The pieces of the space shuttle Columbia had barely fallen to earth before the heavens were invoked. The Iraqis summoned Allah, describing the disaster as heavenly retribution. “God wants to show that his might is greater than the Americans,” an oft-quoted government employee is reported to have said. “They have encroached on our country. God is avenging us.”
President George Bush was the next to point to a higher-up that day. In his address to the nation after the crash, Bush would quote the words of the prophet Isaiah, imploring Americans to look to the heavens for comfort and hope. “Who created all these?” asked Isaiah, as relayed by his earthly rep, the president, as he craned skyward. “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,” said Bush. And while the astronauts may not have made it back to earth, he concluded, we can pray that they are all safely home.
Not everyone in the audience was convinced. Hours after the president’s address, a heretic post appeared on a popular Christian web site: “[S]ince Bush is a fundamentalist Christian,” wrote the naysayer, “he certainly believes that many of the astronauts are actually on their way to hell.” Heaven or hell, Bush didn’t specify; perhaps home can be either.
Whether Americans took the explosion at 250,000 feet as a sign of His divine retribution is unclear, but many certainly took it as a sign of something. With nerves rubbed raw over the prospect of war, and the economy moribund, people here were suffering from a kind of national edginess long before last weekend. You could hear it in their voices as they flooded cable TV and radio stations with calls about the disaster. “I just can’t believe this is happening,” said Charlene from Lubbock, TX. “It’s like we just got over the last thing and now there’s something else,” said Martin from Houston.
There was the usual bravado, bold claims about how Americans have a special responsiblity–a destiny even– to chart the heavens. “They need to get right back up there and get the space program going again because that is what makes this country great,” said Louis from Albuquerque. But underneath the bluster, doubt was creeping, and anguish worrying: are we now the sort of people to whom bad things happen? What will happen to us next? Will war produce the worst thing of all?
For the millions of Americans who gathered in front of their television sets that day, watching as the shuttle blazed its fiery trail over and over again, a religious explanation of what’s happening to us might have proved soothing. But for every born-again Christian like President Bush, secure in the knowledge that he will proceed direct to heaven, there are two non-believers who are pretty sure that it’s all over when it’s over. And more still are merely muddling through. So instead of the big religions we console ourselves with the small ones: television, pseudoscience, celebrity. As we stared at our screens, we let ourselves be lulled by the well-modulated tones of the commentators, and sought refuge in a wealth of scientific terms we would never really understand: debris trajectory analysis, reboosting, reinforced carbon carbon. By afternoon, the world was back to normal; the first pieces of shuttle debris had been placed up for auction on E-Bay.
One might suspect that the more prophetically-minded Americans would have found irresistible the heavy-handed symbolism of the event: the presence of an Israeli astronaut on board; the fact that the shuttle broke up over Palestine, TX. But the prophet seekers are watching for bigger signs these days, the kind that flash “apocalypse.”
With tensions simmering in the Middle East, and war with Iraq likely to ignite them further, fundamentalist Christians in the US are more convinced than ever that Armageddon is nearly upon us. These biblical literalists believe that in order for Christ to return, Israel must first be reconstituted, and the Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70 AD, rebuilt so that the Antichrist can desecrate it. Thus will be kicked off a period in which the non-faithful among us will not fare well at all. “The stage is being set for what Jesus’ disciples called ‘the sign of His coming and the end of the age,'” writes the Reverend Tim LaHaye, whose end-of-time novels sit perennially atop the New York Times best-seller list.
Despite the burgeoning strength of the conservative Christian movement–and its disturbing influence within the Bush administration–most Americans are not preoccupied with end time matters; the present moment is disturbing enough. Less than a week after the Columbia fell out of the sky, US Attorney General John Ashcroft, himself a true believer, raised the nation’s terror threat level to high. The warnings are at once impossibly vague–‘soft targets’ including apartments, hotels, sports arenas and amusement parks have been placed on high alert–and agonizingly specific: computer simulated graphics of dirty bombs are detonated on television night after night.
Describing the moment at which the faithful will be summoned, suddenly to their heavenly home, leaving the non-believers to endure seven final years of war and fury, Reverend LaHaye writes that “[w]e know that the rapture of the church is a signless event.” For those of who dread deeply the prospect of unending war, the signs couldn’t be clear enough.
JENNIFER C. BERKSHIRE is a writer in Boston. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.