Responsibility takes a holiday

As I strolled along the Seine last fall, I noticed the lack of safety fences along the river’s lower walking paths. It didn’t concern me, I’m a cautious gal, but it immediately brought to mind how thoroughly Americans have fenced in our scenic spots. I guess that’s the difference between us and our French cousins: we design spaces for the lowest common denominator of stupidity or carelessness — or stopping selfie fools from plunging over a cliff —whereas the French design for beauty, romance and maintaining historical design. Stupid people be damned!

In other words, the French assume humans are smart enough to see where the pathway ends and the river begins, and responsible enough to stay safe. Americans take a different approach. We must put up fences because personal responsibility has been abdicated by our litigious culture of blame; and our unwillingness to accept that our actions can lead to dire consequences. Accidents happen and sometimes no one is to blame. We live in a wild world and bad things happen to good people and bad people alike. But in these sue-or-be-sued times, no matter what, someone else is always to blame. Even if I’m a drunken idiot, ignore warning signs, or are showing off to friends. Even if I willy-nilly enter the wilderness and don’t understand that it’s not an amusement park with security guards.

Of course, there are times when safety precautions and blame are appropriate. Children died before mandated car seats, for example. But extreme America has turned into such a litigious society, that when bad things happen the blame game takes over, our favorite national sport.

This obsession with blame has also birthed an offshoot: no matter what type of trouble we get in, someone will always be coming to save us. Getting saved has become an entitlement. So if we decide to climb a dangerous peak or hike in areas beyond our skill level or take a boat out into the ocean with little to no navigation skills, we have an unwarranted confidence that we will be saved. And if we’re not, or it takes too long and someone dies, it’s someone else’s fault. No matter that First Responders are put into life threatening danger themselves, if they can’t save the idiots who were socialized into thinking they should partake in something risky or are just plain stupid. Responders are expected to risk their lives and the futures of their own families to save someone else. Even when the someone else was not acting responsibly.

People make choices. People enter into places they know little about. As an Oregonian, I hear about lives damaged or lost constantly when people convene with Mother Nature without understanding the dangers, or are too cavalier to care. Climbers die every year on Mt Hood and other peaks, caught by fast changing weather, inexperience or the high risk of falling into ravines hidden under ice and snow fields. The coastal tides drag beach goers into the ocean, with sneaker waves, surges and riptides also annually claiming lives. I’ve seen parents letting children under two years old stand right at the edge of the ocean, too far away to save their child from being dragged out into the sea should the water catch the child’s feet. They should know this, because their life will be irreparably ruined in that one moment when their child is lost.

Recently I watched a documentary on the eruption of the volcano Whakaari on White Island in 2019. It’s a 90-minute boat ride off the coast of New Zealand to reach the volcanic island, and was a key tourist attraction prior to the eruption. Guides led the tourists to the very edge of the volcano crater, despite the fact that it could blow at any time. And then it did blow. Twenty-two people lost their lives and many others were badly injured. People were burned alive by the super-heated ash, steam and vapors, with those who ultimately managed to return to the mainland suffering severe burns and probably a lifetime of trauma. One of the tourists who survived, a young man not yet 20, lost his parents and sister that day, despite his Herculean efforts to find help after sustaining severe burns himself. Another man on his honeymoon, who survived along with his wife, but were also badly burned, spoke about the several pages of disclosures and liability waivers they all had to sign before getting on the tour boat. (Scientists had noticed increased activity on their monitors which the tour company was also aware of.) But the red flags didn’t start waving. They wouldn’t let people go there if it wasn’t safe, would they? The second tour boat was just arriving when the volcano blew. Live footage showed the horror that they all felt. Within minutes several were asking where the rescuers were who would save them. But they weren’t in Kansas anymore. It wasn’t a ride at Disneyland. They weren’t near a major city.

As an American, I’m proud of the emergency response infrastructure we have now, and admire the professionals who work as paramedics, firefighters, police, and ER doctors and nurses. Proud of our U.S. Coast Guard who bravely battle the ocean to save fishermen and others taken by the unmatched power of the sea. But such people deserve the rest of us to be more vigilant, know what we’re getting into, and not think that it must be safe if others have done it.

Responsibility must come from us first. Look to yourself before others, and to the sad fact of life that sometimes it’s our risky actions that cause dire consequences. Ask yourself: if anything happens out here in the wilderness, or in the boat or on the seashore, could you survive without immediate rescue? Own it. And don’t blame the First Responders because they couldn’t get to you fast enough. If they could get there they would, that’s the type of people they are. You did it. Take responsibility. I hope you get saved if you do get in trouble when taking unnecessary risks in the name of sport or recreation. But remember: you did it.

From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast

For more from Lady Proverbs go to

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