Peripatetic Postcards

The Terrorist's Tune

A couple of vectors brought into quick confluence:

1. The San Diego wildfires rage.

While . . .

2. Perusing a back-issue of The New York Review, I come across this quote from Don DeLillo, on the occasion of publication of his 1991 novel, Mao II:

In a repressive society a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that's filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act.... People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.

This portion of my peripatetic history has deposited me in Southern California. As such, I have been able to witness the recent wildfires up close. They are ominous and awe-inspiring things, these fires; enveloping those trapped in its thrall, and instilling in the captive a sense of helplessness. Their scale, the wrath with which the flames flare, their intense color and heat and unabated ardor -- all of this is daunting.

And amazing.

Walk outside - virtually anywhere in the Southland -- and be touched by the tendrils of the mounting smoke shroud. My son's football practice is cancelled because his coaches feel that the kids -- burdened in all their heavy gladiator's gear -- should not be sucking the fire's thick fumes into their lungs. His call to pick him up early from practice never makes it through the heavy particles and haze, from his cell to mine.

The fires are mesmorizing too. So much so that they can rivet its witnesses in place. Homeowners stuck fast, transfixed on cobblestone thresholds as their hard-earned investments and intimate life-spaces are threatened. Co-participants, glued to our living room chairs, minds numbed and mouths agape before unrelenting tragic narrative from CNN and Fox and local TV 2 and 4 and 7 and 9, as the drama unfolds. Reporters teeter in bright yellow slickers, sporting white sand-blaster's masks and hardhats, alternately mumbling and braying into their mics, as 50 mile-an-hour winds press billowing black plume into the space between them and the camera. They trudge down endangered cul-de-sacs, collaring residents toting thin green garden hoses, asking whether they will stand and defend or cut and run. Residents, feverishly watering down their roofs and adjacent trees to discourage any airborne embers, look at the reporters as if they are daft. "What the fuck does it look like I'm gonna do?!" their eyes and body language retort. Turning from the cameras, they return to their prophylactic dousing routine.

The entire drama carries the cast of futility, of impending, inevitable doom.

The front section of the Los Angeles Times, SoCal's keystone newspaper, is brimming with fire stories. Wedged in among a half page "Wacoal Fit for the Cure" event at Bloomingdales and a full page ad for Verizon USB-phones ("a special offer for small businesses with big ambitions"), there are notes from an evacuation center, tales from fire and rescue, reports of police who could not pry residents from their homes, residents who had to flee, and the two deaths that have been recorded thus far. The headline on page 12 announces: "Firefighters pushed to the limit"; another, on page 13, advises: "Planning ahead, knowing what to take". Page 14 declares: "Shaken but vowing to rebuild". An inset map shows 16 separate areas stretching from Ventura County to the Mexican border where fires currently are stoking.

The map makes the fires seem like a chain extending in a logical, connected line through the SoCal region. Possibly. But the first was actually in Malibu, somewhere toward the upper middle of the conflagratory swatch. According to fire officials, that Malibu fire was probably caused by a downed power line. Many of the other incidents, however, have likely been the result of more sinister forces: copycat arsonists, inspired to act based on the Malibu event; intent on having an impact, producers of a luminous -- though villainous -- outcome. Such people -- crazed and imbalanced as they are -- amount to environmental terrorists, folks who, to paraphrase (and appropriate) DeLillo, "are powerless (and thus) make an open theater of violence."

The terror of arson in a tinderbox playground like Southern California means power and influence for those with a dark vision. For the terrorist searching for voice. the brittle brush and welcoming timber provide the tools for expression. The eloquence and splendor of Southern California provides the narrative platform for the terrorist seeking speech. And in rendering Southern California to smoldering remnants of its once-glorious self, in denuding the place of its grandeur, lerrorists with a match or a can of accelerant, are able to sing and scream and secure notice. In doing so, they manage what DeLillo most fears (but finds inevitable): they infiltrate and alter public consciousness.

Sad as that is to say. In the face of the pulsating, raging flame, we witnesses sit impotent, numb. Able only to ponder human darkness. Before us, in the wake of environmental terrorism, stands the shrill cry of nihilism. There is no overarching ideology, no unified philosophy to terrorism; only destruction, negation, and pain.

For us, terror's victims -- caught, captive before our screens, or else shackled, helpless outside our homes -- we watch as our lives become consumed and lost. Our dawning awareness is the sense of being subject to someone else's power play. An audience -- invited, yet having to pay -- to receive our assailant's missives; to listen to the terrorist's song.


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