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Putting the flame to blame

By Andrew Hamilton - posted Friday, 13 February 2009

Through 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.

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First published in Eureka Street on February 12, 2009.

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About the Author

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. He is the consulting editor for Eureka Street.

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