When a notorious Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, told reporters in London that the space shuttle disaster was "a punishment from God" because the crew included the "trinity of evil" of an American, a Hindu and an Israeli, he was condemned. On Tuesday, government officials kicked him out of his mosque.
Yet while his comments were unusual in their grotesqueness, they bore one similarity to comments being heard from others: many people believe the tragedy happened for a reason.
The interpretations of "the message" could not vary more widely. Some say God intervened to prevent more loss of life; others that it was a sign that America's posture toward the world is too arrogant, and still others are chilled by what they feel are suggestive coincidences but cannot fathom the meaning.
On Internet message boards, in man-on-the-street interviews and among some spiritual teachers, certain facts or assertions are being strung together as evidence that something special happened:
At a time when America is preparing to wage war on Iraq, one of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew members who died was an Israeli pilot who had bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981.
The first debris spotted by TV cameras had fallen in a town called Palestine, Texas.
One of the crew members, Laurel Clark, had a first cousin, Timothy Haviland, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Columbia exploded over George Bush's home state.
Apollo 1 burned up in 1967 on Jan. 27, the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986 and the Columbia on Feb. 1.
Columbia took off on 1/16, for 16 days, expected to land at 8:16 a.m.
Might Over America
Some in the Arab world viewed this as evidence against America.
"God wants to show that his might is greater than the Americans. They have encroached on our country. God is avenging us," an Iraqi government employee Abudul Jabbar Quraishi told Reuters news service.
Referring to the Israeli astronaut, a Baghdad car mechanic said, "Israel launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any reason. Now times has come and God has retaliated to their aggression."
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, a leader in Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based terrorist group, told attendees at a graduation ceremony, "What happened yesterday is a message to all humanity, and especially Arab, Muslim and Third World people, a message to those who thought in the past few years that America was a god that couldn't be defeated or defied."
France's "Liberation" newspaper discussed the tragedy in an editorial titled "Humility": "Some think they see a bad omen in this latest drama. The disaster should be a lesson in humility and show the United States that whatever its financial might, its scientific know-how, its technological prowess, its training of men, it cannot control all, dominate all, foresee all, parry all."
Poignantly, even some in Israel concluded there was a hostile message. A 16-year-old student whose high school had designed an experiment that was aboard the shuttle, told The New York Times, "Maybe someone didn't want us to be happy. No matter what we do, nothing comes up right."
Arik Bechar, foreign editor of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, mused, "The mystics will nod their heads and the skeptics will have to mobilize all their skepticism to convince people there was no hand of God in the accident; that in life there are cruel coincidences, even if they include Palestine, Texas and the first Israeli astronaut. But how can we explain the curse pursuing us across the length and breadth of the land these past few years, which pursued us to the limits of the atmosphere? Ilan Ramon was a victim of that same curse, which has turned the Israelis into a nation of paranoids. And who can blame them?"
Just a Horrible Tragedy?
Of course, many — perhaps the majority — believe that this was simply a horrible tragedy with no larger significance, but in a nation as religious as the United States, there is a substantial group that ascribes supernatural connections. In Beliefnet's highly unscientific poll, roughly a third of those responding believed it wasn't a coincidence.
Some turned to the Bible for clues. Beliefnet member called Oracles wrote, "God does have His purpose and things don't just happen like this. What if someone very powerful were trying to send Mr. Bush a message? Ever hear of the [so called] hidden codes in scripture?"
Member ears2hear wondered about "encrypted messages from God," perhaps designed to give a president inclined toward war a "renewed sense of what I means to lose people you care about."
One member, Noisefree, saw something else: "I cannot shake this feeling that, somehow, God sent us a message — and particularly a message to Israel — that they have abandoned Him in their desires to dominate the middle east, and in their persecution of the Palestinians. Is it just coincidence that this disaster should happen as the vindictive Ariel Sharon is re-elected?"
At Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Spokane, Wash., hometown church of astronaut Michael Anderson, the Rev. Freeman Simmons speculated that God "permitted" the shuttle accident to get America's attention. "God works strange," Simmons said.
Others wrestled with the question-so frequently asked after 9/11 — How could a loving God have allowed something like this to happen?
