Eerie Prescience

Breathing smoke from oil well fires in Kuwait was a health issue in 1991. It also caused safety problems, such as reducing driver visibility. Kuwait 1991Crime writers like to be right. We research. We anticipate. We like to think we do our homework well.

But it turns out that there is a point at which prescience becomes creepy.

I’ve been writing crime fiction for over twenty years, which is long enough that I occasionally allow myself the luxury of believing that I’ve run out of lessons to learn about things like life imitating art, or about much else. In the past, when current events left me feeling like an accidental sage with my fiction, I’ve usually ended up bemused—convinced that any similarity between my story and any subsequent real-world circumstance was incidental. Actual prescience or premonition never made it onto my short list of explanations.

Until last month. That’s when the stark parallel between my last book and an almost catastrophic event in New York City smacked me across the face.

It, literally, gave me chills.

Toward the end of my 2009 thriller, The Siege, as an antagonist attempts to rationalize an act of terror to one of the story’s heroes, he says the following about his motivation:

Two things came together that day. Faulty intelligence? Probably. That’s one. The second? The absolute belief of the United States of America that its strategic interests supersede all other interests. Including any interest my family might have had in staying alive.

From the ground, in villages like ours, the world looks like this: When America is threatened, she loses her capacity, or at least her desire, to weigh the plight of others. To see the lives of others.

To see us. Our lives. Our rights. Our humanity.

That’s what I did here, in New Haven. Because I felt threatened, I determined that the wounds I had suffered were more important, and that my strategic interests were more important, than any US interest. Even any civilian US interest. To do what I did, I had to decide to be as ruthless as your government was the day my family died.

For these few days, I had to be America.”

Less than a year after those words of mine were published, a solitary man—a real, live terrorist—attempted a potentially catastrophic car bombing in Times Square in New York City. Faisal Shazad pled guilty to that crime in federal court in Manhattan only a few weeks ago. He attempted to rationalize his failed atrocity with the following words:

Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims…

I am part of the answer to the US terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people.  And, on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attack.  Living in the United States, Americans only care about their own people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.

Yes, crime writers like to be right. But not that right. If I can think this stuff up when my only motivation is to tell a good story, how difficult would it be for someone who has the blood of his actual dead relatives staining his clothes to think this stuff up?

That’s what scares me.

Stephen White is the author of THE LAST LIE, Dutton, August 2010.Visit him online at