Every major news outlet and most minor ones have reported that the husband and wife team of terrorists in San Bernardino "declared support for ISIS" on social media sites before engaging in the attack. This feeds smoothly into the narrative of a terrorist attack, but it misses the point of what, if anything, posting something on Facebook and its equivalents proves.

There is a useful distinction, obliterated in practice, between declaring support for ISIS and being affiliated with, or in some way receiving support from, ISIS. Logically, anyone with internet access can throw up a post saying, "Wooooooo ISIS #1 ruuuuuuuulez!" in the moments before they engage in activities they do not expect to survive. Other equally useful declarations could be "Hail Satan!" or "J-E-T-S, JETS JETS JETS!" On the other hand, being in contact with and receiving necessary information or equipment from ISIS would be a different and more meaningful story.

For years during the Bush administration I asked, whenever they crowed that their policies had stopped another terrorist attack in preparation, what "in preparation" meant and whether the plot had any realistic potential to be executed. In fact, it often turned out that the only thing keeping these one-lung plots afloat was an undercover law enforcement officer offering to provide hard-to-get materials. Is it a good thing that someone plotting a terrorist attack is interrupted in progress? Of course. But there is a relevant difference between a well funded, well organized, realistic plot that could have proceeded to completion without the intercession of law enforcement and a bunch of jackasses who couldn't successfully execute a liquor store robbery sitting around googling "how to make terorist bomb" and publicly available schematics of famous buildings. Presenting both categories as equals is misleading at best, deceptive at worst.

The FBI director has stated that the San Bernardino attacks were "inspired by" foreign terrorist organizations. Tellingly, that is the same phrase movies use when they have only the most superficial relationship to source material. "ISIS operatives" and "copycats/wannabe terrorists" are two distinctly different things and, as usual, the distinction is absent.


Of all the strange laws on the books in the United States my favorite is the Guano Islands Act (11 Stat. 119, enacted 18 August 1856). It states that, "Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States." Translation: if you find an uninhabited rock jutting out of the ocean containing guano (excrement of seabirds, pinnipeds, bats, and other animals with a fish-centric diet) you claim it. Not only can you claim it as your own, but it can become part of the United States.


In 1802 German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt discovered that samples of guano from the coastal regions of Peru were pretty much the ideal fertilizer for European style farming. It is absolutely loaded with nitrates, phosphates, and other things present in lesser quantities in the fertilizer (cow, pig, and human manure, euphemistically called "night soil" in Britain) used by European and American farmers at the time. Plus – and this, like the flag of Switzerland, is a big plus – it has very little odor. The fact that it could also be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder pretty much sealed the deal; everyone on Earth was scrambling to get their hands on as much shit as possible throughout the 19th Century. The Dung Boom took off in earnest around 1850, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and a population explosion in the Western world.

Some islands and coastal areas were positively choked with the suddenly valuable crud. Guano deposits over 150 feet deep were not uncommon and in some places it was right on the surface, requiring no mining. So finding and "harvesting" guano was not a problem. The problem was that industrial and agricultural demand for guano was so high that huge deposits that took thousands of years to accumulate were depleted in a matter of years. Europe and the United States went on an unchecked guano binge. For its part the Guano Islands Act led to about fifty claims, most of which are now part of other nations after the US relinquished all claims under the Act but a handful of which are still part of our country. Really. Most Americans have never heard of places like Palmyra Atoll or Kingman Reef. Sure, they're barren, incredibly remote, and uninhabited. But various Federal agencies continue to administer them as "Insular Areas" (neither states nor territories) known collectively as the US Minor Outlying Islands.

The Western lust for guano is a touchy subject in most island nations in the South Pacific, where phosphate strip mining has left visible, horrendously ugly scars on what little land they have. Independence was granted to many of those nations, former French and British Empire possessions, in the exact same year as the guano deposits where exhausted. Kiribati and Tuvalu, for example, became independent from the United Kingdom (where they were administered collectively as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) in 1979. The last commercially viable guano deposits were tapped out in 1977. What a coincidence! Colonial powers were literally the guy who borrows your car and returns it with the tank on empty.

Every nation affected by the guano boom suffers to some degree from its legacy, but in some places the consequences were worse than in others. In some places you could say without exaggeration that they border on comedy. Horrible, dark comedy. TO BE CONTINUED…


We have a problem, America.

Our problem, I've come to realize, is not a gun problem. Yes, guns and their widespread availability are a contributing factor (although personally I believe that laws restricting certain types of firearms are less necessary than laws limiting things like magazine capacity; ask the Virginia Tech shooter, who killed more than 30 people using pea-shooter .22LR pistols with high capacity magazines). The real problem, as we see from the two most recent mass shooting sprees in the United States, is that an alarming number of our citizens are deranged. Not "mentally ill." That is just a pro-gun canard. I mean that despite being of sound mind they have belief systems, ideas, and attitudes that are twisted beyond repair. A lot of Americans have been off the rails for so long that their thought processes are now completely fact free, having self-selected an alternate universe of politics, history, religion, and news that tells them exactly what they want to hear to the exclusion of all else. An alarming number of our fellow Americans are, if you'll forgive me using the proper medical and legal terminology here, fucked up.

They got this way because we insist on our right to create our own reality, our own version of history, our own version of the world in which we live, and our own version of America and how its laws and institutions work. We have created a political, social, and media culture in which the message "What the hell is wrong with you?" is never uttered. No, we have to respect one another's beliefs. Respecting one another's beliefs is a wonderful thing when we apply the concept to the subjective – I respect your religion even though it isn't mine, your belief that humanity is fundamentally good even though I disagree, and so on. Respecting one another's beliefs is disastrous, however, when we apply the concept to facts. When we have political and religious leaders who say, "Hey, if you want to believe that Jade Helm is a conspiracy to take your guns and Syrian refugees are ISIS terrorists in disguise, that's your choice!" In fact, a lot of them encourage it for their own selfish purposes. If anyone tries to point out, "No, that is wrong," the chorus of contradictory and comforting voices is ear-splitting. Don't listen to that reality stuff. Come over here with your kindred spirits and we will believe it together. It will be true because we say it is.

When three men decide to go full Heat and shoot up a medical facility for developmentally disabled people, plan the act, and then actually go through with it, we have a problem. That problem is not "mental health" or the gay agenda or Hollywood or violent video games or liberal professors or any other red herring regularly introduced into these increasingly regular conversations. The problem is not a few bad apples or isolated instances of people lashing out. The problem is something we have all created and continue to fuel: a large population of murderously angry people with easy access to guns who believe in their own social superiority and have heads crammed to bursting with fears and conspiracies and beliefs that are woven entirely from gossamer threads of pure bullshit. This is going to keep happening, not only because we have too many guns but because we have too many people who have decided that they know who deserves to die in a mental, cultural, and intellectual bubble in which they will never be confronted with radical ideas like, "Hey, maybe you shouldn't do that."

In response, we have decided to maintain the status quo and to pretend that the problem doesn't exist. Nearly every day now we see evidence of how well that is working.