Sometimes No One's at Fault And We Should Accept That

Accidents, tragedies, or negative outcomes, all entice a usual reaction: who’s at fault for this? Who is to blame? Our instinct drives us in that direction. The reasoning seems pretty obvious: if something bad has happened, it must have been because of someone screwed up by being negligent or maybe they were malevolent all along.

However, sometimes there’s no one we should be blaming. If we think in calm and measured way—before scapegoating—it becomes obvious that no one’s guilty.

I recently saw the video of killing of Haramabe, a silverback gorilla, by Cincinnati Zoo authorities. The video shows a disoriented, agitated gorilla dragging a toddler—who had fallen into the enclosure after climbing the 3-foot fence—with intense force. After deliberating for ten minutes, the Zoo authorities decided to shoot the gorilla. Silverback gorilla is an endangered specie and Harambe was only half-way through his expected lifespan. Naturally, the action invited a ton of angry reactions.

Who’s to blame?

  • Some say it’s the zoo authorities. They point out that Harambe wasn’t trying to hurt the child, and a tranquilizer could have been employed instead. The other camp questions the negligence of having a miniature fence.
  • Some say it’s the parents (the mother here). For letting the kid out of sight. Many, including prominent stars like Ricky Gervais, have targeted the mother for being an awful parent.
  • The more misopedic ones blame the toddler and even question the decision of prioritizing a human life over the other.

But there’s no one to blame if you ascertain all the facts of the case.

  • Silverback Gorillas are extremely powerful. It could be argued that Harambe didn’t intend to harm the child, but even without effort, Harambe could’ve seriously hurt him. He was visibly getting more and more upset by the commotion.
  • Tranquilizer darts take about ten minutes to work. The gorilla could have potentially injured the child in that time window, especially after being shot at.
  • The fence could have been taller, but that only became obvious after the fact. The fence was erected in 1978 and they had no incident of visitors crossing till 2016. Additionally, the zoo passed inspections without being cited even once for the fence’s height.
  • The mother had four kids with her. The toddler skipped fence when she was strapping the other kids to the stroller. Kids, especially if you’ve multiple, can’t be watched 24x7. Parents are humans, not robots, and they have limited attention span. The fence climbing could have happened in a 10-20 sec window while she was focused on her other kids. (ref)
  • Finally, kids that young are still impervious to dangers of their actions. They are still learning about the world and can unknowingly attempt something very perilous.

To me, there’s no one to blame. It just an unfortunate incident that happened with no one at an obvious fault. You could invoke the moral culpability in keeping animals away from their natural habitat, but that is far removed from the incident.

In 2009, Gene Weingarten, touched on a similar subject with his Pulitzer winning story, “Fatal Distraction.” Around 15-25 times a year, a parent—an “otherwise loving and attentive parent”—forgets a child in the car’s backseat resulting in a tragic death. Such a horrifying mistake would register as gross neglect to must of us, but we should ask, can our disgust be more than the “lifelong sentence of guilt” that the parent has to bear? This isn’t wilful negligence, it’s a mistake like any other.

Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child

— David Diamond, professor of molecular physiology, University of South Florida

The search to blame someone can actually exacerbate the situation as Margarethe Wiersema, professor of management at University of California, observed in her study of CEO firings. Often, because of poor earnings and growth, the board of directors relent under the pressure and dismiss the CEO. However, having a new head doesn’t translate to a turnaround; in fact, the decline could potentially accelerate.

Typically a CEO gets fired not because the board has thoughtfully and deliberately concluded that it’s time for a change at the top but because investors, concerned about poor performance, demand a change. Board members, who have little idea how to address the underlying problems that got their company into trouble in the first place, seek to appease investors in the short term by handing them the CEO’s head on a platter.

Company performance relative to industry average failed to improve significantly after bringing in a new CEO. And performance lagged behind that of companies with routine CEO successions. I couldn’t find a single measure suggesting that CEO dismissals have a positive effect on corporate performance.

It’s politician’s syllogism at work:

  1. We must do something
  2. This is something
  3. Therefore, we must do this.

Rather than asking who’s to blame, the more productive thing is to assess a situation from everyone’s point of view, understand that humans are fallible, and think what we can do improve the future outcomes. Blame is an easy game, but compassion is harder.


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