Blogs > Liberty and Power > Is This One of Those "Known Unknowns," or What?

Jun 7, 2004 6:00 pm


Is This One of Those "Known Unknowns," or What?



Sometimes the truth comes from the damnedest sources:

SINGAPORE -- The United States and its allies are winning some battles in the terrorism war but may be losing the broader struggle against Islamic extremism that is terrorism's source, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Saturday.

The troubling unknown, he said, is whether the extremists -- whom he termed"zealots and despots" bent on destroying the global system of nation-states -- are turning out newly trained terrorists faster than the United States can capture or kill them.

"It's quite clear to me that we do not have a coherent approach to this," Rumsfeld said at an international security conference.

So we already have more than 800 dead Americans, many thousands of wounded Americans, who knows how many dead and wounded Iraqis (we don't really count them, you see, since they don't matter as much), close to $200 billion already spent and counting...and we basically don't know what we're doing?

Oh, well. That's what most governments do best, isn't it? Kill people and spend money, that is.

I guess this is one of those"known unknowns" that Rumsfeld once talked about. You remember:

The Unknown

As we know,

There are known knowns.

There are things we know we know.

We also know

There are known unknowns.

That is to say

We know there are some things

We do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,

The ones we don't know

We don't know.

Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

More poetry from D.H. Rumsfeld can be found here.

Wait, though. On reflection, I guess the number of new terrorists being turned out might be an"unknown unknown." It's just so confusing. I knew I should have taken more epistemology courses.

It does make you wonder where Mr. Rumsfeld studied epistemology. Well, following his news conferences and speeches is sort of like a graduate seminar, so I guess it will be alright. It's awfully nice of him to take the time to instruct us in these complexities, don't you think? (The news story via Digby.)

UPDATE: I don't disagree with Steve Horwitz's point, insofar as the epistemological issue alone is concerned. However, context is everything: keep in mind that Rumsfeld offerered this little dissertation (and other similar ones) in justifying a foreign policy based on just such unknowns. And that is precisely the problem, as I discussed in this post for example, about The Fatal Utopian Delusion.

You don't commit soldier's lives, or a nation's financial well-being, or endanger our national security, on the basis of factors which you know you don't know or understand, and which cannot be"planned." So in that larger sense (i.e., the overall political context in which Rumsfeld made these observations), I think it's more than fair to make fun of Rumsfeld. It's the least he deserves. What he actually deserves is far worse.


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Steven Horwitz - 6/7/2004

Just a quick note to say that I am in agreement with Arthur's "update." It's one thing to talk about the general epistemological point in the context of the market, but entirely another in the context of people's lives. As a context-free statement, it makes logical sense however.