It’s normal to feel uncomfortable, uneasy, perhaps even repulsed by the idea of politicising tragedy. To find it distasteful that people would so quickly seek to speak on behalf of those who are in the midst of an unspeakable often-ongoing horror; that those who have experienced unknowable loss and trauma aren’t afforded the dignity of space to grieve nor the time to process their grief; to despair at how seemingly glibly tragedy can be reduced to fodder for topical debate and news item in amongst an uncaring relentless churn of other news items; to find it appallingly crass that political interests would think it even vaguely appropriate to parlay human suffering into a means to further themselves and to push their agendas. The aftermath of any harrowing news event will invariably provoke heated discussion between those who think tragedy ought to be politicised, and those who don’t. I absolutely believe the majority of the latter group are acting entirely in good faith. It’s a humane instinct to not be able to respond to such events by feeling anything other than just sadness.
But it’s a vital necessity that tragedy is politicised. If not, we accept that it happens in a vacuum, that it is arbitrary, there’s nothing we can do to avert tragedy and that the unnecessary loss of life can only be endured, not prevented. The fire which engulfed Grenfell Tower and has already claimed 17 casualties is the most recent event that certain quarters are trying not to politicise. Briefly searching David Lammy’s name on social media reveals a fairly immediate backlash against the Tottenham MP’s damning conclusion that the fire is tantamount to “corporate manslaughter.”
It is in the interests of those who might be held accountable for certain events that condolences alone comprise the coverage of them; that public scrutiny is made to seem an insensitive intrusion and that the narrative focuses on the solemnity of the event itself for long enough that attention moves away from a high profile examination of its causes. In this way, a plethora of political decisions, corporate and business interests, reckless bureaucracy and negligence can masquerade themselves as misfortune. In this way, the depoliticisation of tragedy is inherently political.
We mustn’t forfeit this opportunity to hold accountable any and all relevant parties. That extends far beyond (though absolutely encompasses) the inscrutable Westminster duopoly of central government, right down to the decisions of local authorities, councils, commercial interests and any other body that might have played a part in exacerbating what needn’t have happened. If blame can be established, then it is imperative that it is apportioned, in order that the most can be done to ensure that it is never repeated.
By the same token, we must acknowledge the impact of underfunded public services. Commending the courage and heroism of the emergency services is all very well, but it means is an empty rhetoric when it comes from those depriving them of vital resources and compromising their ability to carry out their duties with swingeing cuts. We must have urgent discussions about the role of the state and the public expenditure involved in ensuring the safety of our citizens.
There is, uncomfortably, a social accountability we must all face up to. It would, of course, be particularly unhealthy for the psyche to hold yourself responsible for an event beyond the comprehension and worst imagination of the average person. But, from what I can observe, much of the opprobrium around politicising tragedies stems from feelings of impotence. What good are these ‘point scoring’ debates if you’re powerless to actually affect any change at an individual? But here it is our responsibility to become actively involved in our communities. It is our responsibility to listen, acknowledge and champion the concerns and needs of those within these communities, regardless of whether they directly affect us. It is our responsibility to do this wherever and however possible; be that by attending meetings, actively lobbying for change or simply distributing articles and information as far and wide as possible. It is our responsibility to make ourselves collectively too loud to be ignored by the powerful. It is, sadly, our responsibility to ensure that human beings are not treated as expendable barriers to profit and that our safety isn’t jeopardised for the sake of cost-cutting efficiency.
Fully empathising with the victims of a tragedy almost always involves comprehending how preventable their deaths truly were, and to feel unbearable anger and anguish as a result. Tragedies make us afraid. It’s a natural coping mechanism to want to attribute it to a fluke of chance, otherwise we are forced to face the terrifying possibility: it could happen to us. To believe it couldn’t happen to you – because you weren’t directly affected, because none of your loved ones were affected, because you believe yourself not to live at risk of being affected – and to do nothing about it, and to discourage any further action, is to dehumanise the victims of tragedy. It is to treat them to unlucky statistics and not people whose safety was fatally compromised. It is to endanger all those who live in risk of it befalling them.
The bittersweet fallout from humanitarian disasters is in the way they often illuminate the very best of humanity. People going above and beyond in their compassion and their generosity, performing extraordinary acts of kindness without any thought of recognition, donating whatever they can, rallying around those affected with devastatingly moving displays of solidarity. When all’s said and done, ‘ordinary’ people will, more often than not, shoulder the burden of the impact of a disaster. As inspiring as their stoicism and resilience is and always will be, they shouldn’t have to. We must try our best to make tragedy as removed from politics as possible.