There may be something strange in the spring air. This is the week for disasters.
On April 19, 1993, seventy-six people died after a fifty-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. One hundred sixty-eight people died in a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Four years later, on April 20, 1999, twelve students and a teacher were killed, and twenty-four others injured, in a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado. Then, on April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed eleven workers, injured 17 others, and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.
It may be that any week in history has as many terrible events. But four such horrifying catastrophes in less than twenty years, with anniversaries no more than a day apart, it’s enough to make any historian take notice.
Humans are pattern-making creatures. It’s how we have survived for tens of thousands of years. Someone noticed that sickness followed every time a member of the tribe ate some of those green berries. They learned to avoid poison berries.
Sometimes, the patterns aren’t actually there, and the illusion of a picture says more about the observer than about the thing observed. This is the principle behind a Rorschach test. What a subject sees in the inkblots is a projection of the observer’s mind. It’s a window for an analyst to look into a patient’s soul.
But humans are pattern-making creatures. We look for meaning in the shapes formed by the stars at night, and in the motions of the planets against their background, and seek a relationship between them and earthly events. We talk about whether the increase or decrease in Federal revenues after a change in the tax code was caused by that change — or by the war that followed a few months later. We argue about whether the creation of a welfare plan to help those less fortunate causes the poverty rate to fall or to rise.
Is there a meaningful pattern in the tragedies of April? Are there any similarities? If we find anything they have in common, is that mere coincidence?
All of these particular April tragedies were human-made. Columbine and Oklahoma City may reveal an acceptance of the use of violence in expressing one’s own limitations and helplessness. Waco was an outgrowth of religious fervor — a community that separated itself from modern society, seeking solace in God, perhaps again as a response to a feeling of helplessness. Deepwater did not have overtones of violence or of religion. But our addiction to oil and the enthusiasm of many to drill at unsafe depths in a drive to satisfy that addiction may also grow out of a feeling of helplessness — how else are we to maintain our way of life?
It’s unlikely that the juxtaposition of dates is anything more than cosmic coincidence, unless there is something in the stars, something in the ebb and flow of annual time that has previously gone unrecognized. No doubt someone has formulated a theory about that, and an internet search might be enlightening (though probably revealing more about the theorist than about the events themselves). But the need to find pattern and meaning is, perhaps, the root of the drive to make conspiracy theories. Yet it may also be what makes us human.
From the Illluminati to the birthers, from Assassination to Zionists, we’ve tried to make sense of our culture and our history through appeals to patterns. Sometimes — as with the rumors of CIA dark ops in the 60s and 70s — they prove to be mostly true. Sometimes, as with the dark hints about the death of Vincent Foster, they are utterly baseless. Some fall into gray areas, mad theories with just enough unruly evidence and hard fact that we can’t definitively pronounce either way.
All these have in common the human need to understand our world. This too is the reason Scott went to the Antarctic, and Neil Armstrong went to the Moon, and Magellan circumnavigated the globe. We want to make sense of it all. We want to know who and what we are, why we’re here, why bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad.
It is the same drive behind both religion and science, behind art and technology, behind poetry and storytelling; the need to understand ourselves, and then to use that knowledge to make us safe and fulfilled, and to protect our children and the memory of our ancestors.
And we come at all this from different directions. What we see depends on where we stand. That’s the whole reason conservatives and progressives see different patterns in the flow of events, and look for radically differing solutions to the same problems — or even see different problems. Is a deficit caused by too much spending, or by a bad tax structure?
Were Waco and Columbine and Oklahoma City caused by a tolerance for violence — or by the oppression of marginalized subcultures? Was the Gulf spill caused by greedy inattention to safety, or by simple human error? Is reality itself a Rorschach test? Or is there something in the April air?