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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
The blame game
Indonesian earthquake survivor
Pain, but should there also be blame?
Who is responsible for natural disasters? God, nature, governments... These days, says Frank Furedi, we are more likely to pin the blame on people in power. But that can leave victims even more traumatised.

As we know from the recent tragedy of 11 September, major catastrophes and disasters serve as historical markers. The phrase "after this event nothing will ever be the same again" has been frequently repeated after many other major disasters.

Frederick Francis Cook, the chronicler of the 1871 fire that destroyed a large part of Chicago wrote that "in the minds of Chicagoans the city's past is demarcated from the present by the great fire of 1871".

Since biblical times, disasters have been experienced as key defining moments in the human experience. Events such as the Fall of Adam or Noah's flood were interpreted in a similar fashion and Martin Luther represented the biblical deluge as a catalyst for speeding up the world's decay.

Disasters make fascinating stories. They are fortunately infrequent but when they occur they have a formidable impact on imagination of the generations that follow.

They are often used as the headline of the master narrative through which we understand reality and through which we make sense of human transience.

We live in a world where we can no longer accept that accidents or disasters are natural
Frank Furedi
Since they are as bad as things can get, disasters represent a major challenge to values and meanings. That is why over the centuries, disasters have acquired significant moral connotations.

Often perceived as Acts of God - a form of divine retribution - disasters are frequently depicted as punishment for human transgression.

Before modern times, great catastrophes served to underline the transient quality of human existence and the futility of all purely human ends and acted as a stimulus for religious contemplation.

Even in today's secular times, disasters are often invested with some hidden meaning. They are rarely perceived as just an accident - disasters appear as events of profound significance.

Pointing the finger

Our ideas about what causes disasters have undergone three important phases.

  • Traditionally, catastrophes were attributes to supernatural forces. Throughout most of history they were seen as an act or God or of fate. As an act of fate, catastrophes were portrayed as an inevitable occurrence, whose destructive power could not be avoided.

  • The rise of secularism led to an important shift in the way society conceptualised disasters. The development of science as the new source of knowledge altered people's perception of disasters. They were increasingly defined as an act of Nature. Though science could explain why and how it occurred, a natural disaster has no special meaning.

  • In recent times we still talk about natural disasters but we increasingly look for someone to blame. As a result the view that disasters are caused by acts of nature is being gradually displaced by the idea that they are the outcome of acts of human beings.

In the aftermath of a disaster today, the finger of blame invariably points towards another person. Government officials, big business or careless operatives are held responsible for most disasters.

San Francisco earthquake
San Francisco 1906 - increasingly we want to blame others, says Furedi
Today, floods are less likely to be associated with divine displeasure than with greedy property developers recklessly building in flood plains. Events like last week's catastrophe in New Orleans are seen as destructive events that could have and should have been avoided.

How people perceive a disaster has an important impact in the way in which it is experienced. However, perceptions regarding causation are shaped by cultural attitudes that endow events, especially extreme ones with meaning.

So in the 19th Century many "technologically-caused" disasters were interpreted as a manifestation of God's anger toward human arrogance. In such instances, anxiety about the consequences of technological change encouraged the perception that ultimately a disaster was caused by an Act of God.

Today such events would be associated with human action and the cause would be perceived as that of human irresponsibility or malevolence. When a train crashes or a mine is flooded we spontaneously ask the question "who is there to blame".

Legacy of bitterness

We are far less likely to represent floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis as natural disasters than 40 or 50 years ago. Why? Because we live in a world where we can no longer accept that accidents or disasters are natural.

Explaining tsunami warning systems
Man increasingly believes he can control nature's forces
It is worth recalling that although 20 million people died as a result of the influenza pandemic of 1918 there was little finger pointing or blame. Today, even a small flu epidemic would lead to an outcry against irresponsible officials, politicians or health professionals.

Whatever its causes the blame for the loss of lives in such an epidemic would be placed on people rather than nature.

