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Putting the flame to blame

Photo by Dean Osland, article by Robert Wainright, from the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 2007Through all the stories of the bushfires runs a disturbing thread. It is the gap between almost casual human actions and their consequences. This gap can burden us with terrible guilt or anger as in our imagination we relive and reverse the actions we or others have taken.

Examples abound. A fire officer encourages people to stay to defend their homes against possible ember attack or sends away a crew to an area of greater need. The wind changes and a firestorm takes lives and property. A couple decide to escape in two cars. One survives, the other dies. There is no match between these actions and their terrible consequences.

The same gap exists even between actions that are irresponsible and criminal and their consequences. For example, a compulsive fire lighter takes out his cigarette lighter and sets fire to a few leaves. The fire grows to a hundred kilometre front and many deaths. Even here there is a mismatch between the moral emptiness of the action and its consequences.

In her reflection on the Holocaust, the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to the banality of evil. The Holocaust was carried through by ordinary people doing ordinary things like keeping records, locking train carriages, delivering poison gas. The gap between these ordinary actions and the barbaric destruction of human life and dignity that they enabled was immense.

The bushfires confront us with banality of another kind. We might call it the banality of fatality. Everyday decisions, properly made, turn out to have lethal consequences.

In the response to the bushfires a strong undercurrent of blame has run. This is natural. Many of us blame ourselves for what we and others suffer. If we had only acted more quickly, differently, intuitively, all would have been right with us.

Others of us, wisely, refuse to blame ourselves. But if we are not responsible for the disaster, then others must be. We blame the person who advised us to stay, the bureaucrats who forbid controlled burns, environmentalists who wish to preserve forests, the fire officers that withdrew their services, even the people who built their houses in bushland, or above all the arsonists who started the fires.

It is momentarily satisfying to find someone on whom to fix blame for the fires. But it is unhelpful to be fixated in blame because it ignores central aspects of our human reality on which our capacity to rebuild will depend.

To have to blame someone for great loss assumes that we can control our world and so ensure that we and those whom we love will be safe. If they prove to be unsafe, someone must be to blame. This denies our vulnerability and ultimately our mortality. It is 'the great lie' of which St Augustine wrote eloquently. In fact our life is like dried grass on which sparks are always liable to fall.

If we see our lives as controllable, we have constantly to carry the burden of self-incrimination or incrimination of others for disaster. We then become preoccupied with ourselves and separate ourselves from others. This is not a great way to live personally. But in a communal disaster like the bushfires, it leads us to ignore the human resources we have at hand to help us meet our vulnerability and mortality.

When blame preoccupies us, we do not attend to the generosity, the strength of human solidarity, and the compassion that the bushfires initially evoke. It prevents us from accepting our own and others' vulnerability, and turns us away from rebuilding to picking over the ashes of the past.

In counselling against blame I am not arguing against the vital importance of reflecting on the fires, on what contributed to them, and on how we responded to them. We owe that to those who suffered in the fires and to those who will be threatened by future fires. It will be vital to consider forest management, the effects of global warming, the advice or commands given to residents under threat of fires, and ways of preventing arson.

These will be the business of the Royal Commission that Victorian Premier John Brumby has established. It can sift evidence in a dispassionate way without the pressure to identify guilty parties.

But in the meantime it is important for us to keep our eyes on the main game: the vulnerability of human beings before such destructive forces of climate and wind and fire, the relative importance of human irresponsibility and error evident in the fires, and the high importance of the extraordinarily ordinary courage, compassion and solidarity that people have shown.

These qualities are the soil in which the future recovery can grow.

Melbourne Archdiocese Bushfire Appeal

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, victoria bushfires, blame, banality of evil, banality of fatality, arsonists



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Existing comments

Thank you for reminding us of these important things during this chaotic times. We cannot control the forces of nature, but as has been demonstrated in Victoria, we can work together and look after one another.

Jenny | 12 February 2009  

News media slip into cliche mode when disasters like bushfires occur. I can imagine the scene in the newsroom as tasks are allocated: "You do the arson story, A; you take the looters story, B; and you, C, find a decent miracle escape story." It's like hailstones as big as golf balls whenever there's a big hailstorm.

