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Columbia and Historic Omens

Can great tragedies serve as omens for dramatic changes in world affairs?

February 4, 2003

Can great tragedies serve as omens for dramatic changes in world affairs?

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” William Shakespeare’s famous words in his classic play “Julius Caesar” bear tribute to one of the oldest, most widely and deeply held superstitions of the human race.

That is, dramatic omens and extraordinary acts of fate — both wonderful and horrendous — are supposed to foreshadow dramatic changes in the human order of things as well.

What is truly remarkable is how often this apparently irrational belief is subsequently justified by the course of events.

The sinking of the White Star luxury liner Titanic in April 1912 later came to be seen as an eerie foreshadowing of the end of an age of fabled peace and privilege with the outbreak of World War I, which occurred less than two and a half years later.

Indeed, the U.S. satirical newspaper “The Onion” a few years ago recalled that event with the headline “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg.”

Sometimes, to paraphrase wise old Sigmund Freud, a cigar is indeed much more than just a cigar. The pretentious arrogance and hate-filled racist ideology of Nazi Germany suffered a humiliating setback when the great black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games the Nazis hosted in Berlin.

Two years later, the myth of the Nazi Aryan Superman received another — very literal — pounding when Germany’s boxing star Max Schmelling was beaten into pulp in less than three minutes by the great black American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

And when Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the western Ukraine went into critical meltdown after a bungled safety test went wrong in April 1986, the worst nuclear accident in history that followed did much more than claim thousands of lives.

It also signaled the start of the decline and fall of the hitherto mighty Soviet Union.

With all these previous lessons in intimations of mortality on the grand scale, one would have to be blinder than a bat — they at least have the natural endowment of radar — to deny the awesome, awful symbolism that surrounded the crash and destruction of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia on Saturday morning, February 1, 2003.

It is always stunning when a great ship or aircraft named to symbolize an entire nation or cause is suddenly and dramatically destroyed, especially if the cause is Act of God rather than act of man.

That was why the little nation of Estonia was rocked when the car ferry “Estonia” suddenly sank in cold freezing waters of the Baltic Sea in 1994 — killing more than 800 people.

And it was also the reason why Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler ordered the name of the heavy cruiser battleship “Deutschland” to be changed to “Lutzow” in November 1939 early in World War II. (The ploy almost worked. The “Lutzow” survived until it was bombed in the port of Kiel close to the end of the war.)

What then can — or should — be said about the catastrophic loss of a spaceship carrying the symbolic name attributed to America itself?

Is it an omen of bad things to come in the near future for the District of Columbia (!), the United States capital district?

And what about the fact that the new shuttle disintegrated, a blazing star, over the Lone Star State of Texas, home of the current 43rd President of the United States?

Or the fact that the disaster occurred only weeks, perhaps even days, before Mr. Bush was expected to launch a war against Iraq. That event is one about which many people within the United States as well as around the world already have grave misgivings well before it started.

Not to mention the fact, that the 1991 Gulf War and the current tragedy happened in the Chinese year of the goat.

There is certainly grim irony — to put it mildly — in the reports that Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first ever Israeli astronaut, who perished on the Columbia is widely believed in Israel to have been one of the ace pilots who derailed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions for at least two decades by destroying his Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

And, for that matter, Colonel Ramon and the rest of the Columbia crew died when the shuttle disintegrated over, among other places, the small city of Palestine, Texas.

In the years to come, these coincidences — if they are coincidences — may come to be dismissed with a shrug. Or they may be remembered as eerily prescient.

The great writer and investigator of the frontiers of science Arthur Koestler once wrote a book entitled “The Roots of Coincidence.” In it, he explored precisely this kind of strange synchronicity which in fact occurs in both historical records and in the experience of many people far more often than is usually realized.

Shakespeare, of course, had a sensible and eloquent way of expressing the need to keep an open mind on such matters. He had his anti-hero Hamlet, Prince of Denmark tell his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

What if any lessons should we therefore take from the eerie symbolism that suggests itself so naturally from the Columbia tragedy?

Perhaps another great English poet, Rudyard Kipling provided the answer in his 1914 poem “The Covenant.”

In it, he warned another all-conquering and world spanning hyper-power — his own — that all its unprecedented wealth and power, military might and groundbreaking, unequalled technology could not hope to defy the workings of fate or rashly claim the eternal and unconditional favor and protection of God.

“We thought we ranked above the chance of ill. Others might fall, not we, for we were wise — Merchants in freedom. Neither God’s judgment nor man’s heart was turned.”