Today, the meaning of a catastrophe, like the one unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, is fiercely contested. There is no one moral story that we are all prepared to accept. That means we are in danger of facing a double disaster. One that is about physical destruction and loss of life, and the other which is the legacy of bitterness, confusion and suspicion.

Instead of a powerful story that we can learn from there is a risk that we will become disoriented by an obsession to blame.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His book Politics of Fear, Beyond Left and Right will be published later this month by Continuum Press.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

There are always victims of accidents or disasters who seem to blame someone else for their misfortune. Nobody is willing to take responsibility for there own choices. Did people in New Orleans know this would happen ? Did they expect someone else to protect them from something they didn't know would happen ? If you live below sea level in a hurricane prone region of the world - its up to you and the people of your city to make the defences strong enough, or move out, or leave when you are warned of an approaching hurricane.
William Waites, Antigua

People do not resort to being bitter, confused or suspicious, out of a misunderstanding or disoriention because they need to blame someone. People apportion blame out of the concrete reality their situation. When God was thought to control the weather, people rightly blamed God for thier misfortune, when substandard builings topple in earthquakes people rightly blame the construction company, when a rich country won't buy enough vaccine, 'because it is expensive', people know who to balme and when it takes 3 days for any serious relief effort to arrive people will rightly blame the authorities local and national. A real double disaster would be to let the ones to blame off the hook, which the author appears to be trying to do! I don't think the People of New Orleans are disorientated about where the 'Buck' stops.
Adam, London, UK

While it would be lunacy to blame a hurricane on a government (a terrorist attack is a far more tenuous subject), Mr. Furedi seems oblivious to the fact that most ire and recriminations are directed, albeit sometimes unfocussed, at the seemingly bumbling machinations that define the aftermath thereof. That said, disasters are the stuff of life for our mass-media, and these all seem to have a morbid fear of just presenting video material rather than needing to interview untold talking heads about their "sentiments" on the issue. And yes, that includes the BBC!
diederik klumper, the Netherlands

I feel that this article is missing the point. If we did not ask WHAT is to blame as opposed to WHO is to blame, then nothing would be learnt from these situations and the same 'disasters' would befall us again and again.
Adrian Harmer, England

I believe there is a clear difference between blaming people for causing a disaster and blaming them for being prepared for one. Case in point would be the recent terrible hurricane Katrina. While the hurricane itself was unavoidable the consequences would not have been as bad if we were better prepared for it. It is known that the dykes were not prepared to handle a hurricane of that severity and the US federal government had recently turned down a request to upgrade the dykes. Officials should be held accountable for not being prepared and for the very poor efforts to evacuate people before the storm and the poor relief efforts after the storm. The crux of my argument is that we cannot and should not blame people for the occurrence of natural disasters such as Katrina but we can hold officials accountable when their response to these disasters is not what it ought to be.
Choudry Zaigham, Canada

In today's world, we know that innoculating against potential pandemics works; we just have to make sure that the future pandemic (e.g. bird flu?) is recognized early enough, and that those at risk are innoculated. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, I doubt anyone believes the Bush administration is to blame for the hurricane; many people believe that he and his administration are responsible for the lack of implementation of defensive measures, amply described in 1998, and the patheic response for our own citizens' plight. As recently as June 2005, he was trying to cut FEMA's budget. The Louisiana National Guard is away in Iraq, and not in Louisiana when they were needed. That's not Nature's fault; that's Bush's.
John, Texas, USA

Only an ignorant person would blame a natural catastrophe on politicians, only a superstitious one would blame a god: but blame attaches to politicans who do not prepare properly for the forseeable consequences of catastrophes (a fortiori for forseen ones) and who display incompetence, or worse, after the event.
David, U.K.