KDPeters's answer to that classic theological dilemma was that God's compassion was apparent on Saturday: "Let's talk miracle, okay? On Saturday, God chose to take the 7 lives abour the Columbia. Good took ONLY seven lives on Saturday. The Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex is very populated, yet no life was lost. I tell you, we witness a miracle that day. God loves us. This is not a coincidence."
And NjoyAADAirbrush absolved God and fingered the Devil. "God would NOT take the lives of these individuals; No Way. I serve a God of love, compassion and mercy; who is the LivingGodd. Satan is the god of the dead, and is the destroyer. Satan most likely had a hand in this."
Some are attracted to a concept called "synchronicity." In popular culture, it was captured in the Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, one of the best selling contemporary spiritual books. In intellectual and scholarly circles, it is reflected in the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Oversimplified, it is the view that coincidences have meaning — events happen for a reason — but that it is not a deity pulling the strings, but some collective human spiritual network.
Albert Clayton Gaulden, founder of the Sedona Intensive — a teacher Redfield calls his mentor — believes that synchronicity is apparent in the Columbia tragedy. "It's a sign that if we try to go beyond limits and we cannot take care of the world in which we live, then how in the world can we go out there?"
Gaulden, who just published a new book called Signs and Wonders: Understanding the Language of God, said Tuesday in an interview with Beliefnet that he believes the astronauts were "martyrs" on assignment from God. And, he said, the fact that the accident happened over Texas is meaningful because it is a warning to the Bush administration not to go to war with Iraq.
Gaulden claimed his website recorded a dramatic increase in visitors in the days since the accident.
Talk of 'Higher Destiny'
Several Beliefnet members viewed events through this lens. "Yes, it was 'coincidnetal' although, another word is synchronicity, of which I believe," said Dmdrden:. "Everything happens for a reason that contains a message. I haven't focused on what the message is — I do believe there is one."
BerndtSM wrote, "I believe if we pay attention and are open to seeing the synchronicity or coincidences in our lives and the world they can lead us a long a path of higher destiny."
A discussion board on a website dedicated to the teachings of Carl Jung had this message: "So, yesterday in the morning a grand event occurs 'in the sky'. A coveted and important symbol/tool of America's power is destroyed in what can only be interpreted as 'an act of God'. I was just reading the Odyssey over again, and.... there is of course a whole series of signs and omens that pointed clearly to the destruction of the 'arrogant wooers' but these signs went completely unheeded. Whether we (Americans) accept it as true or not, most people have interpreted and will continue to interpret this event as an act of Divine Will AGAINST the will of the US."
To be sure, there are many people who believe this is just a horrible tragedy without broader meaning or message. They point out that the shuttle actually broke up not over Palestine Texas but across a large swath of the state and some of California. And the Rev. James Mayfield, pastor of Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin--Bush's church when he was Texas Governor, said, "I haven't talked to anybody who reads superstitious meaning into this. If you buy that, then you believe God is responsible for babies being bashed. People who go that way play a convenient, inconsistent game about the way God works. The implication of saying God does this kind of thing is so grim and grotesque that that doesn't gibe with what I understand about Jesus and about God."
So what does it mean? "We human beings are fallible, make mistakes, and get very arrogant--and our arrogance expresses itself in complacency so we think flying in space is no longer a dangerous thing," says Mayfield.
But clearly there is a powerful desire to ascribe meaning, and in some cases to look for clues as to whose side God is on. President Bush himself seems to believe God is intervening directly in current events. "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them," he said during his address to the nation in September, 2001.
In a recently published book, former Bush speechwriter David Frum describes a moment involving Bush and chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. After seeing the president give his speech to Congress Gerson said, "Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought God wanted you there." Bush responded, "He wants us all here, Gerson."
But if God is on America's side in the war on terrorism, how can we then say that he was not involved in the Columbia disaster? Conversely, if we say that God was not involved in the space shuttle catastrophe, how can we be so confident that he is not "neutral" in the War on Terrorism?
For now, Beliefnet user marakama, sums up her confusion like this: "It may be cliché to say, 'there is no such thing as a coincidence," but seems everything is tied together some how, no matter how fine the thread may be. But what is the relation?"