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3 June 2009

Fear rules: The expansion of the emipre of the unknown

Conference lectured at the Symposium "Architectures of fear. Terrorism and the Future of Urbanism in the West" CCCB 17-18 May 2007

Since September 11 fear has become an important theme in political discourse. Commentaries frequently draw attention to the significance of public fears. In recent elections in the United Kingdom and the United States constant references were made to the “politics of fear” by all the major parties. Yet social scientists have had little to say on this subject. In the social sciences fear is often used as a taken-for-granted descriptive term with little analytic content. The aim of this paper is to isolate the distinct features of contemporary fear rules. In particular it focuses on the way that the narrative of the unknown helps gives fear a distinct 21st century dimension.1
In the early 21st century, the dominant models of threat assessment insist that contemporary risks are qualitatively more dangerous than previous ones because we don’t know very much about them. There is a growing body of opinion among academic risk experts and risk managers that suggests that what we have to worry about is not simply a future that is unknown but one that is unknowable. Throughout history, societies have tended to be apprehensive about uncertainty and feared the unknown. But the way that communities respond to uncertainty fluctuates in line with how much at ease a society is with itself and how confident it feels about its future. Historically the consciousness of uncertainty expresses the realisation that it is not possible to know what will happen in the future. Although experience and knowledge provide insights about likely developments and outcomes the future always contains an element of the unknown.
How people respond to the unknown is subject to historical and cultural variations. There are times when people’s response to the unknown is one of excitement, curiosity, inquisitiveness and eager anticipation. These are moments in time when people adopt a robust and optimistic sensibility towards the unknown. European sailors setting out to discover an unknown world and enthusiastic space travellers in the 1960s embraced the challenge of turning the unknown into the knowable. From this standpoint uncertainty served as a stimulus to the positive act of discovery. At other times, communities respond with anxiety to uncertainty and regard the unknown as merely a threat to avoid rather than as an opportunity for discovery. In these circumstances fear and dread express the dominant mood towards uncertainty. Today this response to the unknown has acquired an unprecedented significance.
One of the defining feature of our times is that anxiety about the unknown appears to have a greater significance than the fear of known threats. Often politicians and campaigners darkly hint about the grave challenge posed by threats that are perilous precisely because they are unknown. These are threats to which as yet we can give no name and whose trajectory can not be calculated. Bauman gives voice to this vision of unnamed threats when he states that “by far the most awesome and fearsome dangers are precisely those that are impossible or excruciatingly difficult to anticipate, the unpredicted, and in all likelihood unpredictable ones”.2
Bauman’s analysis is closely based on the work of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck who argues that technological development has created a world where society simply cannot understand the destructive consequences of human intervention. Beck stated that “through our past decisions about atomic energy and our present decisions about the use of genetic technology, human genetics, nanotechnology and computer science, we unleash unforeseeable, uncontrollable, indeed even incommunicable consequences that threaten life on earth”.3 The formulation “incommunicable consequences” is used to highlight the claim that humanity lacks the intellectual resources with which to interpret future trends. Consequently empirical evidence or analysis can provide little assistance in this quest since contemporary experience has little to say about an imagined or radically different future.
Time and again the public is informed that the most dreadful dangers are not just ones that we cannot predict or anticipate but ones about which we cannot say anything because they are literally unknown. Security analysts and military planners often refer to such threats as “unknown unknowns”. It was the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who brought the concept unknown unknowns to the attention of a wider public. At a press briefing in February 2002 he astounded those in his audience when he stated:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because 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.4
At the time many commentators responded with a mixture of incredulity and hilarity to what they interpreted as Rumsfeld’s convoluted attempt to avoid accounting for the absence of information or evidence regarding Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programme. Others treated it as yet another example of dishonest double-speak. However Rumsfeld’s comments convey an orientation towards the problems of the future that is widely shared by political and cultural elites on both sides of the Atlantic.
As far as Rumsfeld is concerned the problems of the future fall into three categories: first there are ones that we know and understand (known knowns), second there are ones that we know that we don’t know nor understand (known unknowns) and third there are ones that we don’t even know that we don’t know and understand. These are the unknown unknowns. The burden of Rumsfeld’s argument is that in the war against terrorism it is the unknown unknowns that constitute the greatest threat. From this standpoint the problem is not simply the absence of intelligence about a specific terrorist threat. It is a more fundamental quandary of not even possessing the capacity to know what the intelligence that is lacking should be about. The very frequency with which Rumsfeld and his colleagues use the suffix un is testimony not only to a lack of facts but of meaning. A palpable sense of disorientation is transmitted by Rumsfeld when he states that “our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected”.5 Rumsfeld’s three-fold categorisation of risks also informs the work of the Office of Homeland Security. One of its risk managers defines unknown unknowns as “risks of which there is no awareness at the present time of their existence and effect”. Apparently one can do little to anticipate these risks other than put a 10% contingency aside “without knowing exactly where this reserve will be applied”.6
