‘In case of fire, argue about politics...’

Let’s face it: nobody is discussing the issues at the sizzling core of this blaze… We’re just pointing fingers at each other

You can tell something is seriously (but seriously) wrong with your country, when a major fire breaks out... and half the population instantly decides it was caused by ‘government incompetence’, and the other half – with equal conviction – claims it must have been ‘politically-motivated arson’.

Before even getting to the part about jumping to automatic conclusions like that – seriously though: aren’t we doing it just slightly too often these days? – there is something dangerously dotty about both those knee-jerk reactions: and not just because they both make equally gratuitous assumptions in the absence of any confirmed ‘facts’, either. (Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?)

No, the problem evidently consists in a pathologically warped sense of national priorities. Normally, when fires break out, the first concern would be over possible injuries or fatalities. How many people died or were hospitalised? What is the extent of the damage? What are the operational risks run by the fire-fighters and/or Civil Protection personnel... etc. etc.?

Additional questions might include whether the fire itself can, in fact, be even extinguished (not all fires can, you know. Look under ‘Australia’ and ‘Greece’ for further details); followed by whether there is a chance that the flames may spread to other areas, and so on.

And that’s just any old fire, anywhere. When a raging inferno erupts at a waste management facility, there would also be added concerns about public health and safety. Do people in the vicinity need to be evacuated? And what if ‘the vicinity’ happens to cover the length and breadth of the entire island (I can smell the fumes myself, all the way from Ta’ Xbiex)? Where do we all evacuate to, exactly?

Those, at any rate, are the questions that need to be asked first; which is not to say that other questions can’t be asked later. Sure, there’ll be a time to assess such factors as political responsibility (in the case of ‘government incompetence’); or outrageous criminal culpability (if it turns out to be someone’s impersonation of The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’). But, for reasons that I’m honestly tired of having to repeat, that time usually comes: a) after the fire has been put out, and; b) when the cause of the fire is actually known. At the time of writing, we seem to be pretty far from either stage.

Yet judging by the very first comments that came pouring in under all news reports of this event, and which are still pouring in now – you can check for yourselves: they’re all listed out in chronological order – Malta’s foremost reaction to this calamity was to ask whether it was a ‘Labour cock-up’, or some kind of ‘Nationalist terrorist attack’. Because, of course, anything that ever happens in this country can only ever be conceived along one of those two conflicting narrative story-lines. Nothing ever occurs in this country for any other reason whatsoever...

I guess that just about wraps it up for the entire principle of ‘cause and effect’, and its applicability to Malta. If we all already know the ‘cause’ before the ‘effect’ has even happened... well, there isn’t very much point in ‘studying the effect to find out the cause’, now is there? By that reasoning we may as well not hold any inquiries or investigations into this incident, or any other, at all... and while we’re at it, we may as well just stop teaching all branches of science in schools.

But let’s not get carried away. What both those narrative story-lines have in common is that they are only ever concerned with political responsibility – for any ‘effect’, regardless of ‘cause’ – and even then, only ‘political responsibility’ of the most tribal variety imaginable: i.e., passing the buck onto the ‘political other’, exactly as one schoolboy would point an accusatory finger at another.

And yet (note: I’ll be using the word ‘yet’ a lot today), these reactions did not even come directly from any political party at first. I’m not talking about political tweets, but public responses by ordinary people in the street: people whose only actual contact with either party is through the media, or in the polling booth once every five years.

It would be anomalous at the best of times; but in this particular context – because we are talking about ‘Fire’, no less: a universally recognised ‘maximum alarm signal’, if ever there was one – the same anomaly seems to blaze with an intensity of its own.

Makes you wonder how all these people would react, if it was their own homes going up in flames as they typed. They’d probably still be hammering away at their keyboard, gleefully declaiming that the fire had proved their own political convictions right, and everyone else’s wrong... even as Death – in the form of either smoke inhalation, or incineration, or both – gently tapped them on the shoulder, and whispered: ‘It’s time to go...’

