The news that Fox is blaming the California wildfires on Al-Qaeda brings a few scattered thoughts to mind.
When I was a kid, I read a rather silly thriller called Goodbye California, in which terrorists planted atomic bombs along the San Andreas fault
in order to trigger a massive earthquake. If OBL - or whoever's walking around in his clothes and beard - knows what's good for him, he'll hint that AQ is looking into a similar arrangement, and that they've decided to practice by triggering mudslides with conventional explosives. A casual remark like this could generate plenty of valuable PR when the inevitable happens. ("Oh Noes!!! AQ iz in teh Wadati-Beni0ff z0nez, triggrin teh megakwakez!!!1")
Kidding aside, Mike Davis has eloquently described California's tendency to personalize natural disaster:
Anglo-Californians have always criminalized the problem of mountain wildfire. The majority have never accepted the natural role or inevitability of the chaparral fire cycle. (Conversely, there has been a persistent tendency to naturalize the strictly human causality of tenement fire.)In another article, he elaborates:
The political, as distinct from scientific, discourse in each generation has been obsessed with the identification of an incendiary Other responsible for fire destruction.The syndrome is older than that, of course. During the Gold Rush, fires in mining towns were habitually blamed on Chinese immigrants. In her interesting book Roaring Camp, Susan Lee Johnson gives a lurid example:
In the early 20th century, this cruel-hearted and selfish man...was portrayed as an Indian, sheepherder or, most frequently, a tramp. During World War I, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) were believed to be lurking behind every burning bush in California. A decade later, major wildfires — like the 1930 Decker Canyon blaze — were usually blamed on itinerant farm workers, especially the Okies. A year after Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, FBI agents and National Guardsmen were combing Las Flores Canyon for clues to the identity of Axis saboteurs responsible for the 1942 Malibu fire.
By the late 1850s, fire itself had become a metaphor for Chinese sexual commerce....[I]n 1857 and 1858, for example, costly conflagrations consumed parts of Columbia and Mariposa. In both cases, newspapers blamed the blazes on Chinese residents, claiming that the fires began in Chinese brothels. After Columbia's calamity, a correspondent telegraphed the San Joaquin Republican to report that the fire...was "caused by an opium smoker" at a house of prostitution.And it may've been, for all I know, just as this or some future wildfire might be the fault of terrorists. But as Slavoj Zizek points out, pathological fantasies aren't any less pathological just because they turn out to be true. A Chinese man who causes a fire doesn't retroactively validate the feverish 3 a.m. presentiments of the bigots who just knew something like that would happen if those slant-eyed heathens were allowed to live among decent Christian folk. Those people would be crazy either way, just as the people who see AQ's hand in every bridge collapse and wildfire would be crazy even if AQ actually did blow up a bridge or start a wildfire.
Worrying about a serious problem doesn't automatically make you a serious person. The fact that the stateside scourges of Islamofascism can't accept this is what makes them such effective force multipliers for AQ. In their lust to be "proved fucking right," they've tied their credibility to that of the terrorists, and accordingly see every real or rumored disaster as another step along their personal Path to Glory.
(Illustration: "A Fresh Eruption of the Pacific Coast Vesuvius," from The Wasp: v. 8, Jan. - June 1882.)