Michael Costigan | 12 February 2009  

Thanks for this article, Andrew.

Revd Rex A E Hunt | 12 February 2009  

"The bushfires confront us with banality of another kind. We might call it the banality of fatality. Everyday decisions, properly made, turn out to have lethal consequences."

This quote from Andrew Hamilton's article confronts the truth of our limited perspective on all life decisions. We do the best we can, and we are still unwise. I do not say this as a person without hope, just one who knows deeply that we need to turn our hearts towards goodness and love in all we do.

Marlene Marburg | 12 February 2009  

I have been disturbed in the last year or so by what seems to me to have been a fairly continual stream of opportunistic "burn the witch" rhetoric from the lips of the Prime Minister, a keen practitioner of the sport of diverting attention to the easy target. We've had everyone from Lazy Public Servants through Depraved Artist/Photographers to Wicked Arsonists suggested to us as a convenient focus for public anger. I think this sort of talk is, at best, morally unsophisticated and, at worst, dangerous and ought to be beneath the leader of (what I would like to be) a sophisticated, educated, compassionate and democratic society.

Cassandra | 12 February 2009  

I like your reference to the relative importance of seemingly trivial acts of irresponsibility which have disastrous consequences. It seems to stem from a lack of awareness of how our acts or omissions to act in so many different situations affect others.

Tony santospirito | 12 February 2009  

No punishment will be harsh enough for the one start the fire as the ordinary man in the concentration camp death is what they deserve I was in the war and I see what they did cut your comment and never forgot the torture the detainee have to endure By those ordinary worker

Albert Burette | 12 February 2009  

Sorry but an act of arson on a day like last Saturday is in no way trivial - it is a cowardly and intended act likely to lead to death. It needs to be seen as such. I am sure any court will do so.

Bob Stensholt | 12 February 2009  

I do hope Fr Hamilton is not putting the responsibility of arsonists on the same moral level as "bureaucrats who forbid controlled burns, environmentalists who wish to preserve forests, the fire officers that withdrew their services, even the people who built their houses in bushland....."

Sylvester | 13 February 2009  

Dear Andy: thank you for this timely reminder about the nature of reality and our need to accept our vulnerability to and incorporation into the creation of which we are a part. Being exists as a tension between life and death, each of which is as integral a part of existence as the other. This tension necessarily involves the possibility (indeed, probability) of circumstances over which we have no control. But in our post-existentialist, post-modern society, with its fixation on "youth" and its determination to ignore death and the element of unpredictability that is part of the dynamic of being, we have constructed the illusion that we can "create" our lives: that we have control over reality, that we can force and fashion the universe to serve our will and whims. The "great lie" of which Augustine wrote manifests itself today in the self-help movement, in the "plague of happiness" that reduces existence to the realisation of our desires.

Your piece also properly separates out justice from revenge: the former having to do with responsibility and the necessary consequences of our actions, the latter with our desire to attribute blame and extract revenge. If any of these fires were the consequence of arson, those responsible need to be dealt with in accordance with the procedures and provisions of the law. But this blame and revenge game conveniently absolves us of engaging in the reflection of which your piece speaks: for example, on the issue of rebuilding the towns devastated by the fires, considering whether we should recreate English country villages in the Australian bush, or instead redesign our housing to accommodate the natural Australian environment.

Thank you for this excellent counterpoint to the hyperbole and populism that all too frequently surrounds disastrous events such as this.

Brendan Byrne | 13 February 2009  

"...Our life is like dried grass on which sparks are always liable to fall. "

Thanks deeply for putting this disaster into perspective.

Jason | 16 February 2009  

I agree with you so much: blame which may seem like emotional relief from unbearable feelngs is actually counterproductive, because it builds up negative energy which can further sap you of your strength. If there any culpability in our recent bushfire disaster, only a cool and impartial head can reach this conclusion. Lovely article, I felt.

Brenda Irwin | 10 March 2009  

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