Moments can change a society and though there’s always the hope it’s moments of good, often it can be the shattering, horrifying events that change people. The Grenfell Disaster left a scar on London and perhaps the rest of the country that would not be healed.
A burning building with trapped families at night is something etched in the memory whether you were there or watching from TV. The screams. The cries. The figures emerging within the yellow gloom, waving frantically. Last phone calls played out. The fire brigade battled it valiantly, but 72 people were lost.
Those who survived recalled the harrowing experience. A father briefly considered letting his six year old stay asleep then wake up and die in pain, before making a charge with his family down the stairs. They survived while around them many others could not escape.
In the days and weeks that followed, grief turned into anger. Some saw this as produced by contempt towards the working-class and London’s grotesque inequality. They had lived in a dangerous building wrapped up in flammable cladding. The residents had warned for a considerable period of time that something dangerous could happen. Acts of charity flowed but Grenfell hurt London in a way nothing else did.
And it didn’t matter if or how Britain reacted to it; whether it brought forward the necessary policy changes to guarantee the safety and rights of residents in high-storey flats, whether those culpable were punished. A terrible moment swept before us, and we will never be able to forget it. But then a price of holding those to account and ensuring history does not repeat, is that we must never forget this.
Which is why not much can describe the moral decay where a crowd found humour in people burning to death. A cardboard model of the tower had been built and then set alight to the soundtrack of sickening laughter. Within the video people in the crowd can be heard in mocking cries “help me” and “stay in your flat” while others said “jump out the window”. It circulated on social media but there was universal anger towards those who had done this. Theresa May described it as “utterly unacceptable”. The Metropolitan Police promised to investigate and have since arrested five people on suspicion of a public order offence.
Many will analyse and correctly discuss the underlying class contempt and racism that drove this. But if you strip away the political and social context, it underlines an illness that’s corrupted people, where disasters and tragedies are dismissed and mocked. Whether people begin on the left or right, there is surely a basic level of humanity that says people are treated with dignity, and not mocked in their deaths. And yet Britain increasingly has felt like a society so broken and atomised, that it doesn’t see suffering of others and respond how it should. The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, delivered an emotional message in the wake of the Grenfell Disaster where he mourned a friend who perished in the fire. He was mocked on social media.
Social analysis is done in the hope of changing things, but how do you change parts of society who laugh at tragedies? Human suffering is a spectacle for some. Perhaps this is the social media effect where vulgar behaviour is rewarded with a brief moment of the spotlight, and where shocking behaviour is circulated more than anything else.
People are dehumanised, stripped of any empathy. Some will point to this as an isolated incident but the morally repugnant act of laughing at suffering has happened a lot lately. People have continuously mocked the refugee crisis and found humour in stories of dead children at sea. Why then should we be surprised that there are some so capable of this?
Sometimes people do things so callous and heartless that it leaves you cynical and hopeless. That some found humour in the most chilling event in recent British history says a lot. Perhaps they will wake up tomorrow and feel a deep sense of shame for what they participated in. The Grenfell survivors who hear of this will be devastated that what they went through has been taunted and laughed at like this. Hopefully there were those in the crowd disgusted enough to come forward and identify those responsible for this.