The death toll has risen to at least 40 in the Northern California wildfires. Fifteen separate fires have combined to tear through more than 220,000 acres, destroying nearly 6,000 buildings. For scale, imagine that the entire city of San Francisco was leveled to the ground. That would only be about 30,000 acres or 14 percent of the current blaze.
I have trouble fathoming this. You see, I have never been to Napa or Sonoma. I’ve never played in a neighborhood street in Santa Rosa. I’ve never walked in between the rows of a winery in Kenwood or knelt down to smell its soil. I never studied in the library at Santa Rosa High School. Or driven along State Route 29 to see the pines in Calistoga.
As a consequence, it has been easy for me to ignore the fires in Northern California. Daily distractions keep any lengthy considerations at bay. Even when assailed by news updates, I receive the world like a bureaucrat’s ledger. Every disaster is depersonalized. Every tragedy is not my own. Every crisis is converted to a number. The only way to break this emotional stasis is by action, no matter how small or ineffectual. Even a simple prayer may be enough to redeem myself.
When the smoky air wafted into our bedroom on the first morning of the blaze, it was my roommate that first noticed the smell. “A fire?” I thought to myself. “It’s California, doesn’t that happen all the time?” I was callous, of course, and dismissive. How easy it would be for me to ignore a tragedy further away.
Why is it easy to ignore suffering? Or undercount it? The most obvious reason is that there are plenty of distractions. There was a football game to look forward to Friday night, which was played despite the smoky reminder in the air. Classes, assignments and midterms are fixed into our schedules. The city is full of transient affairs and movie theatres, buzzing phones and libraries.
And yet, even when reminded of tragedy, it can pass through the body without leaving a trace behind, save for the duration of a grimace. Such reminders are simply one more entry in a log titled “Happenings in World.” A little tick mark in the disaster column. The fire remains as impersonal as a collection of red pixels.
It’s horrible to register suffering at our doorstep and remain unmoved. Passivity in the face of disaster is a human coping mechanism taken to its extreme. Inundated with an awareness of natural disasters, shootings, overdoses, genocides and famine, we adapt to this new awareness of suffering on a daily basis. We can read about disasters as they happen through “live updates.” No wonder we have become so good at putting our emotive engines in neutral. We have to in order to keep our schedules, pay our bills or pass our classes.
“How can I stop receiving the world like a bureaucrat’s ledger?” I ask myself. Action speaks loudly in my ear. Some people volunteer time and energy. Others donate money to organizations. And yet my rational, cynical thoughts admonish these as ineffectual and incomplete. The victims of the fire need more — they need firetrucks and water hoses, air tankers and fire retardant, engineers and federal agencies, shelters and hot food. And still, it may all come up short.
And yet I feel a need to do something to break the ledger’s curse, to move beyond being a mere witness to the events around me. Anything I do may be entirely futile against the winds and flames of the earth. But futile or not, I would be turning my back on humanity if I remained mired in passivity.
Even a prayer is action. Simple prayer — it has no relationship to the physical needs of others. It will not clothe shivering bodies or fund the rebuilding effort. It requires the least effort — there is no hiding or escaping this fact. Still, I understand why people pray. It too is an action that can cut through the malaise, even if it may not extend beyond one’s whispers.
But not all of us are equally constrained in the face of disaster. Those entrusted with the wellbeing of society are elected to go beyond the offering of prayers. They have committed themselves to the service of the country. If the senators of our republic treat disaster like bureaucrats, then unfeeling is at its most grotesque. When they offer us only a promise of prayer, they pretend to have the same incapability as you or I.
Having reflected on the fires to our north, I am struck by the desire to have written this differently. I would have prefered to offer a flicker of joy instead of rumination. I wish I could have written a joke. I wish I could have made my reader laugh so hard that his vibrating chest pressed all the air out of him. Perhaps that would have made some little difference in a city where the smoke enters with each breath. Perhaps.
Ismael Farooqui writes the Friday blog on campus culture in a time of institutional crisis. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishfarooqui.