There's nothing quite like the sight of massive destruction to elicit talk of God. We heard it last week out of the mouths of fire victims and evacuees from Canyon Country to Escondido. "I hope God is good to you, Don," said one man in Santa Clarita to a neighbor who had lost his home. "I think it's God's deal," said a San Diegan who had just escaped what he described as a wall of flame. As she was being evacuated from the small town of Julian, one woman said she guessed it was "all in God's hands" now. Another, whose home burned to the ground, plaintively asked, "OK, God, what else?"
But what exactly does God have to do with the tragedy of charred bodies, charred houses, charred hillsides? Even as scores of victims evoked a deity, others had reason to deny the idea that any power other than man's could have wreaked such havoc.
Last Tuesday at the California Women's Conference in Long Beach, actress Jamie Lee Curtis adamantly proclaimed that the fires were the responsibility of man and man alone. "We live in a drought, we build homes too close to brush areas, and we're shocked when this happens," she harangued. "This is not an accident. This is not an act of God. This is an act of man."
OK, we get where she's coming from. Other environmentalists have argued against seeing natural disasters as being beyond human control. To put responsibility in the proverbial hands of God not only sells short mankind's role in precipitating disaster, it minimizes our duty to avert the next one. But there's something else going on here.
By all accounts, Americans are a religious people. But they're also big believers in individual will. And sometimes our culture of can-do-ism clashes with our faith in a higher power. People tend to see God as a primary cause of any given incident when they're overwhelmed by events or whenever no other temporal explanation satisfies them. But, although you're likely to hear talk of God as the disaster unfolds and the flames are still hot, it quickly disappears as soon as the blame game starts.
Curtis was a little ahead of that game on Tuesday, but by Thursday, a local fire chief was complaining about air support, and the governor was protesting that "all the airplanes in the world" were in SoCal. Fire ecologists were tsk-tsking: People shouldn't have built where they did, or government shouldn't have allowed it. San Diegans were taken to task for not paying for a county fire department, and a chorus began -- despite some improvements, California was still woefully unprepared for the inevitable.
For all our profession of religious belief, we Americans seem to have an oversized need to understand the human cause of any event -- some rational cause for every effect. We don't accept the notion of the unavoidable, the incomprehensible. Our litigious culture, which tells us that there's no such thing as an accident, certainly doesn't help.
While accepting that something is a natural disaster or an act of God, which leaves us in awe and contemplating our inevitable vulnerability, locating human agency in disaster motivates us to act. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote in these pages recently, "We worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't."
A 1992 study that surveyed survivors of a flood that resulted in the loss of 14 lives and $180 million in property damage found that two-thirds of respondents assigned blame to human and technological failure rather than Mother Nature. Forget that an unprecedented 12 inches of rain fell within a matter of four hours. The city's residents blamed city officials not only for allowing the flood plain they lived in to be developed but for not properly designing and maintaining the drainage system to accommodate every possible rain scenario. For all I know, these poor folks may have a point. But I wonder whether their argument will help them get over the thing they're really angry about: destroyed lives and livelihoods, lost homes and treasure, and ripple effects cascading down through the years.
Sure, blame might bring you some satisfaction. It may even help you get some help in the restoration process and shame authorities into being better prepared the next time. But it also creates a climate of recrimination, which only adds bitterness to sorrow and prolongs the tragedy. Worse, it fosters the notion we can avert all bad things.
By all means, we have to take responsibility. Our governments and those assigned to protect us have to take responsibility. But to presume that enough blame and consequent preparation for the next time means we can avoid all disasters is as foolhardy as it is arrogant.
For centuries, people understood natural disasters as forms of divine retribution -- God or Mother Nature punishing man for his transgressions. I guess in a way we still do.