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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE

Fanning the flames

Why blame the victims when tragedy strikes? A little sympathy goes a long way.

October 27, 2007

Conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck is the latest high-profile figure to say something idiotic in the face of tragedy, but he's got plenty of company. Disasters can bring out the best in humanity as rescuers risk their lives to save others and communities band together to rebuild, but they can also bring out the worst.

"I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today," Beck told the audience of his nationally syndicated show on Monday, as parts of Malibu were in flames. That actually ranks pretty low on the mindless insensitivity scale compared to some of the sludge uttered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said his city was devastated because "God is mad at America"; in this, he was in full agreement with a host of Islamist bloggers who claimed that the hurricane represented Allah's judgment on America's sins, including a Kuwaiti minister who wrote that the storm was "a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire."

Blaming the victims has been a highly popular sport in California over the last week, as blogs and other public forums have been swamped by comments about the recklessness and irresponsibility of those who choose to live in wild areas. Some of the criticism is justified. As noted above, all taxpayers subsidize the firefighting services needed by a few who live in the state's tinder-dry hillsides, and government has been far too permissive in allowing development there. But canyon dwellers aren't breaking any laws, and most take seriously their responsibilities to clear brush, insure their homes and otherwise reduce fire risks. Like most of us in this gorgeous but dangerous state, they just want to live somewhere beautiful.

In the midst of tragedy, it's comforting to think that the victims somehow deserved what they got: I'm not as dumb as those people who live in the San Diego County wilderness, so it'll never happen to me. The same instinct is doubtless behind the urge to blame disasters on divine retribution: Nothing like this will happen to me, because God's on my side and hates my enemies. Or, as in Beck's case, the criticism may be simple schadenfreude: The Hollywood liberals in Malibu who disagree with my opinions, and therefore hate America, sure are in a world of hurt now.

Thousands have lost their homes in this week's fires, and at least seven have lost their lives. A little more sympathy, and a little less snap judgment, would speed the healing process.

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