Monday, October 29, 2007

Scenes From an Inferno

Some things that I noticed during the coverage of the Southern California fires, first from The New York Times:

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 26 — Out of the burning brush, from behind canyon rocks, several immigrants bolted toward a group of firefighters, chased not by the border police but by the onrush of flames from one of the biggest wildfires this week.
Their appearance startled the firefighters, who let them into their vehicles. But with the discovery of four charred bodies in an area of heavy illegal immigration, concern is growing that others may not have survived.

“Their hands were burned, and they were clearly tired and grateful,” Capt. Mike Parkes of the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported on what his firefighting team saw.

Immigrants from south of the border, many illegal, provide the backbone of menial labor in San Diego, picking fruit, cleaning hotel rooms, sweeping walks and mowing lawns.

The wildfires, one of the biggest disasters to strike the county, exposed their often-invisible existence in ways that were sometimes deadly.

The four bodies were found in a burned area in southeastern San Diego County, a region known for intense illegal immigration. It is near Tecate, where a chain securing an evacuated border crossing was cut and people were seen flowing into the United States until the Border Patrol arrived, said Michael J. Fisher, the chief patrol agent in San Diego.

As firefighting continued on Friday, makeshift camps for immigrants in the northern part of the county stood largely abandoned. Some immigrants were said to be hiding in even more remote terrain. Others sought help from churches.

I have argued before that “illegal immigration” is really just a black market in labor. Black markets are notoriously difficult to police, and trying to police them drives the activity underground and creates a huge risk premium available for the taking by the unscrupulous and the violent. It is that way with drugs, it was that way with alcohol during Prohibition, and it is that way now with labor. The desperate masses yearning to breathe at all in the flames of San Diego County were driven there because our immigration enforcement drove them there. If we build a rich country they will come, and it is best that we create a way for them to do so safely and legally, in ways that allow Mexicans and Central Americans to see themselves as workers rather than fugitives or, one day, angry conquerors. It is the existence of the welfare state, which Americans feel is threatened by illegals' free-riding, combined with other restraints on free markets in goods, services and labor that stokes this resentment, of and by both them and us.

Another story also caught my interest, this time from The Los Angeles Times:
The pairing of the rabbi and the firefighters was a natural one.

He had beds. They had been sleeping on asphalt. He had food and showers. They were grateful. Rabbi Yosef Brod should have rushed down the mountain a week ago, when the Slide fire was burning toward Camp Gan Israel, the 75-acre Jewish camp he runs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The fire charred nearly 13,000 acres and wiped out 201 homes as it spread.

But Brod, a rabbi with the Chasidic Lubovitch, or Chabad, sect, stayed. "Have a nice day," he told his employees as they evacuated. "Drive carefully."

Over the weekend, about a dozen fire engines were parked by the giant Hanukkah candelabra at the camp. One firefighter chatted on a cellphone while another shivered in his boxers. A third asked Brod what the symbols on the cabin doors meant -- they were prayer scrolls called mezuzot that are meant to keep their occupants safe.

State prison officials also came by, looking to house inmate mop-up crews in the camp's bunks.

Brod says he kept the camp open because he believed that God would shelter the pine-shaded site, which the Chabad organization bought for summer and winter camps and weekend retreats. So Brod called his wife after the evacuations were ordered last Monday and said he wouldn't be driving home to West Hollywood.

The rest of the story describes how Rabbi Brod provided food and shelter to firefighters, few of them presumably Jewish, while they tried to get the flames under control. Chabad is an organization of rigorously orthodox Jews, devoted in part to getting wayward non-Orthodox Jews to observe the many demands of the orthodox version of the faith. Yet he feels not just comfortable but obligated to help out the fellow members of his American family in their hour of need.

From where I sit very far away this is an extraordinary scene. It is almost impossible to imagine a Lubavitch Rabbi so truly incorporated into the society around him if the society is in Western Europe, or Russia, or elsewhere with a significant Orthodox Jewish community and a significant history of dark anti-Semitism. He is integrated but not assimilated, free to observe his demanding faith while helping out those who have completely different traditions. And they in turn are glad to take, driven by curiosity about his practices rather than resentment or conspiracist suspicion, accepting as normal that this exotic man is truly one of them – as American as they are, even if some of his habits are a little unusual. The episode is in some ways so ordinary, yet so revealing if you read between the lines.

This is an amazing country, despite the best efforts of our government and intellectuals. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.


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