The Unknown Known
In my confirmation hearing…the best question I was asked was: What do you worry about when you go to bed at night? And my answer was, in effect, intelligence. The danger that we can be surprised because of a failure of imagining what might happen in the world.
—Donald Rumsfeld to Errol Morris, The Unknown Known
It is a striking thought: night after night, the secretary of defense of the world’s most powerful country retires to his bed haunted not by some threatening, well-armed foe but by “a failure of imagining what might happen in the world.” There is something at once heroic and pleasingly humble about it, with hints of the tragic: the great hero haunted by the boundaries of his own imagination, struggling with all his vast strength to do nothing more than escape the net of his own ignorance.1
As Donald H. Rumsfeld speaks those words in Errol Morris’s film the familiar burning battleships in Pearl Harbor take shape on the screen before us. “People were chasing the wrong rabbit,” he says, in a typically homespun trope that will recur near the film’s end, directed at the filmmaker himself. “That one possibility was not something that they had imagined was likely.” In the mind’s eye the burning ships dissolve into two great New York skyscrapers collapsing against a bright September sky: Rumsfeld’s Pearl Harbor. “Was it a failure of the imagination,” Morris asks, “or a failure to look at the intelligence that was available?”
It is the film’s most telling question, and though it passes quickly, for just an instant the entire elaborate scaffolding of tricked-up epistemological skepticism, promoted in the title of Rumsfeld’s memoir and now with lethal irony in that of Morris’s film, trembles and wobbles, exposed as the bare rhetoric of self-exculpation. Twice in the film, and with undisguised pride, Rumsfeld offers us this philosophy:
There are known knowns, the things we know we know. There are known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. There are also that third category of unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know. And you can only know more about those things by imagining what they might be.
To Rumsfeld, it is axiomatic that the attack on Pearl Harbor and those on New York and Washington six decades later have in common that they arose from “gaps in our knowledge, but gaps that we don’t know exist.” As he tells us bluntly in the author’s note that serves as overture to his enormous memoir:
Nineteen hijackers using commercial airliners as guided missiles to incinerate three thousand men, women, and children was perhaps the most horrific single unknown unknown America has experienced.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.