I believe it is a combination of God, nature and people. People are treating their environments with less care in todays day. Products that not environmentally friendly, waste of resources and pollution are causing a burden on nature. I beleieve that God then teaches us a lesson to make us contemplate our wrong doings which everyone does after big disasters which is why I read this article and commented. I think everything has a reason and major events like this should be given careful consideration and we should just think up ways to avoid disasters but we should make actual changes in our lifestyles/activities so there is no reason for nature to understandibly lashout out in reply. peace.
Kevin, UK, London

I have to disagree with Frank Furedi on almost every point. Twenty years ago in 1985 I was a member of an organisation, Earthscan, which published a book called "Natural disasters: acts of God or acts of man?" with the Swedish Red Cross. It argued that it was invariably poor people and poor countries who bear the brunt of natural disasters, and supported this with evidence of death tolls comparing similar disasters with differing socio-economic make ups. Disasters - tsunami, hurricane, earthquake - or whatever cannot be prevented, but the severity of their consequences often can and it is no surprise that it is the poor in societies who bear the greatest cost. There is no better example of this long understood analysis as the current fiasco in New Orleans and its environs. Personally I am slow to blame, but in this case my fear is that effective spin and media management will not enable the US people to scrutinise the reasons for the extent of the death toll and the human cost of the disaster itself. Adapting to and learning from disaster is one of the things democracy is meant to be good at (viz Amartya Sen). Holding democratically elected or accountable leaders to account is the kernel of that process.
James Deane, UK

Professor Furedi is exactly correct. It is obvious to me that the USA mainstream media is the first to suggest the blame game and then keeps fanning the flame relentlessly. We call it,"making" the news instead of just reporting the facts.
Will Smith, USA

Surely to seek answers as to why a catastrophe has occurred is progress. Unless we examine disaster of all sorts, no matter how painful, we will not make progress in preventing future loss of life. Whilst it is regrettable if people are unfairly scapegoated, it is better if we learn lessons from the disasters that from time to time do happen, even if that is a painful experience, rather than blindly accept our fates. It is not I think a question of religion, more that attitudes have evolved slowly over time. We have now realised that organisations, if they are to be successful, need to manage the risks that they face in the modern world. As the world gets ever more complex it is not unreasonable to expect governments to do the same, even if this means making difficult choices.
Sarah Prescott, Wales

Mr Furedi's comments are absurd to compare past events to what happened just isnt right. firstly we are in the 21st century were technology and building infrastucture as well as medical care has transformed our society hurricane katrina could not be avoided no one can argue that case the outcry is over the handling of the aftermath bushes cutting of funds and femas incompetence caused the deaths. and of corse his friends in halliburton got exclusive contracts to clean up and rebuid new orleans, bush and his cronies should be impeached for coperate manslaughter
colm nolan, ireland

I totally agree with Mr Furedi, this blame culture we live in is becoming unbearable. On the smaller scale we have ambulance chasers and people suing because they fell over a stone, to mention but two examples. On the bigger scale, hurrican Katrina for example, there seems to be as much, if not more, effort accorded to the blame or denial factors than the recovery itself. The press are driving this culture in my opinion but human nature is sour and all too willing to follow.
Mark, Hungary (temp)

The urge to find someone to blame is a positive emotion. If we can find out what went wrong (inadequate preparations, lack of early warning systems) and make those in power feel the heat, then future disasters can be avoided (or at least mitigated. If we adopt a fatalist approach that says 'acts of god' are unavoidable and nothing can be done will that really lead to a better future for those in the path of the next disaster?
Andy McKee, UK

Sure it was a natural disaster, but to diminish blame here is hardly appropiate. There is plenty of blame to go round. They knew it was coming and despite pleas nothing was done . Dollars were asked for and they got cents. The weak,poor and vulnerable were abandonded.the natural enviroment was mistreated. To try to deminish this if foolhardy , and whilst disorientating, it would be better for greater truths to come out rather than have heads buried in sand.This was a natural disaster that man made worse.The Americans can plainly see this as can we.
P A Daly, UK

That is a ridiculous article, and one I might expect to find little root outside of academia and the White House. Nobody is blaming Bush for the Hurricane - they are blaming him for presiding over an administration that failed to move quickly enough to ameliorate its effects on an unprotected populace.
Iain Howe, Netherlands (UK-Expat)

