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When the first plane struck the World Trade Center at 8:48 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, President Bush was in Florida, lecturing a classroom of second-graders about the importance of reading skills. What was meant to be a run-of-the-mill photo op produced one of the more telling photographs of that awful day.
In it, White House chief of staff Andrew Card is bending down to deliver the news that a second plane had thundered into the second tower. You can see the shock, the dread, on Bush's face. And who can blame him? America had just been wrenched from a sunny weekday morning into a cataclysmic war, and it seemed no one was prepared for such an event -- not the CIA, not the FBI, not the State Department, and certainly not the president himself.
"I'm trying to absorb that knowledge," Bush said, recalling the moment in a recent Newsweek interview. "I'm the commander in chief, and the country has just come under attack."
Not everybody, however, was as flabbergasted by the news as the president. In fact, there were a few Americans who responded to the terrorist attacks with a resounding "Told you so."
In June 2000, Lynne Palmer, a 69-year-old Las Vegas resident, published her Astrological Almanac for 2001 (Star Bright Publishers). On page 95 of the book, buried among advice on the best days to go to the movies and worst days to lend people money, Palmer had written, in an odd combination of the obvious and the prophetic: "Avoid terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001."
Palmer wasn't the only astrologer to see trouble brewing in the fall of 2001. Apparently, the sky has been heaving with a confluence of terrible portents lately -- a Perfect Storm of clashing, menacing astrological signs. But no one had divined upcoming events with the acuity of the Dolly Partonhaired author of Is Your Name Lucky for You? (Star Bright Publishers, 1999) and Astro-Guide to Nutrition and Vitamins (American Federation of Astrologers, 1993). "Only one person predicted the date of the attacks, and that was Lynne Palmer," says veteran astrologer Robert Hand, a relatively highbrow practitioner of the art. "I don't know how she did it. Things looked chaotic, but I could not have foreseen September 11. I looked and looked and I don't know how anyone could have predicted it to the day."
Palmer, meanwhile, remains unfazed by her astrological coup. "There are certain planets that rule certain things," she says, "and those planets were in alignment." In fact, Palmer didn't even know the attacks had occurred until a friend told her. "I don't look at the news much," she says. "My friend called me. I looked in my  almanac and I had it. I make all sorts of predictions and I forget about them. But I had 'Watch for danger falling from above,' 'Avoid fire.' It was eerie."
Eerie, yes, but not unique. Following September 11, stargazers all over the country pored through their prior predictions to see if they, too, had foreseen America's so-called New War. Hand was one of the astrologers who came up trumps. In an article posted in the August edition of the Mountain Astrologer online magazine, Hand wrote a long, lyrical essay foretelling "restrictions on our freedom of movement," the "ruthless energy of change," and "unrest in the Middle East."
Though Hand's dates were not as specific as Palmer's -- he saw strife occurring between August 5, 2001, and May 26, 2002 -- his predictions were nonetheless chillingly prescient: "Things pass away and then something new comes into being. We have times when things seem to reach a period of stability and permanence; then there is a period of decay, when they begin to break down and go wrong.... It is as though we were driving down a well-defined road with a clear objective, and either something we did not anticipate is forcing us onto another road or the road itself is being transformed."
In April 2001, on the same site, astrologer Jim Shawvan wrote of "something sudden" about to occur, "a surprise attack, a terrorist bombing." He continued, "Civil wars and conflicts in the Third World often build up slowly, with many warning signs; however, when the only remaining superpower is attacked, the preferred approach seems to be terrorist action with no warning." Shawvan also wrote that "[Bush] may judge it necessary to threaten or even use force in Afghanistan or Pakistan or both."
In the simplest terms, Shawvan reached his conclusions by observing the overwhelming presence of Mars -- the planet of conflict and strife -- in astrological charts he had drawn up for Bush. There was also, he says, a Mars line going through a map of Afghanistan. With this knowledge in hand, he deduced that there'd be the potential for America to go to war with Afghanistan. In an earlier interview, Shawvan called his predictions "purely an intellectual exercise." He added, "You use your knowledge of the facts and then put things together."
