When Disaster Strikes

The fearful fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower and killed many of its residents, shown so vividly in our homes this week, was horrible and distressing.  Nothing can be quite so appalling as being trapped by fire.  We cannot avoid being deeply affected by the cocktail of emotions – panic, confusion, grief, anger, sympathy, generosity, exhaustion – that such a disaster produces, as we watch and listen, and probably all feel the need to do something to help.  Within hours, donations of food and clothing poured in, and a multitude of disaster funds set up.

Striking as well has been the almost immediate expressions of outrage.  Anger is an understandable and natural response to tragedy, but the search for someone to blame, rising to the surface so quickly and powerfully, can be destructive.  In the absence of any definite understanding of the cause of the tragedy, the target for blame has been anyone in a position of authority.  The Government is accused of failing to heed earlier warnings.  The Prime Minister is blamed for not turning up and then her resignation was demanded when she did.  The leader of the Borough Council is condemned on Newsnight and the Council offices taken over by an angry mob.  The Government’s Communities Secretary is ridiculed for an inadequate response and the body entrusted with managing the Tower charged with ignoring the residents’ concerns.

Of course, if anyone has been negligent or failing in their duty this needs to be exposed, and lessons must be learned for the future, but the risk of seeking someone to blame is that further injustice is added to an already tragic situation.  In the case of the Hillsborough disaster the blame for many years was wrongly attributed to Liverpool supporters.  In the case of the death of Baby P in Haringey, the head of children’s services, Sharon Shoesmith, was unfairly held responsible.  The emotions unleashed by tragedy need to be expressed, but their power to do further damage, not only to those wrongly accused but to everyone concerned, needs to be recognized, and people helped to channel their feelings constructively.  Those who exercise power in the media have a particular responsibility for this.

At this time we are also remembering another tragedy – the murder of Jo Cox MP.  That was fueled by misplaced anger on the part of the perpetrator.  I am sure her family have felt profoundly angry too at what happened, but they are determined not to allow the horror and injustice of that event to shape Jo’s memory.

The perpetuation of a blame culture ultimately destroys hope and tears communities apart.  As we seek a fair and just society, we must recognize the danger of seeking out scapegoats, and find ways of channeling powerful emotions positively.  As Jo Cox’s parents said as they opened a community centre named for her, there is more good than bad in the world.  Even those in authority may be good people too.

Peter Shepherd (June 2017)