As a child in the 50's I recall my parents, relations and neighbours had a propensity to blame any unfavourable weather on Russian nuclear weapons tests.
Richard, UK

The victims of the hurricane are quick to blame someone else rather than take responsibility for their own situation. They were told to evacuate and chose not to, so the situation they found themselves in was there own making. With the TSunami no-one was blaming the politicians they clearly saw that they were the victims of an unavoidable catastropy. The state cannot be responsible for all the bad in our lives and we turn too easily to others to bail us out of situations sometimes entirely of our own making. People need to wise up to the fact that life is a risk business and sometimes we lose, sometimes we win.
martin , Poole UK

I think the culture of blame in today's society compared to the past is more to do with increased expectations - we understand the world better, science can deal with the majority of problems we face, so we expect to be protected better by our governments.
Stephen Derry, United Kingdom

I see no wrong with accountability if it leads a way towards some level of prevention. It is inevitable that there will be some human action or inaction that would have lead to a reduced impact of any disaster and if this is highlighted by blame and improved in the future then surely this is beneficial.
Micah Udoh, UK

The culmination of over two-thousand years of western civilization has seen an emphasis placed on the individual in society, the natural by-product of which has been the egotistical assumption that man is distinct from and therefore has superiority over nature. Natural disasters very often have the impact they do on humanity because of our assumed invulnerability to the world around us, lethally combining with an unwillingness to retard our own impacts upon nature.
Cole Henley, Scotland, UK

Governments and the individuals that lead them wield enormous budgets and the power to direct other organizations. When natural disasters occur it's completely understandable that people want to know if mistakes have been made. After 9/11, the US Govt., FEMA and the DHS should have been well prepared for a natural disaster. The fact that there weren't is something George Bush should pay a politcal price for.
Dave Clarke, UK

This article is a disagraceful attempt to divert blame away from George Bush and his administration. The Katrina tragedy was made made infinitely worse by the callous indifference shown by Bush and his cohorts in initially ignoring the plight of those too ppor or infirm to evacuate the city.
David McDowell, United Kingdom

This is little more than an inevitable consequence of western society becoming more and more dependant on government which has allowed personal responsibility to fade away. Its been shown time and time again that government is by its nature inefficient and uncaring - it baffles me why people are willing to let government run so much of their lives. Laziness? Apathy?
James Mackay, UK

Frank Furedi is missing a very important point that few natural disasters are in any sense "natural" in origin. Hurricanes, floods and droughts all happen by themselves, but whether they become disasters depends on how human beings react to them. Take famines, for instance. There has never been a famine in any democracy because national rulers are aware of the dire political ramifications resulting from mass deaths from starvation and will do their best to prevent it. Therefore in the democratic world famines have been replaced by droughts. It's the same natural phenomenon, merely not a disaster. Floods and hurricanes are harder to deal with because they create less advance notice than famines but are still preventable. Why are we in Britain still building homes on flood plains? Why is anyone still living below sea level? It would take considerable political will to resolve these issues, but they aren't impossible to tackle. Ultimately, people will always die as a result of natural phenomena, but that shouldn't disguise the fact that many lives should be saved by responsible and forward-looking governments. Pretending that we are at the mercy of a cruel world helps no-one except the politicians.
Jacob, UK

Your analysis misses the most important function of the blame game played out after these disasters. Society has increasingly evolved to attribute blame as a mechanism to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Directed anger from the public serves to make governments / policy makers more cautious, and (hopefully) safeguards the human race from extinction at the hands of a selfish few.
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, NI

Should there be any "meaning" or "moral story" to a catastrophe? I do not believe there is an obsession with blame. Many things could have been done to save lifes. These human interventions can be improved upon, and as a society we have an obligation to protect each other as best we can. Life was cheap in the ancient times, people died of disease, starvation and disasters all the time. In the 20th century we believe that everyone should be given the best chances to live a long, spiritually fulfilling life, and we shall make sure it happens.
Rachel H., UK

