British police have arrested five* men (*actually the figure has now risen to six) after they were caught on video on social media burning on a bonfire an effigy of Grenfell Tower. What? Is this some kind of sick joke??
I think we can all agree that it wasn’t a nice thing to do, making light of the awful conflagration in a London apartment block last year that caused the death of 72 people. But since when was not being nice an arrestable offence?
Brendan O’Neill asks much the same question in a characteristically trenchant essay headlined “Is it now a crime to be a twat?”
I cannot be the only person who finds the Metropolitan Police’s promise to investigate the Grenfell Tower bonfire video more chilling than the video itself. Yes, the video is repulsive. But what crime has been committed here? Being a wanker? Being a scumbag? Saying disgusting things in your own back garden? Those are criminal offences now? If they are, then Britain has far greater things to worry about than the fact that a handful of dreadful people decided to burn an effigy of Grenfell Tower for Bonfire Night.
First things first: the video is horrible. I am going to make a wild guess that the people featured in it, laughing and cheering as their cardboard Grenfell Tower goes up in flames, are not very nice. Some of them are probably racist. In the windows of their Grenfell effigy, there are notably non-white paper figures, waving for help. The effigy-burners say ‘This is what you get for not paying your rent!’ as the paper figures are consumed by the bonfire flames. Gross.
But criminal? That would be even more gross. Living in a society that criminalises people for what they say in their own back gardens would be worse, infinitely worse, than living in a society that has small numbers of prejudiced twats who think mocking the Grenfell calamity is funny.
Yes. But I think there’s a couple of points he’s missing here in his eagerness to signal just how reprehensible he finds the men’s behaviour.
One is that sick jokes, very sick jokes, have long been part of our culture. You could argue, as Brendan seems determined to do, that the people who engage in such humour are a warped minority entirely unrepresentative of the British populace at large. But I suspect the truth is that very tasteless jokes of one sort or another are actually pretty common among a large cross-section of UK society, from squaddies and working class lads to City traders and toffs.
Certainly, back in the day, I remember that within about 24 hours of a news horror story breaking — be it the murder of Lord Mountbatten by the INLA or the Challenger space shuttle disaster or 9/11 — the first sick reaction jokes would start doing the rounds. These jokes were exchanged among men — rarely among women, who tend not to see the funny side at all — as a kind of social currency, to show how in the loop you were.
Today much the same function is served by memes: the sooner you’ve seen them, the cooler it means you are. Beyond that, I think sick jokes have always been the way that as a culture, men especially, we process tragedy.
Many of the old boys I met who fought in World War II told me how they used to josh around with corpses — posing for photographs shaking their hands, shoving cigarettes in their mouths and so on. In today’s hysterical offence-taking climate this behaviour would no doubt be condemned as disrespectful. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s about using black humour as a form of insulation against the horror of death.
The other key point is a political one. Scarcely had the last smouldering embers of the Grenfell conflagration been extinguished when the whole tragedy was seized by the left and used as a stick with which to beat all its favourite targets: rich people, white people, Tories.
Like the death of Diana, it became a litmus test for how in tune you were with the national mood of collective hysteria: if you didn’t think it was the worse thing ever, if you weren’t out there on the streets laying flowers or raising funds or — in the case of the Duchess of Sussex, launching a cookbook — for the victims, if you didn’t hate Theresa May for showing insufficient emotion on her visit to the site, then basically you were heartless scum.
So many Corbynistas and race-baiting activists have made political mileage out of Grenfell, so many con-artists have ripped off the compensation system, so preferential has been the treatment afforded the survivors (given superior housing as a kind of emotional Danegeld to buy off all those shrill, angry leftist campaigners determined to milk every last drop out of the tragedy) that Grenfell has become a kind of emblem for almost everything at least one half of the country fears about how Britain would look if ever Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left lunatics got into power.
You may say those men’s bonfire gesture was vile, tasteless and disrespectful — and I would agree. But I’ll bet you anything you like it that would never even have occurred to them to make such a gesture if the Grenfell Tower tragedy hadn’t been rammed down their throats, day in day out, for nigh on a year by shyster, race-baiting politicians like David Lammy and by leftist media organisations like the BBC.
Still, the bottom line — as O’Neill rightly says — is that Britain is now ruled by virtue-signalling twonks who, in their eagerness to appease the Guardianista chattering classes, have long since abandoned all sense of justice or proportion.
The fury over the Grenfell Tower video has been grimly fascinating. It has confirmed that virtue-signalling has now crossed the line from being the irritating pastime of time-rich tweeters keen to advertise their PC probity and has become an actual menace to the free society. Following an orgy of signalled virtue over this video, which included not just the usual suspects but also Theresa May, Sajid Javid, Diane Abbott and various police chiefs, the police clearly felt they had no choice but to investigate this back-garden idiocy.
So now we have virtue-policing – policing designed not to crack an actual crime but to demonstrate the decency of the police. The police appear to have launched an investigation in order to make a political and moral point about both the wickedness of the video and the benevolence of the police. This is not what the police should be for.
You can say that again.