Today is the fifteenth anniversary of a beautiful late-summer morning when thousands of people were murdered for no reason. Some victims died in Washington, D.C. and others in a Pennsylvania field, but the enduring iconic images concern the last hours of the mortally wounded Twin Towers in New York City.
To your right is an advertisement that appeared in the New York Times on May 2, 1968. Its purpose was to protest the then-proposed construction of the World Trade Center. The artwork depicts an airliner about to crash high up into what appears to be the northeast face of the North Tower, just where the first impact would occur a generation later.
Although the ad warns about something that eventually really happened, the ad does not foresee the fate of the towers. One of the ad’s backers owned the Empire State Building, into which a plane had crashed in 1945. Concern about airplanes and skyscrapers was based upon memory, not prescience. The ad itself is the opposite of a prediction. It aspires to be self-negating. If the ad had achieved its purpose, then a disaster like what it tells us about could never have happened.
An especially eerie feature of the ad is its headline, a gratuitous play on the colloquial phrase “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed…” Why that unmistakable reference to Islam?
That is a mystery. The phrase is adapted from a line in an essay by Francis Bacon, probably meant to mock Mohammed. The ad’s tag line fashioned from that phrase has nothing to do with the argument the advertisement is making. Manhattan was already full of man-made “mountains.” That was the economic motive for the ad. There was an office-space glut at the time, too many mountains had already come to the city.
Presumably, the headline got there because it is somehow “catchy.” It holds the attention of the reader who is skimming through the newspaper. It invites the skimmer to stop, to read the copy, to find out what the fuss is about. In our time, we call that “click bait.”
Although the headline refers to the founder of Islam, the ad does not foretell that Islamists will someday crash airplanes into the towers. “Of all the things the copywriter might have said…,” and yet we can be fully confident that nothing was farther from that copywriter’s mind than what we remember about that morning in 2001. Only knowing what we know now makes the capricious tag line uncanny.
Uncanny, that is, unless the advertisement was fabricated afterwards as a hoax. That is the easy way to make a startling prediction: make a postdiction instead. Take care not to overdo it, avoid what is too good to be true. Force the listener to connect some dots to see why your hoax fits the facts. Theater people call that “making your audience come to you,” to increase both realism and durable impact.
But “The Mountain Comes to Manhattan” ad is not a hoax. Back issues of the New York Times, even from 1968, can be found on microfilm in public libraries throughout the world. Anybody who doubts the advertisement’s authenticity can easily look it up. Page 38, I am told. I didn’t look it up; I don’t doubt it.
The ad on your left, however, is a different story. Unlike the previous advertisement, this one has almost no “prediction come true” quality. Its interest is the simple, cartoonishly ominous shadow of an airliner falling across the towers. But why ominous? The plane is surely not flying into the buildings; the afternoon sun has caught its shadow as it makes its way across lower Manhattan. That’s all that’s happening in the picture. The image is ominous solely because of what we know happened to those buildings and the people trapped inside them. The image isn’t ominous, what we bring to it is.
Nevertheless, both Snopes (link) and Hoaxes dot org (link) report suspicion that this ad was a post-tragedy fabrication, something made up for the internet. Somehow, the imagery seemed too good to be true. That casual throw-away headline reference to 4:30 in the afternoon? Perhaps a diversion by a clever hoaxer.
No. The ad is authentic. It ran in several issues of the well-known French news magazine Le Point during 1979. Its purpose is clear: to promote air service between Paris and New York on Pakistan’s national airline. The ad predicts nothing except that you will enjoy your flight, and the wonderful time you’ll have in the beautiful city symbolized by its world-famous Twin Towers.
Estimating a date from a written prevision
As the title indicates, this post is the first in a short series about the estimated dating of the Gospel According to Mark. The preponderance of scholarly opinion favors a composition date after 70 CE, largely on account of one saying, found at 13:2, referring to the Jerusalem Temple:
Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”
The Romans under Titus and Vespasian thoroughly destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. The logic of the dating estimate is that Mark included this prediction because it had already been fulfilled.
There are problems with that logic, not least that Mark includes another prediction by Jesus that was never fulfilled, that some contemporary of Jesus would live long enough to see Jesus’ return. Jesus says this not once, but twice in Mark, first at 9:1 and then at 13:30. It is also logically helpful that the Temple prediction could never, ever be conclusively shown to be false. It is patronizing to think that Mark wouldn’t know that, or wouldn’t notice.
Why might Mark have wanted to include some unresolved predictions by Jesus? It is very likely that whoever Mark was, he believed that Jesus could make successful forecasts. It’s a good bet that an important part of Mark’s audience believed that about Jesus. If Jesus said something will happen, then it will happen. Nothing more need be true than that an author or his target audience believes this, and the appearance of however many unresolved predictions attributed to Jesus is fully explained.
Under the circumstances, it is puzzling why so much weight would be placed on this brief remark about an event placed in Jesus’ indefinite future. That’s where our experience with the advertising previsions of 9-11 comes in. When we know that a catastrophe has happened, we cannot help ourselves. We see references to places and things involved in the catastrophe differently than we would otherwise.
We cannot look at that shadow across the towers and not see in it a potential reference to the sad events of fifteen years ago. We cannot look at the 1968 protest ad without checking a site plan to see whether the artist got the place of impact right. Right? The artist wasn’t predicting anything, he or she was illustrating a point, a point which a paying client thought then and there, for some present purpose, was worth paying the artist to illustrate. And yet, the artist did get it right.
When these advertisements were made, they included routine references to airplanes and the Twin Towers. After what happened in their creators’ future and in our past, however, there no longer is any such thing as a routine reference to airplanes and the Twin Towers.
Imagine, then, if you were encountering either 9-11 prevision for the first time. Somebody has cut up the advertisement, and thrown away the written text. You have just the headline and image, a copy of them, not the aging newsprint or magazine page. Estimate a date for the drawing. Your first thought will be “Where did this come relative to 2001?” There’s a good chance that your second thought will be “Probably after, and the burden of proof falls heavily on anyone who estimates earlier.”
That’s what I think may have happened to the estimated dates for Mark. More in the next post.