The common good excludes nobody
The Tablet21 June 2017
From the editor's deskThe fire which last Wednesday morning engulfed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, killing many of its residents, ranks as one of the worst-ever peacetime disasters. The building was clad in flammable material and went up like a firework, with people trapped inside. The shock is immeasurable, the horror almost unbelievable, the grief permanent. It will never be forgotten. Can it ever be forgiven? It is unlikely there is just one person – some junior clerk in a building regulator’s office, say, who overlooked a flaw in a plan he or she was checking – who can be labelled a mass murderer and condemned for it, while the rest walk away. Any search for particular scapegoats must be suspect, a device to avoid the wider burden of responsibility that lies elsewhere, and which is very heavy indeed.
The German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz, contemplating not only the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews but also the tacit complicity of many bourgeois Christians in it, declared in protest: “There is no truth I could defend with my back turned to Auschwitz.” After this fire all politicians have a profound duty to say, likewise: “There is no policy I could defend with my back turned to Grenfell Tower.” It is transparently clear that before the catastrophe, all too many backs were turned to Grenfell Tower.
Yet even those who were a direct link in the fatal chain of events may have been acting as they thought society wanted them to act. If 100 people each unwittingly added one per cent to the risk of a catastrophic fire, then fire becomes likely. The system becomes, to borrow a phrase from Pope John Paul II, a structure of sin. The welfare and safety of the people in Grenfell Tower may not have been their highest priority, because that was not the brief they were given. Or they may have thought that the voice of the people in Grenfell Tower could be ignored, because they had no power. Or that the type of people who lived in Grenfell Tower – many of whom were poor and came from numerous ethnic and racial minorities – were not popular with the mass media nor well connected to politicians. Racism may have come into it, but through many small, almost unconscious, increments rather than through overt prejudice. There is wrongdoing, sin, in all of this – the banality of evil. To overlook shoddy workmanship or to take short cuts round safety regulations is to partake in sin, even if there is no evil intent. The bureaucratic mind looks to balance the books, to obey orders. It is not paid to imagine future consequences. The political mind is not naturally geared to notice the precariousness of human life, to be instinctively alert to the infinite value and dignity of every person, regardless of age, race, wealth or origin.
And yet the firefighters had that knowledge and instinct and acted on it. They charged into a burning building with disregard for their own safety, and led hundreds of terrified residents downstairs, through blinding smoke and fumes, to the exit. No honour could do justice to these amazing deeds of personal and institutional bravery. It was what they had trained for. It was their vocation. They would say it lies in their culture, as a fire brigade. And culture is a key to understanding the whole Grenfell tragedy. Just as failures by the Metropolitan Police in the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence were later attributed, after a public inquiry, to a culture of “institutional racism”, so the Grenfell fire could well have been the product of a culture of institutional indifference verging on callousness – except by the emergency services, who were magnificent.
Certainly the subsequent and inexcusable failure of the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to meet the dire needs of survivors in the following days makes a charge of institutional indifference almost self-evident. Some families had to sleep in the open, some went hungry, some were given no advice where to turn for help, some were even handed a £10 note and told to fend for themselves. Some who were evacuated from nearby buildings, in the shadow of the tower, were left without power, light or water on their return to their homes. The institutional response was chaotic and negligent, as the Prime Minister has recognised. It has deeply shamed the city and the country. This is the richest borough in London and hence in the entire Kingdom. Does it really deserve to be called Royal? This was in sharp contrast to the generosity of ordinary folk, rich and poor, from all over London and indeed the whole country, who responded with thousands of gifts of every kind – bedding, clothes, toys, washing materials and sanitary goods, food, bottled water, and above all, kindness.
It is a human instinct to try to make sense of terrible things. Hard questions have to be faced. Where was God in those smoke-filled corridors and burning flats, in the screaming children, the people trapped at windows, some even jumping to their deaths? Did God not care? Or was God to be found in the hearts of the brave rescuers and carers, in the spontaneous reactions of thousands, in the cohesion that the community discovered it possessed under the dire stress of extreme tragedy and disaster? Or even in the work of local communities and the skilled and careful attention of pastors of all the many faiths in the area? Was not God present in the prayerful silence which Cardinal Vincent Nichols called for, as the one truly meaningful response to such suffering, bewilderment and grief? Will God still not be present if and when Britain decides, in the name of humanity and all that is sacred, never to turn its back on Grenfell Tower again?
Some days later the same local community response was on display when a man died in a terrorist attack on worshippers outside Finsbury Park Mosque, after Ramadan prayers. The police were there in a minute, and leaders of many local faith communities gathered round to denounce the atrocity and pray for the victims, some of whom were seriously injured. The lessons are there to see. To regard any individual or group as excluded because of difference, as a “them” in contrast to those who are “us”, is to be an accomplice in crimes and disasters yet to happen. It sets the stage for future horrors. The common good excludes nobody, or it is neither common nor good.