Firefighters aren’t moved easily to displays of emotion. But, then, the Grenfell Tower fire was no ordinary incident.
Over a thousand firefighters tackled the flames at the tower or assisted with the aftermath. I know many of them personally. I’m a firefighter myself and have even fought the odd blaze in a high-rise building. But I have never tackled anything on the scale of Grenfell. Until June last year, none of us had.
I visited some of their stations in the days after the fire. The sense of sorrow and anguish was profound. And I have spent many hours sitting in the public inquiry, listening to their powerful – though always understated – testimonies of courage and professionalism, some had tears in their eyes, all had pain and guilt at not having been able to save more lives etched on their faces.
Some marked their names on their protective helmets before entering the building, the better to be identified should they not make it out alive. Others ripped breathing apparatus facemasks from their own faces and offered them to casualties. A few could be seen vomiting or on the brink of collapse when exiting the tower. Standard operational procedures – designed to keep firefighters safe – were set aside in the desperate effort to save lives.
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Some still suffer quietly from the trauma.
I’ve also listened to the heartrending tales of survivors, who experienced their own hell and torment in those darks hours during the inferno. Lives were shattered, homes destroyed, families devastated.
So the thought that any fellow human being could find humour in this tale of horror and suffering sickens me. What level of depravity would it take to make a joke out of such an event, to find such misery a cause for mirth? Only the truly inhuman could do so, surely.
And yet, why was it that when I heard that the alleged perpetrators behind the despicable Grenfell Tower bonfire video had been arrested and had their homes raided by the Metropolitan Police, a chill went up my spine? Shouldn’t I and every other firefighter have welcomed the news that these individuals were spending the night in the cells, possibly to be charged with a criminal offence and destined to face the full might of the law?
After all, doesn’t a civilised society compel such people to account for their actions, if necessary in court?
So why did I feel so uneasy?
I’ll tell you.
We remain – nominally, at least – a free society. The act took place in the garden of a private home. One would imagine that those present were there at the invitation of the homeowner. I think we can safely assume that none of them intended for the video to end up in the public domain.
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But once the video went viral, it was the instinctive reaction of many that ‘something must be done’. The culprits were owed punishment, and if that meant the law must intervene, then, for some, that was justified. So several of the party were arrested for a public order offence.
Though I was as repulsed as anyone by the actions of those in the video, I have no hesitation in saying that Scotland Yard had no business weighing in on the matter. It should not be the role of the police to arbitrate on what constitutes offence or what passes for acceptable humour, particularly when it occurs within the confines of a private home. The moment we hand responsibility for such judgements to the police, we are set on a very dangerous path.
We should all be disturbed that we have a police force which increasingly sees its role as an advocate for those with hurt feelings. This new role has led to some absurd responses. For example, there was the arrest of a boy who sent an insensitive tweet to the diver Tom Daley, the cautioning of a blogger who claimed that Britain’s Got Talent was fixed, and the ludicrous Count Dankula affair.
I shudder to think how many police hours are spent pursuing this sort of stuff while real lawlessness and disorder blights our communities.
This embrace of PC culture by the police didn’t happen in isolation. It is a regrettable by-product of a society governed by a cultural and political elite which likes to think of itself as liberal and tolerant but which in reality is the opposite of these things. That’s why we see freedom of expression increasingly treated as a luxury and not a right, not least as a consequence of the proliferation of ‘hate’ legislation, whose effect has been to stifle the voicing of unfashionable opinions. In public services – the police force included – a failure to uphold every facet of equality and diversity rules can mean the end of one’s career.
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There was a time when those who disagreed with you would say, “I think you are wrong.” Increasingly, they now say, “I find that offensive,” or “You mustn’t say that.” In the worst cases, it’s: “You’re fired.” That’s the kind of narrow, oppressive society we have allowed ourselves to become.
The anger and revulsion that so many feel about the Grenfell bonfire video is entirely understandable. But those calling for the prosecution of the perpetrators would do well to ask themselves where it might end. Ever repeated one of those tasteless jokes which seem to do the rounds whenever a celebrity dies? Some people would doubtless find your actions sick and offensive. Would you consider it a matter for the police? Would you turn yourself in? Even if you committed the act in your own home?
Political activists demanding the prosecution of the Grenfell bonfire party should be particularly careful about casually handing the police such unbridled power. Do they not realise that such power will eventually be turned against them? One has only to examine the ‘Spycops’ scandal to see how the police treat perceived enemies of the state when they think they are all-powerful.
I have nothing but contempt for the Grenfell bonfire morons, and I hope they never cross my path. I can only trust they will be judged in the harshest terms by their friends and community. But there is a price to pay for living in a free society. That price is that you must occasionally put up with people expressing themselves in deeply unpleasant ways.
Because, in the end, it’s better than the alternative – a totalitarian state in which officialdom decides what constitutes ‘offence’, even when the act took place in one’s own private home, and where the local constabulary will knock on your door in the early hours of the morning and drag you away if it didn’t pass their test.
I, for one, am willing to pay that price.