An examination of official deliberations on the subject of terrorism indicates that the unknown has taken on a life of its own. The term does not simply mean strange, unfamiliar or unidentified. It signifies a state or a condition. Indeed it is treated as a distinct sphere of existence, a kind of parallel world that cannot be grasped through the workings of the human mind. Take the UK’s Inteligence and Security Committee Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005. One of this report’s sections is actually titled “Reassessing ‘the Unknown’”. For the authors of this report the unknown does not simply refer to the dearth of intelligence about a specific group or threat. The unknown has been transformed into a world for which we have no mental map. At several points the authors of the report are lost for words as they attempt to conceptualise the unknown. They note that the July 2005 bombings had “sharpened the perception of how big ‘the unknown’” was since the Government knew next to nothing about home-grown terrorism. They go on to acknowledge that the July attacks emphasised “how much was unknown by the police and the Security Service about ideologically motivated extremist activity at the local level”.7 What the report’s threat assessment could not accomplish was to provide a strategy for dealing with a problem that is unknowable. All that it could offer was to exhort the intelligence services to embark on a journey into the unknown. It reported with approval that “the Director-General of the Security Service told the Committee that the main lesson learned from the July attacks was the need to get into ‘the unknowns’ – to find ways of broadening coverage to pick up currently unknown terrorist activity or plots”.8
Increasingly the unknown has ceased to serve as merely a rhetorical idiom connoting uncertainty. It is imagined as a place that people are exhorted to “get into”. This is a dangerous unmapped territory containing threats of which people are unaware until it strikes. Although it is only in recent times that unknown unknowns have become a subject of public attention, concern about this type of threat has been growing for some time. In one sense history was unfair to Rumsfeld when he became the target of widespread ridicule for his remarks about unknown unknowns. What many observers overlooked was that this manner of interpreting uncertainty about danger had become well established in the previous two decades.
An examination of the on-line newspaper database LexisNexis indicates that by the late seventies the idiom unknown unknowns was widely used by professionals in engineering and the aerospace industries. It was also reported that the US military sometimes referred to technological problems that were overlooked as “unkunks” that is unknown unknowns.9 The term was used to highlight concerns about unknown technical influences creating uncertainty in the missile race with the Soviet Union.10 In 1981 The Washington Post reported that “sceptics predict that Stealth would not be ready until well into the 1990s, given all the technical ‘unkunks’ – the term for unknown unknowns”.11 In 1982 it was reported that the airline industry takes “unk-unks” very seriously and a year later it was observed that this industry “says you can plan for the unknowns, but the unk-unks – the unknown unknowns – will sabotage you every time”.12
One commentator drew attention to a “new language of space defense” that relies on the vocabulary of science fiction and from books and movies that “depict imaginary space battles and often describe ‘unk-unks’ – the ‘unknown unknowns’ that no one can predict but seem likely to occur”.13 Evidently the usage of the term was no longer confined to deliberations about uncertainty surrounding the workings of technological process. By the mid-eighties the term had become a metaphor that signified uncertainty and risk in a variety of settings. The Harvard Business Review used the term in association with the risks facing high-tech companies.14 Business leaders used the term to underline the difficulty of financial forecasting.15 And managers were advised to “have a feel for the ‘unknown unknowns’”.16 With the emergence of new technology and information technology in the nineties the idiom quickly attached itself to this industry. One Harvard professor was quoted to say that the unknown unknowns were “the inevitable products of any technological revolution”.17 NASA used the term to describe the uncertainties of space travel.18 Sections of the US defence industry claimed that it is “the need to discover and solve the ‘unknown unknowns’ that distinguishes defense-oriented research from its commercially oriented cousin”.19
Rumsfeld was by no means the first public official to associate the uncertainties of military conflict with the problem of unknown unknowns. During the First Gulf War the idiom was often used by American officials. At the height of the Persian Gulf crisis, Michael Darby, the Undersecretary of Commerce, told a news conference that it was difficult to come up with sound economic scenarios since “there are always unknown unknowns”. The difficulty of knowing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capability was one of the unknown unknowns preoccupying the intelligence community according to Frank Gaffney, a former Pentagon official.20 A few years later William Cohen, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration raised the hope that “it may be that forensic science has reached a point where there will be no other unknown-unknowns in any war”.21
The gradual expansion of the cultural significance attached to the idiom received a powerful boost through the writings of the US environmentalist Norman Myers. In a series of articles between 1992 and 1995, Myers sought to represent the “horror that might lie ahead” through warning that the world was facing environmental problems that were as yet unknown. “So what new unknown unknowns are waiting leap out” asked Myers as he ominously hinted of catastrophes to come.22 This representation of the unimaginable as a predator ready to ambush unsuspecting victims succeeded in infusing uncertainty with a powerful sense of catastrophism. As he reels off a long list of future dangers, it is evident that Myers’ use of the idiom is entirely rhetorical for in reality he knows the problems that he wants the public to do something about.
The appropriation of the idiom of unknown unknowns by the environmentalist movement helped transform a term connoting technological insecurity into an apocalyptic invitation to feel alarmed. Therefore it is not surprising that the term comes into its own during the anxiety-ridden deliberation about the impending doom brought by the millennium bug. Industry experts, public officials and politicians perceived the Y2K bug as the very embodiment of unknown unknowns. They regarded the “unknown unknowns out there” with dread and frequently used the term to highlight the apocalyptic dimension of humanity’s transition to the 21st century. “The full impact of the Year 2000 has always been and is now wrapped up in the domain of unknown unknowns”, claimed a leading computer scientist.23 According to this perspective the problem was not simply an outcome of the absence of intelligence or of knowledge. It was represented as a by-product of routine human behaviour. “There is an understanding that of the unknown unknowns, public behaviors are perhaps among the highest risk category”.24

