Guns, Germs, & Panic

What? You'd rather read about the Ya-Ya Sisterhood than about fire escapes, bomb shelters, and aerosol-can Ebola?

When the 1991 Oakland Hills fire started to rage, one resident survived by staying in her swimming pool. Nearby, on Buckingham Boulevard, a couple fled their house in two separate cars. She drove up the hill in hers and died. He drove down and lived. On 9/11 as during Katrina, some of the afflicted fled. Others stayed, awaiting rescue or instructions.

Disastrous shit happens. Tectonic, pyrotechnic, meteorological, martial, homicidal shit. All the time. Offices catch fire or the maniac down the hall starts shooting and suddenly your fate depends on your boss, or those sleek suited figures in human resources whom you’ve never really noticed. “Sometimes the sky really does fall,” we are warned in Kathryn McKee and Liz Guthridge’s Leading People Through Disasters (Berrett-Koehler, $19.95), a manual for HR personnel about how to create escape routes, telephone trees, emergency-operations centers, and post-trauma picnics. “Planning is less painful than procrastination,” the prologue clucks. True, but it’s so hard to read about disaster-preparedness, to accept that in seconds this summer day could turn from balmy to bomby.

“Because it is contagious … and could potentially infect large groups of people … smallpox would be an attractive weapon for terrorists,” we learn in Terrorism and Other Public Health Emergencies, a handbook provided free to journalists by the US Department of Health and Human Services. “It would most likely be delivered in an aerosol form … disseminated into the air as a fine spray or powder.” Designed as a “helpful companion” and a “guide for reporting on possible apocalyptic events,” the four-pound handbook details nerve agents, chemical agents, biological agents, and “radiation emergencies.” It lists symptoms (anthrax makes you cough), dispersal methods (ricin-packed pinpricks and, oh, those handy spray cans: “Countries with biological weapons programs have explored using plague in aerosol form”), and government agencies that seem so remote and theoretical when you imagine lurching through a mustard-gas haze, hemorrhaging after inhaling Ebola.

Then there’s the chapter called “Terrorism and the Food Supply.”

Reading thrillers is all well and good until it turns into homework, or research for your own future memoir. In Seven Fires (Public Affairs, $26), University of Georgia history professor Peter Charles Hoffer takes a you-are-there approach, using anecdotes and archival research to spotlight infernos that changed America. Most, such as the 1760 Boston fire and the Oakland fire, began by accident. But in 1967, arson inflamed Detroit, where black-power leaders “found young people ready for a revolution.” In a climate of poverty and discrimination, “something in Detroit was sick, so ill that the symptoms burst through the skin in fiery pustules,” Hoffer writes. On June 29, Black Panther H. Rap Brown told Detroiters: “Let white America know that the name of the game is tit-for-tat. … Motown, if you don’t come around, we are going to burn you down.” Hoffer calls that vow “incendiary … and prophetic.” A month later, thousands of fires raged for days, as emergency crews came under sniper fire — “bombarded from the roofs” with rocks, bricks, and bullets “by the very people whose loved ones the firefighters would soon be trying to rescue.”

Recounting Oakland residents’ lethal confusion, communications breakdowns, Cal students volunteering to help save the Claremont Hotel because, otherwise, “its embers would set all of Berkeley on fire,” Hoffer calls our own Hills fire the worst insurance disaster in modern urban history. Accusing its wealthy survivors of being selfish and heedless, of favoring their redwood decks and “quality of life” (complete with scare-quotes) over fire codes — “Whatever-Lola-Wants-Lola-Gets,” he singsongs — Hoffer predicts: “The Oakland Hills will never be truly safe from fire.”

Snf. Snf. That’s not smoke, right?

If books are supposed to be magic carpets, where are we riding on these? To tomorrowland, to hell. How do you cozy up to a five-hundred-page hardback whose coffin-black cover proclaims in blood-red and bone-white, Fear: A Cultural History (Shoemaker & Hoard, $27)? Joanna Bourke, a history professor at London’s Birkbeck College, is most interesting when she quotes sources firsthand while tracing post-Enlightenment Britons’ and Americans’ reactions to explosions, illness, pain, war, crime, chaos, disaster, strangers, potential Martian invasions, environmental toxins, and “the Terrorist,” which she surrounds with scare-quotes because academics use scare-quotes a lot and tend to think terrorists are myths.

When survivors, soldiers, scholars, and suchlike speak, we are flung straight into the science and experience of fear: the flared nostrils, the adrenaline gush, the running pell-mell or paralysis as artillery rages, as the diagnosis arrives, as the first day of kindergarten starts. “Truly cancer has been well named,” muses a woman given six months to live. “It is a crablike scavenger reaching its greedy tentacles into the life of the soul as well as the body.” A doomed shooting victim’s “left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush.” Some reactions to fearsome circumstances aren’t what you’d expect. “I’ve been bombed,” a young Londoner remembers thinking after German planes bombarded her neighborhood in 1940, “but never in my life have I experienced such pure and flawless happiness.”

All the panic scenes are comforting in a way — not at all because repetition blunts their bite but because they at least make your own fears feel less isolating. Bourke is a dodgy tour guide, incurring mistrust when, in her AIDS chapter, she calls heroic Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts “Randy Shilt,” not once but five times, which proves she really doesn’t know. In the book’s final pages she states flatly, as unhistorianlike fact, that on 9/11 “America was receiving its ‘payback’ … for its imperialist ambitions.” In her preface, before the book even begins, she preaches that the real threat, worse than bird flu, is you. Well, “us” — “We now use terror-speak to justify terrorizing others … the most frightening peril is the one we are in the process of forging … we are perpetrators of violence against others.” Cue invocations of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, cue professorspeak à la “Discourse shapes bodies,” and we’re off to the cancer wards and Dresden.

We read about danger to bone up on it but also as a magic charm, to ward it off: the vicarious, it-ain’t-me buzz by which Simon Leys’ lyrical The Wreck of the Batavia (Thunder’s Mouth, $20), Frank Delaney’s downed-freighter drama Simple Courage (Random House, $24.95), G.J. Meyer’s exhaustive WWI analysis A World Undone (Delacorte, $28), Jonathan Kaplan’s war-surgeon memoir Contact Wounds (Grove, $24), Arthur Fournier’s AIDS-doctor chronicle The Zombie Curse (Joseph Henry, $27.95), and their counterparts on the fiction shelves are virtual workouts, whew — all blood-racing, flesh-tingling payoff, and imagined escape without the projectile vomiting or broiled wives. Yet meanwhile, “identify evacuation schemes,” McKee and Guthridge warn in Leading People Through Disasters. “Escape procedures should include floor plans and workplace maps showing where refuge areas are located.”

Refuge areas. Oh, right.

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