Something in the Air

Branch Davidians at Waco

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.

Alfred R. Murrah Building

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.

What do you see?

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?

April 21st, 2011 Skynet becomes self aware?

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?

About dcpetterson

D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He lives with his wife, a seriously affectionate pit bull, a cat, and a bearded dragon, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts for fun.
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12 Responses to Something in the Air

  1. Monotreme says:

    Reminds me of an old joke. It’s like “The Aristocrats” in that it can be made as filthy, or as clean, as one likes. I’ll give the clean (and short) version.

    Guy is having problems in relationships, goes to see a psychiatrist. Psychiatrist shows him Rorschach blot.

    Blot #1: “What do you see?” Patient describes disgusting sexual practice.

    Blot #2: “What do you see?” Patient describes even more disgusting practice. Doctor frowns.

    Blot #3: “What do you see?” Even worse.

    Doctor puts down the stack of cards in frustration and disgust. “If you don’t mind me saying, sir, it’s easy to see what your problem is. You’re obsessed with sex.”

    “Me? Me, doctor? It’s you that’s showing me all these disgusting pictures!”

  2. filistro says:

    @DC… Is reality itself a Rorschach test? Or is there something in the April air?

    I think the latter is the case. April is the cruellest month. We all go a little mad in the springtime. Long-pent emotions come to the fore. Simmering resentments bubble to the surface. Plans that have been hatched during the long cold months are put into action. Worst of all, it’s the ancient mating season, which means testosterone begins to pulse through the male body… and (as I often tell my blogging colleagues) testosterone is a dreadful substance.

    It would be interesting to find out if October is an equally wild and dangerous month in the Southern hemisphere.

  3. Monotreme says:


    Don’t forget April 19, 2011, the day Skynet became active. Today, April 21, 2011, is when we get nuked.

  4. drfunguy says:

    I woulda thunk with all these history buffs present, the importance of April 19th would be mentioned…
    Patriots Day!
    Lexington, Concord, Newton (oops strike that last)
    One if by land, two if by sea
    Shot heard ’round the world and all that…

  5. shortchain says:

    Well, hey, I didn’t see anything in that inkblot until I scrolled down and looked at the picture of the google-bot. Now, when I look at the inkblot I see the google-bot.

  6. Mr. Universe says:


    You passed the Roarsach test!

  7. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Oh, jeez!

    I just googled “Skynet” and the return asked me: “Why do you wish to find out?”

  8. Pingback: Free Forum Friday | 538 Refugees

  9. Chris Rich says:

    April is the center point of the spring mercury retrograde cycle and that is what made a believer out of me.

    This has been going on forever. Passover marks survival from some pestilence in Merc Retrograde. The Rabbi who came to be Jesus was executed during a mercury retro cycle, The Civil War started at Sumter, Hitler was born and in one of my last years living in Seattle, 2005 or 2006 some disturbed loner from Idaho slaughtered some goth party kids up near Capitol Hill including two under aged teen girls.

    Oh and World War two ended in Europe in April with Hitler expiring shortly after his birthday in his bunker.

    The fall Mercury retrograde is a handful too but the spring one always seems to have the most extreme events. It began in late march.

  10. Oh, yeah…I remember the raver massacre. That house was about a block away from Dan Savage’s house.

    Oh, also the 1906 San Francisco quake happened in April.

  11. Mr. Universe says:

    @Chris Rich

    A retrograde wouldn’t happen at the same time every year. Or are we talking about the same thing where a planet’s orbit appears to reverse direction from the perspective of Earth?

  12. Chris Rich says:

    Yes, it always falls in the same general time frame. Not exactly, usually a range of several days in late March running to some time in late April.

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