"I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time…when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."

-- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

When faced with destabilizing tragedies like September 11th's terrorist attacks, human beings have an amazing way of turning to nonsense to try to make sense of the senseless. Last January, I wrote a rather piddling article for The American Prospect about how a phony Nostradamus verse was being used to claim that the seer had predicted the Bush presidency. (The bogus quotation was, "Come the millennium, month 12,/ In the home of the greatest power,/ The village idiot will come forth/ To be acclaimed the leader.") Now, that article has become popular again and is getting tons of web hits, because of another Nostradamus hoax that has people pumping the prophet's name into search engines.

The latest falsified quatrain, currently circulating by e-mail, speaks of "Two brothers torn apart by chaos," an alleged reference to the World Trade Center's double towers. By this standard, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose novel Lord of the Rings includes a book titled The Two Towers, is also a prophet. (For further analysis of the current hoax, check out Aaron Schatz's Lycos 50 or the urban legend tracking website Snopes.com.)

But Nostradamus-mongering is just one guise of the supermarket check-out-line irrationalism that has come into vogue following last Tuesday's terrors. Almost from the start, some observed in woo-woo tones that the date of the tragedy was September 11th, or, "9/11"—therefore "911," the number for emergency. From this point, various numerological significances have been detected in anything from the flight numbers of the hijacked planes to the number of letters in the word "Afghanistan" (which is also 11!). Indeed, there are 11 letters in "The Pentagon"—unless you take out the word "the."

Yet even as we indulge in this superstition, we attribute it not to ourselves but to our attackers. One forwarded e-mail I received read in part:

As you may have heard, the Muslims are very symbolic and somebody has taken the time to come up with all these symbols.....interesting to say the least:

The terror occurred on 09/11/01 .... 9-1-1.

The flights were:
which, if added, is
11 - 11th
9+3 = 12th
and adding 11+12+13+14 equals 50....as in 50 United States

Somehow, I suspect that the "somebody" who came up with all of this was not a Muslim. But by accusing Muslims of "symbolic" thinking, we not only engage in unfortunate stereotyping, but also gloss over the terribly cold rationalism that the hijackers managed to combine with religious fanaticism in order to further their horrible objectives.

The latest Nostradamus hoax and our emergency numerology have this in common: In the wake of this nation's horrible tragedy, they are disparate elements of a wider reversion to pre-modern, superstitious ways of thinking about the world. But growing more atavistic will not help us face down terrorism. Carl Sagan's warning, in its prescience, puts Nostradamus's prophecies to shame.