For nearly a month, one of the country's largest wildfires has been burning out of control in Arizona, spreading smoke and ash into neighboring states, including New Mexico. The fire has burned over 70,000 acres of national forest not far from the border with Mexico, and many Arizonans are pretty sure what caused the costly disaster: illegal immigrants hiding in the mountains.
Some say it was accidental; others say it was set as an intentional diversion to escape from Border Patrol agents. Fire officials have ruled out lightning as a cause, and concluded that the blaze was likely sparked by one or more individuals whose citizenship status cannot be determined from burn patterns. [In Photos: Electric Earth]
Disasters often spawn rumors and speculation. Last year, when floods inundated parts of Pakistan, rumors spread that powerful government officials and rich landowners had intentionally flooded poorer areas by selectively breaching levees. Those rumors were denied by government engineers, who were said to be part of the cover-up. Even the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was rumored to have been intentionally caused by unknown governments using top-secret experimental seismic devices.
Rumors and conspiracy theories often have a veneer of plausibility about them, and have long been used as a tool for covert racism; anti-Jewish "blood libel" stories and Barack Obama's citizenship conspiracy claims are two examples.
In their book "The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter" (Oxford University Press, 2010), folklorists Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis note that "Rumor fills several important roles for societies, and unraveling their meaning allows us to reveal social concerns. Rumor allows a community to discuss hidden fears and desires without claiming these attitudes as our own."
Indeed, those who spread such anti-immigrant rumors assert their concerns on society's behalf without explicitly stating their position. As Fine and Ellis note, while those who spread the rumors "might be blamed as the messenger of unpleasant news, such a position is more comfortable than being condemned as a provocateur or a bigot. Even to an unsympathetic audience, the claimed truth of rumor (however incorrect it may be) provides a potent defense. Rumor permits concealed sentiments to enter the public debate."
Of course, not everyone who spreads (or believes) the rumor that illegal immigrants started the Arizona fire is necessarily a racist or bigot; the story might, after further investigation, turn out to be completely accurate. But the fact that the state's natural disaster has been linked to its simmering anti-immigration climate is not a coincidence.
So did an illegal Mexican immigrant start the Arizona fire? At this point no one knows. Previous fires in the Southwest have been sparked by a wide variety of causes, including intentional "controlled burns" that got out of hand, campfires by both American citizens and illegal immigrants, and even military exercises with live munitions. Whether the fire will eventually be blamed on illegal immigrants remains to be seen, but is almost beside the point; the rumors have served their social purpose.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and wrote about urban legends in news stories in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.