Such a commonsensical approach to astrology is surprisingly common. Indeed, many astrologers view themselves as more aligned with sociologists and historians than with psychics and mediums. "This is not closing your eyes and seeing things," says Hand, who also named Afghanistan as a potential point of international conflict. "I specifically named Afghanistan based on historical probability. You have to know something about the world."
Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the astrological publisher Llewellyn Booksellers published Civilization Attacked: September 11, 2001 & Beyond, in which a selection of America's top-shelf astrologers weighed in on such topics as "The psychology of terrorism" and "The long-range effects of September 11, 2001." One of the more remarkable aspects of the book is an accompanying blurb from its publisher, Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, who wrote that astrology is "the one science that can analyze time to bring understanding about the antecedents of the event, about the people involved in carrying it out, and the forecasts helpful to decisions that must be made."
The "science" claim notwithstanding, most astrologers will readily admit that making predictions based on planetary movements is essentially an intuitive pursuit. "Astrology is not a science," says Hand. "It's a craft. It has no solid foundation. We don't have a theoretical structure from which we make our predictions. We really don't know what causes these influences. We don't know that at all."
Indeed, despite the intellectual veneer afforded the practice by the likes of Shawvan and Hand, astrology relies to a great extent on the kind of symbolism that used to get medieval Gnostics hot under their burlap collars. "Here's a little bit of weirdness," says Hand, his voice rising in pitch. "The World Trade Center was opened when Saturn was in Gemini. It collapsed when Saturn was in Gemini. And what does the World Trade Center look like? What did it look like? A gigantic Gemini glyph! That fits into the category of one of those ooh-ooh-ooh moments."
The most significant ooh-ooh-ooh moment for many astrologers in the months preceding September 11 came when they noticed a relatively rare opposing alignment of two fundamentally opposed planets: Pluto and Saturn -- the planet of wrenching change and the planet of adamantine continuity. As Hand points out, the last time such an opposition occurred, the Soviets were embroiled in a bloody conflict in Afghanistan. "They stand like two opponents facing off against each other," he wrote in his Mountain Astrologer essay. "The medieval astrologers referred to the opposition as the aspect of perfect or complete hostility. They regarded it as the worst possible aspect between two bodies."
In the introduction to Civilization Attacked, astrologer Stephanie Clement wrote, "Throughout this book, the authors make frequent mention of Saturn and Pluto and their relation in the sky right now. They are in opposite parts of the heavens, very close to 180 degrees apart.... Together, Saturn and Pluto reflect qualities of cruelty, a tendency towards violence, and fanatical adherence to one's principles. This is not a fun combination."
Quite. Yet it's easy to say such things with the benefit of hindsight. The fact is, any practitioner of mundane astrology -- which entails the study of societal forces -- worth his or her salt should have spotted the danger before the events of September 11 took place. Yet only a handful actually did this -- at least publicly. One astrologer who did was Doug Riemer, a practitioner of Indian, or Vedic, astrology. In a newsletter he sent out at the end of August, Riemer wrote, "There may be some religious fanaticism.... Mideast stuff? I see 9/109/14 as being really bizarre.... Although everyone should use care in their activities during the entire month, this 4 day period is exceptional. To avoid problems, stay alert to your environment and avoid risky situations."
Like Shawvan, Riemer based his predictions largely on the looming presence of Mars. "In the latter part of August, Mars -- the planet of war, desire, anger, sex, all these worldly things -- moved into the sign of Sagittarius," he explains. "Mars went into the sign of Sagittarius in Jupiter. Jupiter is religion and philosophy. At the same time, Mars crossed one of the eclipse points of the moon. Eclipse points are very frightening. When you have all this come together, it leads to a righteous, seething anger. It can create craziness and fanaticism. I remember looking at this and thinking, 'Wait a minute. Something terrible is going to happen.' "
Despite the accuracy of his predictions, Riemer admits to being disappointed that he didn't call the exact date of the attacks. "My mistake was saying the 10th to the 14th," he says. "Because each planet has its own day of the week, and Mars's day is Tuesday. I missed that, otherwise I'd have said Tuesday morning."