Mr. Furedi's writings are so on the mark. Hurricane Katrina had not even struck the US Gulf of Mexico coast than the political and other pundits and talking heads were beginning to point the finger of blame. The crescendo of these voices has risen to a fever pitch in the aftermath. The vile and evil devils incarnate who caused the suffering now are the following: President Bush and his administration, the Republican dominated US Congress, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the gulf coast developers, the gambling industry etc. God and Nature and personal decisions have been given a break from the blame game.
linda, usa

A moral? How about "Don't build a city below sea level"? Which tends to suggest a more general one: "Don't melt your ice caps."
Tim, UK

In 2004 the AP featured an article about the disastrous effects of Hurricane Ivan - it pretty much predicted everything that's happened with Katrina. Meanwhile funding to rebuild levees was slashed, in part to fund Homeland Security schemes. As a result of this appalling judgement, more Americans are now dead than Osama Bin Laden could have hoped for in his most murderous dreams. This is not about blame, it's about responsibility and about public servants using people's taxes to protect them, something we all have every right to expect from our Governments.
Chandra, London

It is the actions (or lack of)of those who lead our society that draw criticism. It is they who permit the building on fault lines and flood plains and decide upon the standard of any man made defences. It is they who are control before, during and after any disaster.
Mark Cadreman, UK

At least now we know who to blame for not having anyone to blame anymore.
Chris Wills, england

There is an eternal law of Nature: "As you sew, so shall you reap". Mankind brings about its own good and bad times. You can't go bombing and destroying other nations and expect to get away with it for long. Whether its natural disasters or terrorist attacks on our own land, it is the result of what we have done in the past. Violation of Natural Law will bring about a debt that will be due for collection when the time is ripe. The solution is to live life in accord with Natural Law; in harmony with the laws of Nature, the light of God.
Anthony Miles, USA

Perhaps sir, it is you who is obsessed with blame. For myself, I understand what a natural disaster is. However, we live in a world where these things are understood better than they ever have been. While they may not be preventable, we are able to take stock and guard against them better than at any time in our history. When the establishment, fully understanding the implications, chooses not to act in a preventative or reactive manner, then yes we will ask questions of it. Ignorance too, of such things, is no defence.
Paul, UK

Nonsense! While blame cannot be attached to truly natural disasters one can blame those people in power that were ill prepared for it and its aftermath. Hurricane Katrina was predicted and known about well in advance so any resulting deaths are not natural per se. Likewise, buildings can be designed to withstand most earthquakes yet, for example, some fall down because the builders cut corners to save money. The resulting disasters stem from human faults and not acts of god.
John, London, UK

I certainly agree that we increasingly look for someone to blame for natural disasters. However, I think its a social trend that is progressive and useful. In these modern times we have more aggregate knowledge upon which to base predictions of disasters or plan appropriate mitigations. It's the responsibility of politicians to choose how much effort to invest in these activities. If they are short sighted and under-plan for predictable events they should be severly chastised; just as they will also surely fail as politicians should they spend too much cash on pointless safety features. Soecifically in the case of new-orleans I think we should seriously consider swallowing our pride and rebuilding the downtown area of the city in a location that is less vulnerable. Should the next generation have to relive the experience just so we can maintain moral by trying to assert mans dream of dominance over nature?
John Carter, UK

While the blame game gets increasingly popular, it doesn't detract from the reality that some disasters have worse effects than they ought to because of greed or carelessness. The difference today is that, in many cases, we know what can happen, and how to deal with it to lessen the effects - but choose to bury our heads in the sand rather than spend to prepare for the worst. The hurricane could not have been stopped: but much of the flooding and its aftermath could - and should - have been prevented.
Mike Goss, UK

I think the author misses the point. Human culpability enters the equation when the response to an act of god is inadequate or slow even when the same humans are able to predict the event.
Sean, Wales

I think that people in general are more concerned about the lack of disaster management and poor contingency procedures, than they are of blame. We can only hope that major lessons have been learned from such tragic circumstances.
martin Elsen, England

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