Thursday, March 29, 2018
Kemerovo and the Circles of Ugliness
This truly ghastly tragedy unfolded last Sunday, March 25, in Kemerovo (stress is on the first syllable), Kuzbass Region, Siberia. A fire at the Winter Cherry shopping and recreation center claimed the lives of 64 people, including 41 children. Only 27 bodies have been identified; others await genetic analysis. The injured number 79, 12 of whom remain hospitalized; 67 have been discharged and will be treated as outpatients. Victims’ families and each of the injured have been given 1 million rubles by the regional government (17350 USD). In addition, the major owner of the center, the entrepreneur Denis Shtengelov, has promised to pay out 3 million rubles for each deceased. All victims have also been assigned a doctor and a psychologist to follow their case to rehabilitation.
At the very center of this set of Circles of Ugliness may lie a black hole: the fire may have been arson. (It may also have resulted from an accidental short circuit; the investigation is not complete). But if it was arson, a leading theory is that it started in a play pit in a children’s playroom. The pit was filled with styrofoam blocks, and someone (no suspects yet) may have set one of them on fire. The fire then quickly spread to the entire pit, the synthetic ropes that hung over it, the burning ropes spread it to the walls and the rest of the space, and from there throughout the structure.
But it could have been just a stupid little pyromaniac playing with a cigarette lighter he (most likely a boy) picked up somewhere. Lots of young boys are pyromaniacs; they usually get over it if given the chore of burning brushwood. When I was around six and doing dishes, my attention became drawn to a ventilation grille above the kitchen sink. And so I placed a chair on the kitchen counter, climbed up on it, took out the grille and looked inside. It was dark inside the ventilation shaft, so I found a box of matches. Then, when the dust lining the ventilation shaft burst into flame, I got to watch a beautiful orange towering inferno going all the way up the tower block while reflecting that the good life may have ended before it even started. And then the fire burned itself out. But if this turns out to have been a premeditated act of arson, then the perpetrator deserves no less than to be stuck inside a black hole for all of eternity.
The First Circle of Ugliness we encounter is peopled with all those responsible for the deplorable state of fire safety at the Winter Cherry. The automatic fire alarm system was deactivated, and had been for days. It was shut down because of false alarms, and no attempt was made to repair it. When, after the fire started, an attempt was made to activate it manually, nothing useful happened. The forced air ventilation system was not shut down and circulated toxic smoke throughout the building. Emergency exits were locked; evacuation corridors were paneled with flammable materials. Stairwells were not sealed off against smoke ingress and were insufficient for evacuating the building without the use of elevators and escalators, which failed when the electricity shorted out. According to some reports, security personnel were either less than helpful or actually counterproductive.
Who exactly is guilty of this, and to what extent, will be the result of one of the most thorough criminal investigations in Russian history. Lots of people are sure to get jail time; fire regulations will be redrafted; not just in Kemerovo, but throughout the country, fire regulations and inspection procedures will be tightened. Numerous officials at the municipal level (one of the largest remaining pockets of corruption in Russia) will either get jail time, get axed, or get the shakes at the very thought of taking a bribe instead going through with the official inspection and licensing process. The investigation will take at least five months to complete; the trials will take even longer. But we can be quite sure that it will be thorough, complete and exemplary because the person who ordered it and will oversee it is Putin himself. At one of the televised meetings he referred to the fire safety inspection report for the burned-down building, which was approved “without comments.” Outraged, he turned to the head of the investigative committee, and said, “Find out who signed this, and report to me.” “Yes, sir!”
Those who populate this Circle of Ugliness do not deserve any eternal torments: the full weight of administrative and criminal law, brought to bear upon them by a suitably incensed and wrathful Putin, will be quite enough, I am sure! And here, if I may be so bold, is a bit of a silver lining to this black cloud: there is a good chance that these 41 children will not have died for nothing. Their loss will provide the impetus of a thorough overhaul of public safety and municipal governance, making a repetition of such an incident far less likely.
But this did not end the matter, because now social media activists took over. Various celebrities, some with many thousands of followers, took to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platform, and spread these lies far and wide. Quite a lot of these people did this more or less unthinkingly; others were simply seeking to boost their popularity on social media at the expense of the victims of this tragedy; yet others, who consider themselves members of the opposition, tried to exploit it to undermine public trust in the authorities. But while the truth may set you free, lies can easily become a self-made prison, and those who spread these lies, whether unwittingly or with an intent to harm, soon found themselves in the middle of a public relations fiasco. It was then pointed out that some of them, celebrities especially, had such a large number of social media followers that legally they could be considered mass media organizations, which are responsible for fact checking and can be held criminally liable for spreading false information, especially in a time of crisis, where it can cause a panic or social unrest. Notably, it was only then that many of them chose to issue public retractions and to apologize.
I have a truly medieval eternal torment for the miscreant Volnov and for all those who echoed his fake news: I consign them to an eternity in the Ukraine.
As a side-note, this experience demonstrates something peculiar about social media. Consider new hospitality platforms such as AirBNB, or the various car-sharing schemes, or even trading sites such as Ebay. They are all based on the principle that public trust is based on public reputation. Tear away the veil of anonymity, make everyone’s reputation public, make everyone trivial to instantaneously locate and identify, and suddenly much risk goes away and cooperation becomes less expensive. Nobody ever flags down a taxi any more, and is never heard from again; now you use a smartphone app, and it tells you who the driver is, the driver who you are, and the dispatch service about both of you, your location and your destination. This automatically puts everyone on best behavior.
Social media is the exact opposite. There are no criteria for establishing a reputation except notoriety, and any method to increase that notoriety (that doesn’t run afoul of some rudimentary guidelines against “hate speech” or “incitement to violence” and the like) is perfectly suitable. What’s more, there is no reason to think that social media platforms are the least bit interested in building social capital or anything of the sort; all they are interested in is selling your data (and maybe some ads). And some, such as Facebook, deserve a Circle of Ugliness all of their own. What should we do with it? In this, I echo Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme!” (Crush the loathsome thing!)
The last Circle of Ugliness is peopled by Western media mouthpieces, such as Leonid Bershidsky, who took this opportunity to bang out a particularly vile piece of trash for Bloomberg. Apparently, their motto is “make hay while the sun is shining,” and it’s a sunny day for them any time there are a lot of dead Russian children. His logic is beyond reproach: See, dead Russian children; ergo, Putin is a vile dictator. What eternal torment would you suggest for people who use a tragedy involving dead children to fill your eyes and ears with garbage and your head with faulty ideas—all for a chance to lick the hand of their corporate master? I am sure you can think up something perfectly medieval if you put your mind to it. Go ahead and give it a try, then! Or we can just condemn them all to an eternity in the Ukraine. Your choice.