Making accurate predictions is all well and good, but beyond reading their horoscopes in the newspapers every now and then, do Americans actually take any notice of this stuff? "Well, I have one client who called me a week before the catastrophe," says Riemer. "She told me she was flying from Washington, DC, to New Orleans and I said, 'Okay, but get home before the 10th.' She called me that Tuesday morning and said, 'Thank God I didn't stay until the 11th!' She thought I'd saved her life. Certainly, she'd have been stuck in Washington having a horrible time. Astrology is not just knowing about life, it's planning the life, taking advantage of opportunity, and overcoming challenge."
He adds, "It would have been helpful if someone in government had taken notice of some of these predictions."
Fat chance. Not since the astrology-loving Nancy Reagan inhabited the White House have astrologers had the luxury of having a president who took them seriously. "We deal with individual people who study our stuff," says Hand. "We can give those people ways of making things work better in their lives. But when we make predictions for public events, we have no impact. We can't say, 'This is going to happen, so we should do this now.' No one pays any attention. People don't give a damn. So we can only say, 'Okay, here comes the shit about to hit the wall.' More importantly, not only do people not listen, when we get it right they explain it away afterwards. Well, this current opposition [of Saturn and Pluto] will be hard to explain away."
Such frustration is commonplace among astrologists. "I've had clients ignore my advice for 44 years; you get used to it," says Palmer. "People are afraid to look at this stuff. It's scary. But fear attracts fear. We have to raise our consciousness and see what we can do to rise above these bad aspects. But people aren't looking. They're in denial."
Nonetheless, says Riemer, widespread dismissal of the astrologer's work does not make that work any less important. "For an astrologer to say, 'Don't bother telling because no one's going to listen' -- that's self-defeating," he says. "I think we have a duty and a responsibility to publish our predictions. We should keep information available. Because, and I'm serious about this, there is a huge train wreck coming. The train is about to come off the tracks."
Well, of course we don't want to hear predictions like that. It's unsettling enough to think that there may be a cosmic equivalent of the TV Guide ("Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., Chris Wright goes out and gets drunk [repeat]"), let alone that there's a train wreck a-coming. "Americans hate fate," says Riemer. "Well, there is fate in genetics -- you were fated to have a certain height, certain skills. And you were fated to have free will. Astrology indicates free will, it unveils hidden karmas."
Fair enough, but who really wants to discover that his or her hidden karma involves a date with an errant 747? After all, it's one thing to fret about an impending catastrophe, but it's another thing entirely to be told that the catastrophe is bearing down upon us, preordained and inescapable. This objection, astrologers insist, reflects a fundamental misreading of the relationship between astrology and determinism.
"What people who don't study astrology don't understand," says Hand, "is that there is a bivalence involved. There are two possibilities -- one good, one bad. Astrology helps us understand what must be done now to face the future. A lot of people believe that astrology can show that everything is preordained, and I don't believe that. There is indeterminacy everywhere, in physics, everywhere. Will is indeterminate. That there will be a certain crisis on a certain date might be determined, but how we handle it is not. If change was not possible, then astrology would be pointless."
Indeterminacy could very well be the only bright spot at the end of our collective tunnel, because if our astrologers have got it right, we're in for a very grim few years indeed.
"In late April, early May ," says Doug Riemer, "the sign of Taurus (material things), Saturn (restriction), Mars (war), and Rahu (fanaticism) all come together. It's a terrible combination, and I think there is going to be incredible violence unless we resolve things now. We have a choice, we fix things now or we have a major war in the spring and it's going to be horrible. All astrologers are worried about this. Enlightened beings are very concerned about the next five or six years. This is a very sensitive period."
Lynne Palmer's predictions are equally dismal. "The New York chart has some rough aspects coming up, scary ones," she says. "New York City has to be very careful of more air crashes and sleeping terrorists. And charts for the US have very bad, very deep problems, very bad. The aspect of Saturn and Pluto are coming back next year, even worse than now. The really rough period is going to be from February 2003 going into 2005. Pluto is ascending. Pluto rules missiles. We could have a nuclear attack or germ warfare."
Until that happens, though, there's the business of everyday life to take care of. Palmer, for instance, recommends that Americans use caution when having pedicures next year. Early 2002 seems to be a particularly bad patch. "Do not," Palmer writes in her almanac for the year, "cut ingrown toenails on the following dates: January 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 ..."
Chris Wright can be reached at email@example.com.