Thursday, February 13, 2003

Omens Only If You Believe They Are

Camille Paglia is an intriguing woman and a fine writer. I have always admired her ability to step away from the standard orthodoxies of the left and right and call things as she sees em'. But in her recent interview at Salon (you have to view an ad if you want to read the whole thing) one of her main arguments against war with Iraq fails to do much to impress me:

As we speak, I have a terrible sense of foreboding, because last weekend a stunning omen occurred in this country. Anyone who thinks symbolically had to be shocked by the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, disintegrating in the air and strewing its parts and human remains over Texas -- the president's home state! So many times in antiquity, the emperors of Persia or other proud empires went to the oracles to ask for advice about going to war. Roman generals summoned soothsayers to read the entrails before a battle. If there was ever a sign for a president and his administration to rethink what they're doing, this was it. I mean, no sooner had Bush announced that the war was "weeks, not months" away and gone off for a peaceful weekend at Camp David than this catastrophe occurred in the skies over Texas.

From the point of view of the Muslim streets, surely it looks like the hand of Allah has intervened, as with the attack on the World Trade Center. No one in the Western world would have believed that those mighty towers could fall within an hour and a half -- two of the proudest constructions in American history. And neither would anyone have predicted this eerie coincidence -- that the president's own state would become the burial ground for the Columbia mission.

What weird irony with an Israeli astronaut onboard who had bombed Iraq 20 years ago. To me this dreadful accident is a graphic illustration of the limitations of modern technology -- of the smallest detail that can go wrong and end up thwarting the most fail-safe plan. So I think that history will look back on this as a key moment. Kings throughout history have been shaken by signals like this from beyond: Think twice about what you're doing. If a Roman general tripped on the threshold before a battle, he'd call it off.

She is quite correct that in the past omens played a large role in history and in particular in the Roman Empire. But many of the "omens" that the Romans believed foreshadowed events were nothing more than superstitious notions that we have long ago moved past. The Roman senate would not meet on days that were considered unlucky. Weather was often interpreted as an omen and the appearance of rain or the sun could determine whether or not a particular course of action was embarked upon. She mentions the reading of the entrails before battles and the Romans would also perform animal sacrifices and base their plans on how well the sacrifice went.

Today most of us view actions of this sort as nonsensical and would not dream of living our lives around the interpretation of such omens. "I better not go to work today honey it's the 13th."

The fact the the shuttle broke up over Texas does provide endless opportunity for speculation and doom saying. But is it really any more than coincidence? If the shuttle zig zagged across the country flying over each of the fifty states and it just happened to end disastrously over Texas then maybe you have something. But the successful reentry path only takes it over eight states, a couple of which it crosses in a heartbeat. And if you consider that US presidents only hail from twenty one states the fact that it occurred over Texas, while still a coincidence, isn't quite as remarkable as it first appears to be.

There was another world leader who was a big believer in omens. He thought that the death of the president of the most powerful nation that he was at war with was an omen that the tide of battle was about to turn his way. Less than a month later he was dead by his own hand, his capital city was in enemy hands, and his country was utterly and completely defeated. Hitler proved that omens are only what you believe they are.

For a final word on the subject I turn to this quote from an editorial by Michael Keane in Tuesday's Star Tribune:

But perhaps we would be wise to listen to the words of playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote: "There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that."

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