In 1942 Alfred Hitchcock recruited the author of Our Town, Thornton Wilder, to write the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, an innocence-versus-evil thriller set in an ‘idyllic American town’. After considering various candidates, Hitchcock and Wilder selected Santa Rosa, a picturesque agricultural community of 13,000 people, 55 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. The following year, Santa Rosa was introduced to millions of filmgoers in a series of establishing shots that began with aerial views of its pretty countryside and ‘all-American’ downtown. Wartime restrictions had precluded set-building and the exterior locations were all real, but it was difficult to believe that sunny Santa Rosa hadn’t been confected by Norman Rockwell on a Hollywood back lot. Seventy-five years later, we contemplate another aerial view, this time of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighbourhood. The scene, a thousand homes incinerated to their foundations, resembles the apocalypse Kim Jong-un keeps promising to bring to America.
Racism, as readers of Richard Wright and Chester Himes know, sometimes drives its victims homicidally mad, as in the cases of Bigger Thomas in Native Son or the anonymous sniper in Himes’s extraordinary short story ‘Prediction'. But then again, ‘mad’ may be a cowardly liberal euphemism for a radical defiance that would rather kill and die than submit to further lies and humiliation. Both stories are so unsettling because they leave the reader to divide justice by horror and then ponder the terrifying quotient. Christopher Dorner’s 'Manifesto', the product, we’re told, of the unendurable depression that descended on the author after his dismissal from the LAPD, veers between bipolar extremes. In one section, Dorner taunts his former comrades in sneering acronyms that boast his expertise: 'Your APC are defunct... My POA is always POI.' But the rant is followed by sentimental acknowledgments to friends and several pages of fan notes to eclectic heroes who include Hillary Clinton (his first choice for president in 2016), Chris Christie (his second choice), Dave Brubeck, General Petraeus and Ellen DeGeneres. He’s also a passionate advocate (and argument for) gun control.
In the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld we might distinguish between natural inevitabilities and unnatural inevitabilities. Someday, for example, the precarious flank of the massive Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands will collapse and send a mega-tsunami across the Atlantic. The damage from Boston to New York City will dwarf last year’s disaster in Japan. It’s inevitable, but volcanologists don’t know whether the destabilising eruption will occur tomorrow or in five thousand years. So for now, it’s merely a titillating topic for NOVA or the National Geographic Channel. Another, much more frequent example of natural inevitability is the pre-global-warming hurricane cycle. Two or three times each century a perfect storm has crashed into the US Atlantic seaboard and wreaked havoc as far as the Great Lakes. But a $20 billion disaster every few decades is why we have an insurance industry. And even the loss, now and then, of an entire city to nature (San Francisco in 1906 or New Orleans in 2005) is an affordable tragedy. But the construction since 1960 of several trillion dollars' worth of prime real estate on barrier islands, bay fill, recycled swamps and coastal lowlands has radically transformed the calculus of loss. Subtract every carbon dioxide molecule added to the atmosphere in the last thirty years and ‘ordinary’ storms would still collect ever larger tolls from certifiably insane coastal overdevelopment.