By the time that Rumsfeld popularised the notion of the unknown unknowns, the sensibility that risks are increasingly incalculable and difficult to anticipate had gained widespread currency. The cultural imagination that feared unknown unknowns jumping out at the unsuspecting represented an acknowledgement of the failure of the human imagination to anticipate problems. Just as “designers can’t imagine problems that appear when the aircraft enters service” so the “unknown unknowns of global warming are mind-boggling”.25 For Rumsfeld, the failure to know what challenges confronted his nation accounted for the US military’s poor intelligence on the enemy. For others, the incalculability of the risks confronting society compels them to fear worst-case scenarios. The shift of emphasis from what we can know to what we cannot encourages the public to expect the worst. The signals transmitted through this orientation to the problems we face constitute an acknowledgement of the fact that we lack the resources to make sense of the future. It also represents an invitation to be terrorised.
The insistence on the salience of the unknown unknown is symptomatic of a trend where a growing range of experiences are deemed to be beyond knowledge. This perspective reverses that attitude towards the power of knowledge that characterised modernist thinking. Since the rise of modernity the unknown was conceptualised as a gradually diminishing territory. Modernist thinkers believed that the expansion of knowledge would gradually illuminate the many aspects of life that were at the time beyond comprehension. In recent time, this orientation has been reversed and the territory of the unknown has expanded. Not knowing – particularly the consequences of human behaviour for the future – has helped foster a mood of defensiveness towards what lies ahead. So whereas throughout most of modernity the known expands into the domain of the unknown, today this pattern has been reversed. At a time of unprecedented expansion of scientific knowledge – the mapping of the human gene, advances in bio-technology and nanotechnology – the perception of an expanding empire of the unknown appears perverse. As we note in the next chapter, it suggests that the mood of confusion reveals not the absence of knowledge but of meaning.
Critics of Rumsfeld’s verbal athletics overlook the fact that the problematisation of unknown unknowns resonates with our time and that a similar approach has been widely pursued by fear entrepreneurs in a variety of settings. Numerous environmentalist advocacy organisations adopt the tactic of warning people about invisible and boundless threats to the environment whose consequences are irreversible and unknown. And people’s anxiety about the unknown future is often celebrated and politicised as the responsible way to engage with uncertainty. One British academic and former chair of Greenpeace UK concerned with this problem, Robin Grove-White, claims to be frustrated that “unknown unknowns are not acknowledged since unanticipated consequences lie at the core of current public unease”.26 Acknowledging unanticipated consequences sounds like an exercise in responsible behaviour. But what does it mean to acknowledge what you can’t anticipate? It either has an entirely ritualistic or rhetorical character or represents an exercise in accommodating to ignorance. Neither of these responses constitutes responsible behaviour. In contrast, responsible risk managers proceed by developing their grasp of human experience in order to make knowable the different dimensions of the unknown.
The framing of unanticipated consequences through the prism of unknowns lends risks a peculiarly intimidating character. A similar approach was adopted by IT consultants who were hyping up the threat facing the world in the new millennium. “When dealing with the year 2000 and its consequences, whether in our personal or business lives, we must be prepared to deal with the whole spectrum, from the known knowns to the unknown unknowns”, wrote one of them.27
The objectification of the unknown creates a new specie of threat that enhances the danger of terrorism. Security experts frequently contend that it is this dimension of the threat that society should really worry about. “The greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the U.S. that we have not yet identified”, argued Robert Mueller the director of the FBI. Without a hint of irony he could also state that “I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing”.28 Of course what we are not seeing invites us to exercise our imagination and increasingly the imagination of the expert plays an important role in the construction of a specie of unknown but for all that very real threats. As Lipschutz stated:

The production of truths and narratives of fear is ... based not only on what is known but also on what is not; what is knowable and what cannot be known. These truths and narratives emerge from the relative ease of extrapolation and extension, by so-called experts who “know” of such things, from incidents that have taken place and those that, as yet, can only be imagined.29

A narrative of fear based on the unknown authorises the act of speculation and imagination as a legitimate form of threat assessment. The admission of ignorance about threats to a nation’s security no longer discredits officials and their experts. Instead it serves to underline the seriousness of the threat. The acknowledgment that “we don’t know” communicates the signal that there is something very dangerous going on. As Lipschutz observes, “paradoxically, confessions of ignorance can also reinforce narratives of fear”.30
In current fear narratives ignorance is represented not so much as a problem but as a marker of the gravity of a threat. From the perspective of some environmentalists the greater the scope of a problem the more likely we are to be ignorant about it:

It should be kept in mind that there also will be what have been called “unknown unknowns”. These allude to cases where we are not even able to state the questions as we are unable to picture the possible effects. Examples of such cases cannot be supplied for the very good rea-son that we really do not know.31

An inability to know what question to ask and ignorance about what is likely to occur is not dismissed as the irrelevant rambling of an alarmist mind. On the contrary it is embraced as a realistic and honest assessment of the insignificance of people’s capacity to understand. This approach is praised by a report commissioned by the Environmental Agency of the EU:

No matter how sophisticated knowledge is, it will always be subject to some degree of ignorance. To be alert – and humble about – the potential gaps in those bodies of knowledge that are included in our decision-making is fundamental. 32
No doubt ignorance is part of the human condition. However it is only in recent times that ignorance is treated as a stable fact of life. In the very act of diminishing people’s potential to know, the danger of the unknown threat becomes inflated.

