Has America's Fire Been Contained?

07/05/2012 03:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

I've been intending to share a sketch of the itinerary I'm planning for my drive around the USA this fall for my next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, but that keeps getting overtaken by events. I'm starting to get used to the idea that this might be the way it goes for any of us from now on: just riding the rolling coaster, in control of little more than whether we're paying attention. Sometimes, too, it's hard even to know what to pay attention to anymore.

Last week the legitimately big story was the surprise Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Time will tell, as the journalistic cliche has it, what the ultimate import will be for the republic of Chief Justice John Roberts's startling and arguably historic decision not only to join -- and thereby create -- the 5-4 majority, but to write the opinion himself. "How do you know it is leadership and not just making matters worse?" a Pakistani acquaintance of mine, Athar Osama, suggested on Facebook.

When I asked Athar what he meant by that, he replied:

I think Roberts has handled it very deftly. He has avoided an immediate crisis [and] given a victory to celebrate to Obama, though he has almost handed the election to Romney and in the end given a huge leap forward towards advancing his conservative agenda.

I don't really get what Athar is getting at about that huge conservative leap forward, but I do know that the immediate crisis we've just avoided thanks to Roberts was, if not more important, definitely more urgent than whatever happens in the end. Just as important, a ruling in the other direction would have been a declaration of naked partisanship by the Supreme Court, and -- to the benefit of the institution he leads, of his own place in history, and of the credibility of the American system as a whole -- Roberts took the initiative in avoiding that. Regardless of what happens in the end, that counts as leadership, maybe even as statesmanship.

"I think Roberts puts Chaudhry to shame by ruling narrowly on constitutionality rather than making a sweeping judgment based on his opinion of the merit of Obamacare," wrote another Pakistani correspondent, Riaz Haq. Riaz's reference is to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the hero of Pakistan's recent celebrated "lawyers' movement," who has more recently been assertively, and controversially, involving himself and his judgments in politics. Chaudhry has become a divisive figure in Pakistan, as shown by two responses to a short post I published a few days ago titled "The Judiciary: What Can Pakistanis Teach Americans?" Naqeeb Ur Rehman told me:

Pakistanis can teach a ton of things to the Americans. But if it comes to the Judiciary, I must say Pakistan holds the most honest, and efficient, self reliant... judiciary system in east Asian states. [It is] the only single pure ray of light in this corrupt fogged environment.

And Nadia Sheikh wrote:

If anything, the Supreme Court in Pakistan needs to learn to be "above politics," which is not something I'm sure it can do with Chaudhry still as the Chief Justice. I recently wrote on the two courts here.

In terms of my planned trip and book, last week's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court is an example of how ongoing events, now and while I travel -- and even afterward -- form an ever-shifting backdrop to the story I'll be trying to tell about the America I find out there. The ruling is a national event, of course, with consequences for people everywhere. And the story is far from over; the ruling has only contained the fire for now.

Meanwhile, a literal fire has devastated Colorado Springs. If you live on the East Coast you can be forgiven for not being aware of it, since you may be without electricity at the moment, and at any rate the New York Times didn't really notice Colorado Springs until the President of the United States (to his credit) parachuted in to look concerned for the cameras on Friday. For people I love, the Waldo Canyon wildfire has struck very literally very close to home.

As I write the fire is officially 55 percent contained, but that's after a full week, and in the meantime more than 30,000 people were evacuated and 300-some houses destroyed, and a city of half a million has been traumatized. My parents are fine, but at least five of my mother's friends lost their homes. "This is the future," I suggested to my father early last week. "Yeah," he said. "It's Octavia Butler stuff!" Butler was the author of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, haunting, prophetic novels about a ragtag band of refugees trudging up the coast fleeing lawless, ravaged Los Angeles toward Seattle, where rumor has it there's still law and order and potable water.

Butler's books are ostensibly science fiction. My book, Home Free, will be narrative nonfiction, personal reporting, like my earlier books on Pakistan and Haiti. Last week's events on two fronts have changed the stories I'll be in a position to tell. Colorado Springs is a strange town, not easy to like, but ever since my parents moved there in 1986 it's been, for me, a place to go to get away from it all. No longer.