Catastrophes like Grenfell offend our sense of control over the world, and challenge the unconscious faith we have in a 'system' that really cares about us.
Walk into the street, today. Keep strolling past the first hundred or two properties that you see. Take a look at them. Count the doors and the windows. Keep in mind the number of vehicles parking on driveways, in garages, or on the road. Look for cracks of light or flickers of movement or wisps of steam from chimneys. Listen for the unmistakeable noises of habitation; a step, a sigh, a voice on a telephone.
Think of individuals inside. Think of the owners or the tenants. Think of their buddies, families and loved ones. Think about the older kid who might be back home from university, or might have opted to travel this summer. Consider the sublets; some legal, some less so. Consider the undocumented migrants and refugees who can haunt London estates like administrative ghosts, undetectable to and uncounted by the state.
Think about all that. Then tell me how many people were in your street at 1am on the early morning of 14 June. Inform me after their houses have been burnt to blackened shells and their bodies reduced to particles of ash. Can you? I do not believe you can.
Great disasters anger our egos in addition to our hearts. They challenge our sense of human mastery over the world. A universe in which a tower block can burst into flames without alerting and take in those within is an unordered and worthless universe where we could die anytime, and this is undesirable to us on a deep psychological level.
It's natural that when we see such a catastrophe disaster our instinct is to quantify it, because through quantification we gain back control. How many have passed away? How did they die? Who, precisely, is to blame. What law or guideline would have avoided it? The grim job of measuring Grenfell has, in the meantime, fallen on the Metropolitan Police Force. It is an awful job, that the word "horrible" doesn't properly explain.
It may be an impossible job, too. Death tolls in significant disasters can be a matter of evidence-based consensus instead of absolute fact: 2,996 people died in the 9/11 attacks inning accordance with the official death toll, however more than a thousand of those victims are missing out on without trace, some controversially so. That they passed away is exceptionally most likely however still ultimately presumed, as it remains in numerous such catastrophes.
In spite of this, many were surprised and dissatisfied by a recent authority’s announcement that a final death toll, currently standing at 87, will not be announced this year. The authorities involved aren't the best obviously, or beyond concern. There are many with legitimate concerns about the examination, and it's best that they seek to hold the process to account at every opportunity. Yet worries of a cover-up are rooted in a paradoxical belief in the omniscience of the very same companies.
The Grenfell inquiry will be a stitch-up. Here's why
As with the disappearance of Flight MH370, there's a pervading sense of disbelief that people who are checked, tape-recorded, monitored and connected at every turn can merely vanish without trace. Certainly, people ask, the powers-that-be must have lists? Records of our movements? Obviously, there's no logical need to assume so. Records of renters are at best a rough guide; electoral registers insufficient.
There's convenience though in the concept that "the system" cares about us, even if that interest is malicious; and deep discomfort in understanding that the system can leave us confidential, unmeasured, and lost.
Compounding this is a public state of mind of intensifying fear. The tone of the current election was set by two Trumpian leaders, each disdainful of reporters, intolerant of examination or criticism, and speaking only to their own extremely polarised bubble. Social network, long promoted as an engine of democracy, has become an agent of division, progressively controlled by hyper-partisan blogs pushing stories so dishonest that even the old-school tabloids would have baulked at publishing them.
Mistrust of politics is at an all-time high, yet rather than having the backbone to take on the problem our party leaders have sought to exploit it, each running under the fatally mistaken belief that a wholesale destruction of public discourse will just injure the other side.
In this toxic environment, the behaviour of the local council, the Royal District of Kensington and Chelsea, was as unsurprising as it was entirely destructive and self-defeating. Sharing nationwide politicians' growing contempt for journalists, and by extension ridicule for the public they represent, council leaders sought to retreat into secrecy. That this would only validate the worst worries of locals, already deeply not impressed by the council's reaction to the fire, appears to have been lost on them.
Queries will continue; however, the exercise will continue under a cloud of bad faith, on all sides. No conclusion or suggestion will be quite enough. Politicians on all sides who could show management will rather make use of whatever emerges for their own ends. Blame will be more crucial than answers.
However, bear in mind that for the next several months numerous men and women will dedicate their energy and time to extracting every answer that the remains of Grenfell Tower can yield. They ought to anticipate examination, but they are worthy of better than baseless conspiracy theories.