1. These ideas are developed in my Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown, London: Continuum Press, 2007.

2. Bauman, Z., Liquid Fear, Cambridge: Polity, 2006, p. 11.

3. Beck, U., «The Silence of Words: On Terror and War», In: Security Dialogue, vol. 34, no. 3, 2003.

4. US Department Of Defense, Department of Defense News Briefing, Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, <>.

5. Remarks as prepared for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Thursday, 31 January 2002, <>.

6. Jiang, B., «Risk Management and the Office of Homeland Security’s Antiterrorism Tasks», In: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, vol. 4, n°. 2, 2002, p. 31 and 43.

7. HMSO, Intelligence and Security Committee Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005, Cm 6785, HMSO, London 2006, p. 30 and 36.

8. Idem, pp. 35-36.

9. See «Synthetic fuels; Think of a number», In: The Economist, 30 June 1979.

10. See letter «Imaginary problems of ICBM», In: The New York Times, 20 September 1981.

11. See Wilson, George, «U.S. Faces Critical Weapons Decision», In: The Washington Post, 14 June 1981.

12. See Lehman-Haupt, Christopher, «Books of the Times», In: The New York Times, 28 July 1982; and «Super tall Buildings», In: Engineering News-Record, 3 November 1983.

13. «Unk-Unks’ and ‘Golden Arches’: The New Lingo of Star Wars», In: U.S. News & World Report, 9 December 1985.

14. See McMahon, Fred, «High tech Teams UP», In: The Financial Post, 18 January 1988.

15. Coombes, Peter, «Understanding The Asia-Pacific Market», In: Chemical Week, 24 April 1991.

16. Barsoux, Jean-Louis, «Why a manager must trust his instinct», In: The Times, 5 November 1992. “Who’s Afraid of American Religion?”

17. Fullerton, Katherine, «The Anxious Journey of a Technophobe», In: Columbia Journalism Review, November-December 1993.

18. Greenlaw, Patrick, «Funding for NASA Called to Question in Face of
Failures», In: Science & Technology Week, 4 December 1993.

19. Babbin, Jed L., «Real Defense Conversion Requires Tax Relief for R & D», In: Aviation Week Forum, 8 August 1994.

20. «News Conference About the 4th Quarter GNP With Michael Darby, Undersecretary of Commerce», In: Federal News Service, 25 January 1991; and The MacNeil/LehrerNewsHour, 28 June 1991, Transcript #4105.

21. «Remains of Airman Michael Blassie will be buried this month in St. Louis cemetery», In: CBS This Morning, 1 July 1998.

22. Myers, Norman, «Environmental alarms; unknown unknowns: ominous hints of catastrophe», In: The Gazette, 14 May 1994.

23. «A Global View of the Year 2000 Crisis», In: Federal News Service, 13 October 1999.

24. Idem.

25. Ting Ting, Lee, «Adapting to the unknowns of new markets», In: New Straits Times, 4 April 2001; and «The Baltimore Sun Jay Hancock Column», In: The Baltimore Sun, 12 September 2005.

26. Grove-White, R., «New Wine, Old Bottles? Personal reflections on the New Biotechnology Commissions», In: The Political Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 4, 2001, p. 470.

27. «Diary of a Y2K Consultant; Bracing for the Millennium», In: Computer, January 1999.

28. Cited Mueller, John, «Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?: The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy», In: Foreign Affairs, September/October 2006, p. 3.

29. Lipschutz, Ronnie, «Terror in the Suites; Narratives of Fear and the Political Economy of Danger», In: Global Society, vol. 13, no. 4, 1999, p. 11.

30. Idem, p. 17.

31. Meyer, G., Folker A. P., Jorgensen, R. B., Kyare von Krauss, M., Sandoe, P. and Tveit, G., «The factualization of uncertainty: Risk, politics and genetically modified crops – a case of rape», In: Agriculture and Human Values, vol. 22, 2005, p. 237.

32. European Environment Agency, «Late Lessons From Early Warnings», 2002, p. 169, <http://reports.eea.>.

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