House to discuss al Qaeda and the threat of terrorism. George W. Bush was president. Clarke, who was in charge of counterterrorism programs, issued a forceful warning: “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”

And so it did. In the years since, Clarke has made a study of disasters — some natural and some manmade — with a focus on who saw them coming, and who sounded a warning, and why some warnings were heeded and others ignored. He’s learned some remarkable things.

Richard Clark Courtesy photo

On Friday, Sept 8 (8 p.m.), Clarke will kick off the new season of RAAC’s Second Friday Talks. Because the talk will likely draw a large audience, Clarke will speak at the Little Washington Theatre (291 Gay Street) and not at the library. He will be discussing his new book, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.” There will be ample time for questions. The Second Friday talks are sponsored by the Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community. The talks are free, and all are welcome.

Clarke’s title invokes the story of Cassandra. In Greek mythology, she was a Trojan princess who suffered a cruel fate: though she could foresee the future, no one believed her predictions. Clarke’s book focuses on seven crises where the warnings of modern-day Cassandras went unheeded — among them Hurricane Katrina, the rise of ISIS, Bernie Madoff’s investment scam, and the 2008 economic meltdown, and seven more — including sea-level rises and artificial intelligence — where the story is not yet settled.

Clarke, who has been a Rappahannock resident for thirteen years, spelled out some of his views in a recent interview. Cassandras, he finds, share a handful of traits: they are data-driven experts who are outside the mainstream in their field, and they tend to the quirky.

“Some people seem to be born that way,” Clarke says. “They’re the ones who go into a situation and automatically focus on what can go wrong. If they go hiking in Shenandoah Park, they don’t say, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’ They say, ‘Where are the bears? Where’s the fire?’ It’s a form of anxiety, but they’re highly functioning people with high anxiety.”

“If they’re sitting in a restaurant,” Clarke goes on, “they’re the first one to smell smoke if the kitchen catches on fire, and they have the courage and conviction to stand up and pull the fire alarm. They’re not the ones who ask their date, ‘Gee, dear, do you smell fire?’ They act on their own; they don’t need to wait for confirmation.”

Clarke earned his own Cassandra credentials over a span of several decades. He served as senior counterterrorism official to three consecutive presidents — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — and he was named “crisis manager” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In those critical first days, the New York Times wrote, Clarke was not merely in the loop: “During those early days, Richard Clarke was the loop.”

Clarke ran afoul of the Bush administration, though, when he argued that the administration’s insistence on going to war in Iraq distracted attention from the war on terrorism. He made his case in a history called Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. The book, a number one bestseller, won raves for its detailed picture of a White House obsessed with Saddam Hussein and willfully blind to evidence that Saddam was not involved in the attack on the World Trade Center.

In our interview, Clarke listed a variety of reasons that warnings may go unheard. Psychology, he noted, often plays as large a role as ideology. People may disregard a threat on the grounds that it has never happened before. Or it may seem too dramatic to be plausible, more like a Hollywood thriller than an actual danger. Or the danger may be so great that the simplest response is simply to ignore it.

And in a world of many dangers, Clarke went on, people may focus on their own pet issues to the neglect of others. “Here comes someone with his hair on fire, shouting about terrorism or some other crisis,” Clarke said, “but that’s not their agenda, that’s your agenda. They have their priorities, and you’re saying, ‘Don’t spend money on what you want to spend money on. Spend it on what I want to spend it on.’ “

We live in hazardous, clamorous times. Richard Clarke believes he has found a way to identify people who can see around corners and spot hidden dangers. He has prepared a talk likely both to unsettle listeners and to enlighten them.

— Edward Dolnick is a writer who lives in Rappahannock


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