Hmm. You know what? Might not be such a bad idea after all. It would do wonders for the national gene pool, and almost certainly provide a few star candidates (not that any were needed) for this year’s ‘Darwin Awards’. But then again, at the rate we’re going, half the country might interpret that as a ‘death threat’, and try to have me jailed for ‘attempted murder’. So let’s just forget I ever said it, and concentrate on the matter at hand.

Priorities. That is what this is all about, at the end of the day. The problem is not so much that people actually think in those terms – there are, after all, moments where it is important for heads to roll, and for criminal prosecutions to take place where needed. No, it is that we only ever seem capable of thinking in those terms... as though literally nothing else matters.

All the same, the tendency has its uses. Let us, for argument’s sake, go along with at least one of those trains of thought; and assume, a priori, that the fire was directly or indirectly caused by government incompetence or irresponsibility. (Note: why that train, not the other? Well, let’s just say it’s a question of plausibility. I have not exactly held back from criticising the PN over the years; but it’s kind of a big stretch, even for me, to contemplate that the Nationalist Party would willingly endanger hundreds of lives, and cause untold damage to the environment, just to score a cheap political point.)

Under those circumstances, it would be perfectly logical to demand that ‘heads roll’: even going all way up to the very top (depending on the seriousness of the long- and short-term consequences, which is another thing we don’t know yet). Events such as these can and sometimes do bring down entire governments, you know. There is yet that possibility in this case. (By ‘yet’, in this context, I mean that: no one has died... yet. We don’t know of any major health risks... yet. The damage has not been quantified... yet. Yet all this may yet change. Do you ‘yet’ my meaning now?)

So: to fast-forward directly to the part where we have answers to all of the above, and they amount to unequivocal government culpability – in other words, where roughly half of you stand right now – well, what then, exactly?

I won’t bother trying to accurately predict the immediate outcome of such a hypothetical scenario – there are simply too many variables in the equation – but certainly one distinct possible outcome would be an early election. This would, of course, give the people who started this whole debate the opportunity to vote out the incompetent, irresponsible government in question... which, at the end of the day, seems to be the only purpose of their general online existence.

But then again: what guarantee do they have that they will succeed, anyway? Hate to sound pessimistic, but if that eventuality does materialise tomorrow... and it may, yet... how many ‘PNs’ will actually contest that election? There are at least two factions that we can all see with our own eyes; and their mutual incompatibility is such that I doubt they can even contest on the same political platform. So even if Labour is eviscerated by the Maghtab fire disaster – heck, even if it receives a direct hit by a nuclear warhead – it still has more than a fighting chance of being re-elected, against an Opposition in such a shambles.

And besides: even in the unlikely event that the PN under Adrian Delia – or, who knows? By then, anyone else – does replace the present administration... what grounds are there to believe that the incoming administration will be any less ‘incompetent’ or ‘irresponsible’ than this one? What is there in the Opposition party’s track record – on health and safety, in the environment, etc. – to suggest that it might do things better; or even, for that matter, any differently?

This, ultimately, is the real tragedy of it all (apart from the fire itself, of course... which raged while we pointlessly argued over politics). Malta’s current political situation does not offer any real alternatives: not within the political system itself, nor even with regard to improving national infrastructure when it comes precisely to this sort of thing. Let’s face it: nobody is discussing the issues at the sizzling core of this blaze. We’re not talking about alternative waste management strategies, or contemplating national plans for possible future mass emergencies. We’re not even talking about basic health and safety mechanisms.

We’re just pointing fingers at each other, and scarcely even disguising our enthusiasm at another disaster to blame on someone else. It is as though our entire entanglement with the political process never got past the phase of questioning ‘who’ runs the show... and, therefore, never got round to questioning ‘how’ the show is actually run.

The only possible outcome is that the same show will continue to be run exactly as is today, regardless of who’s responsible for the running of it. But still: to close this cheerful article on the customary note of false optimism – you know: ‘seeking a silver lining’, and all that crap – the Maghtab fire does at least light up the absurdity of this situation for all to see.

Something tells me, however, by the time we all finally come round to seeing it, there will be precious little left of this country to see it in. By then, we’d all have been burnt to a crisp, in mid-sentence, centuries ago...

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