When my four children were growing up and one or more of them unintentionally (I think) damaged something in the house, it always was Brownie who got the blame. Brownie was a boxer dog we had, who apparently was capable of leaving chocolate cookie stains on bedsheets, toys askew in the living room, bubble gum stuck under the kitchen chair and ceramic lamps shattered on the floor.

During any of these incidents, with me giving it my best I'm-mad-as-hell look, the children would tell me: "Brownie did it."Poor Brownie. He was a scapegoat; he bore the blame for others.

Few admit to doing anything wrong these days. It's always someone or something else.

When computers began to creep into our lives, it offered potential for scapegoating. The payment of bills, the recording of satisfied bills and any number of things are done by computer.

Thus were computers linked to the Brownie Syndrome.

Blame it on the computer: "Oh, the computer is down. Can you call back in a day or two?" Or: "We're in the process of putting in new computers and so we can't handle your complaint now." Or: "No, I don't see it on the computer. Sorry."

This, of course, is getting to be old hat, so there is need for a new, updated scapegoat.

We've got two of them: Y2K and solar flares.

In October, a health physicist reported that the sun's 11-year cycle will peak in March 2000, which could, the article said, "expose travelers and flight crews to the equivalent of 20 chest X-rays." It added that people who fly more than 75,000 miles annually could face a 1 percent higher risk of dying of cancer.

Not content to have frequent fliers dispatched via solar flares, an article this month alluded to those same flares. There was nothing in it, however, about the flying public. Instead, this was about the flares interrupting power grids, satellites, pagers and just about everything but your mailbox.

This leaves an opportunity for power companies, cellular phone people, paging companies and the like to transfer blame for lack of service from their everyday company goof-ups to the flaring object 93 million miles away.

But this will not affect us until March. Before then, we've got Y2K to blame. The doomsday zealots think we won't have to worry about March solar flares because we're all going poof on Jan. 1.

Y2K is very real, somewhere. Our mails are flooded with notices from the bank, the credit card company and others that they are Y2K-compliant, yet so many of us are hiding under our beds on New Year's Eve, along with the cash we've squirreled away just in case the ATM machines start dispensing Mountain Dew.

The course of human history often has been diverted through scapegoating. In its worst form, civilizations can be annihilated through scapegoating. It also can, and is, maneuvered to shirk responsibility, credibility and sensibility.

And it can be used even to slander your dog.

New York Times News Service