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by William H. Benson

July 18, 2002

     On July 18, 64 A.D. a fire started in the Circus Maximus in the city of Rome that raged for the next nine days and laid half of Rome in ruins.  The story goes that Nero, the emperor, from a safe place had watched the fire and played his fiddle and then recited a poem that described the burning of Troy.  The Romans initially blamed him, not for starting the fire, but for not caring.

     But then another story began circulating that he, in fact,  had deliberately started the fire so that he might see what a burning city looked like.  And so later he caught the blame.

     Historians agree that Nero actually was on holiday in the country when the fire erupted and that he quickly returned to the city where he directed crews of firefighters, threw open certain grounds of his palace to refugees, set up tents and huts, and then imported cheap food.

In other words, he did what he could to overcome the fire’s tragic outcome.

     But the people of Rome detested Nero, for they understood he was cruel and murderous.  He had plotted the murder of his own mother, Agrippina.  He had divorced his wife, Octavia, charging her with adultery, and then he had sent the executioners.  Guilty of such heinous crimes, starting a fire, the Roman citizens believed, would be well within his character.

     Fearful of losing the people’s support, Nero, in turn, blamed the fire on the Christians, members of a new religion, and so he had them rounded up and fed to the lions in stadiums filled with cheering crowds.  And he then conducted wholesale crucifixions.  Accused of a tragedy, Nero blamed the innocent, and so that summer his viciousness rapidly expanded.  

     The summer of 2002 has been a summer of tragedy: a drought which created conditions that erupted in forest fires in Colorado and Arizona, and then in a bizarre reversal, heavy rains produced flooding in areas of Texas and nearby in Keith County, Nebraska. 

     Without the necessary snowfall last winter and without the rains this spring, the high country lay exposed and vulnerable, and inevitably the wild fires began.  The Iron Mountain fire burned nearly 88 homes.  And then in June the Coal Seam blaze flared up near Glenwood Springs.  And then Hayman exploded, choking Denver on smoke, threatening homes and property in the foothills.  Then, the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango ran wild. 

     “This is the worst fire year in Colorado history,” said Ralph Campbell, a state forester.

     Indeed, as of June 30 the Hayman fire had consumed 137,760 acres, and Missionary Ridge 71,739 acres–the first and second biggest wild fires in Colorado’s history.

     And then another fire in Arizona riveted the nation’s attention.

     The physical world, sometimes called Mother Nature, plays havoc on human beings’ intentions, and when she destroys property or human life, we label her handiwork a tragedy.  Besides drought, fire, and flood, humanity groans under her other tricks–hailstorms, tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  And then there are the tragedies devised by human beings.

     Whenever a tragedy strikes and for whatever reason, it is then Human Nature to fix the blame upon another person or persons.  We want to capture and possess a culprit, get a conviction, and then lock him or her away.  In so doing, society punishes the evil doer, and supposedly brings a measure of harmony into the community.

     Mother Nature acts, and Human Nature reacts.  Suffering under a tragedy, one can never be sure how individual behavior will be directed, but normally accusation and blame play a part.

     What do we do when tragedy strikes?  What do we do when we discover we have a life-threatening disease or when we are the victim of a crime or when we suffer from an accident or when we watch as suicide pilots fly into buildings or as terrorists blow themselves up on a bus?  Do we lash out with blame?  Do we work, in turn, to harm the guilty?  Do we fight, or do we yield?  How do we as intelligent and civilized human beings properly respond to the ugliness of a tragedy?  There are no easy answers.

     All tragedies tear gaping holes in people’s lives, and the walking wounded frantically search to replace that emptiness.  The quick fix is to blame somebody.


    The Romans said that Nero played his fiddle, and Nero said that the Christians started the fire.