TCS Daily

Reason and the Omen

By Lee Harris - February 3, 2003 12:00 AM

That spectacular symbol of American technological triumphalism, the space shuttle Columbia, shatters over the town of Palestine, and its ghastly debris, both human and machine, rains down upon the home state of the sitting American President only weeks, if not days, before he is set to launch the invasion of Iraq-an invasion the success of which will depend to a large measure on the same American technological know how that was exhibited in the shuttle itself-How could this not be an omen?

And so it has been seen by much of the Arab world, where the shuttle disaster is taken as a sign from above and a portent of the looming eclipse and decline of American might, so much so that among the Palestinian community in Israel there are reports of the same abandoned rejoicing that greeted the news of the 9/11 not so long ago.

We do not rejoice-and yet I suspect that I am not entirely alone in feeling, deeply troubling, yet obscurely stirring within me, this same sense that what happened wasn't merely an accident, but a sign, a portent, and, yes, even an omen.

Such feelings often go unacknowledged because we are ashamed to admit them, or because we feel that it is inappropriate to express them aloud or even to mention them to our closest friends. But this, I am convinced, is a mistake. For these feelings represent a profound and persistent stratum of our common humanity, and one that it is doubtful that we will ever wholly supercede.

It is impossible for the average American of today to fathom the perils with which this all too natural human faculty for the ominous once filled both heaven and earth. Lucretius, the Roman poet, wrote his great work, On the Nature of Things, with the express intention of relieving men of their omnipresent anxiety about the most insignificant incidents in the world around them, advising them in his austere and magnificent verse to pay no attention to the portents that were thought to be interwoven into the fabric of everyday life at every level, even the most mundane and trifling. Nor was this something peculiarly Roman: half a world away, and over a millennium later, we find the same luxuriating imagination wreaking havoc in the Japanese masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, where, again and again, the characters' activities are interrupted, or their designs impeded, by an unending procession of unlucky days and unlucky numbers, unlucky directions for a journey, unlucky breezes and unlucky cloud formations.

There are, to be sure, residues of this haunted world even among the most enlightened of us: an unreformed superstition about the number thirteen, for example, or a reluctance to step on cracks in the sidewalk due to the nagging childhood rhyme that warns of the attendant adverse consequences to your mother's back. But such odd pieces of behavior are like glitches in our normative consciousness, bizarre throwbacks to a more primitive mentality in which magic ruled the universe, and no known law subdued the unruliness of either the spirit world, or the material one.

This is what we must all understand; or, at least, all those who, like myself, are struggling to suppress this troubling sense that there was indeed some terrible haunting cosmic omen in the shuttle disaster over Texas. We must begin by understanding just how natural it is to feel this way, precisely because we are all biologically programmed to connect the dots even when the dots have absolutely nothing in common.

The essence of human intelligence is the search for pattern. We seek it everywhere; and, if we are not terribly careful, we succeed in finding it everywhere-even where it is not. Yet it would be folly to condemn this instinctive craving for an imagined order that would mirror the true order of things, since this is the same drive that has produced the great edifice called Western science.

And nowhere is the distinctive Western-ness of Western science made clearer than in Arab response to the shuttle disaster. It is not that they feel the ominous whereas we do not, since I am convinced that, however inarticulately, we do-but that is where the similarity ends. We feel it-but we insist on going beyond the mere evidence of own feelings; and how hard this is to do is nowhere clearer than in the case before us. Yes, we see all the signs, but we must force ourselves to step back and to ask, "Does it really make sense to see this disaster as somehow magically attached to the fate of our nation-no matter how strongly we may make such a connection at the visceral level? Is it possible that the world could really be organized like that?"

The answer we give is a resounding, No. But this answer is only forthcoming because we exist in a civilization that has achieved the unique distinction of having successfully banished magical thinking from all those critical realms of life that were once and everywhere haunted by the spooks and spirits of primitive mind. It is forthcoming because we, as a civilization, have chained ourselves to the mast of reason, like Odysseus in Homer's epic, and can listen to the siren song of superstition without permitting it to alter our course even by an inch.

It is an immense achievement, and it is the one that we should recall with profound gratitude at such moments as the present one. It was our faith in reason that built and launched the Columbia; let it be our faith in reason that counsels our heart as we reflect upon its terrible and tragic end.

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