The Wasila, Alaska church sometimes attended by Sarah Palin caught fire Friday night (local time), causing an estimated $1 million in damage. Those are all the facts we have at the moment, but the left and right alike have seized on a possibility that the fire was caused by arson to score political points. Naturally, the right wing is far more extreme and loony in their reaction, but the left is nipping at their heels.
First, though, it’s important to stress that there's NO proof yet that this was arson. The Anchorage Daily News, which can be expected to have more thorough coverage than the truncated AP story many people are reacting to, quotes the local fire chief as saying, "We are definitely treating it as suspicious and as potential arson at this point." They go on to say that the chief "declined to say why investigators believe the fire might have been set deliberately, or whether accelerants were found on the scene."
Potential arson is not the same thing as confirmed arson. Since fire officials didn't release any reason as to why they "suspected" arson, we must assume it's simply "suspicious" because they don't yet know the cause and it possibly could be arson, among other possible causes.
The paper goes on to quote the church pastor as saying "the fire was burning in the walls and took hours to put out." That sounds more like an electrical fire. If so, there are a lot of reasons why that could've happened, not all of them involving dark motives. For example, sometimes churches suffer from poor workmanship done by volunteers followed by no real inspection by authorities.
So, no one should jump to the conclusion that it's arson. Unless some evidence is presented to the contrary, this is simply an unfortunate accident. If it’s arson, however, we must wait to place blame. The paper said the fire chief told them, "Nothing thus far suggests any political motivation for the fire".
Not that any of that’s stopped the extremes from blaming each other. The extreme right has accused liberals generally and gays specifically as being behind the fire. This was encouraged by the AP report that mentioned the church hosting a seminar from one of the “ex-gay” scams (curiously, the AP failed to mention the church hosting an African witch doctor who “protected” Sarah Palin from “witchcraft”).
The left’s theories ranged from the prosaic—a simple electrical fault—through to the conspiratorial, like suggesting insurance fraud (the building was reported to be worth $4 to 5 million). But in suggesting a Reichstag-like fire committed by the church or Palin supporters to portray themselves as victims, the left showed themselves every bit as capable of bizarre conspiracy theories as the right is.
In a way, though, the left wing’s theories are doing us all a favour. The right wing desperately wants to pin this fire on the gays as part of the wingnut propaganda about being “victims” of aggressive gay people. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, or even if it’s arson, they want to portray themselves as “victims”. So the left is helping to deflate that by pointing out an equally loony counter-theory—that the wingnuts set the fire themselves.
However, until there’s some evidence of the real cause, none of us should speculate on a possible arsonist that may not even exist. Every time the centre or left assumes arson, we fall into the right wing trap and unwittingly reinforce the wingnut propaganda. We shouldn't be helping them in their smear campaign.
Update 16/12/08: The Anchorage Daily News now reports that "Federal investigators say an accelerant was poured around the exterior of [the] church before it was heavily damaged by a fire." The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is conducting tests to determine the type. This will also provide an accelerant to the wingnuts who have blamed "liberals" and gays for starting the fire. Expect to see their rhetoric intensify and veer solidly into hate speech—even with no official word on who set the apparent arson fire or why. It suits their propagada purposes to blame us regardless.