Ninety-seven victims have so far died in the Rhode Island nightclub tragedy. Some of them were trampled in the fury to get out of the burning building; some choked on the smoke; still others were so badly incinerated that investigators need dental records or DNA to identify them. A handful of survivors are still barely clinging to life in area hospitals. They were needless deaths, as many deaths are, and our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and their grieving families.
Which is more than the school paper at nearby Brown University managed to say. Nobody’s ever accused John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s alma mater of too much sympathy for Rhode Island’s hard-working, blue-collar locals, but the editorial about the blaze in the Brown Daily Record is a case study in — as I think the kids used to say — “so totally not getting it.” If you want to understand why young Buffy and Biff have trouble distinguishing between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, this is essential reading. The main point is: “Hey, man, why blame somebody? S*** happens.”
There was a time when a well-intentioned student journalist might have been bursting with rage at greedy club owners who may have let too many people inside. Or howling over the lewd inanity of the band, Great White — pudgy middle-agers whose best-known song includes the creepy lyrics: “Woman you’re a mess, gonna die in your sleep / There’s blood on my amp and my Les Paul’s beat.” He or she might even have thought to convey condolences to the bereaved.
But the editorial, entitled “Too Quick to Blame,” offers none of that. Instead it serves up a mush of quasi-illiteracy and we’re-all-victims psychobabble that ought to have Rhode Islanders as well as Brown parents — who are forking out tens of thousands of dollars per annum in tuition — swamping the school switchboard in protest.
The piece begins with a real whopper, calling the inferno the state’s own September 11. “Such comparisons are not far off,” it says. Let’s see: Muslim fanatics hijack aircraft to attack the United States, and a moronic heavy metal band accidentally starts a fire. Don’t you, like, see the connection?
That alone should have been enough for the editors to get out the red pencils — if not the wastebasket — but then it is clearly a confusing time on the idyllic Providence campus: “Rhode Islanders have lost their innocence. And those of us on College Hill, as members of the greater Rhode Island community, were not left unaffected.”
Not left unaffected? Well, if you hadn’t already lost your “innocence” on September 11, you must be a pretty unaffected — even disaffected — customer. You certainly don’t understand the grief of the Rhode Island community. Here’s the sniffy editorialist: “Even as bodies were being pulled from the rubble, the blame game had begun…. In a post-Sept. 11 world, response to tragedy seems especially vicious (sic).” And here’s a local resident on the Providence Journal website, talking about Great White’s leader Jack Russell: “I hope the DA nails his ass soon… God help me, I’ve never felt such a desire for retribution in my whole life for what he’s done to the people of this state.”
That’s an authentic voice of suffering, someone who merits our compassion and condolence. But our detached editorialist doesn’t see things that way: “We’re a nation on edge… In our quest for ‘justice’ we should not let the hunt for the guilty overshadow the memories of those who were lost.” Does one really need to point out that the desire for justice springs exactly from the memory of the dead? That wanting retribution doesn’t overshadow that memory, but is caused by it?
One does have to point that out to the Biffs of the world, whose moral compass is broken and whose constricted emotional register runs from “bummer” to “wow.” So consider it pointed. Telling the bereaved to calm down is an insult; comparing Thursday’s fire to September 11 is a disgrace. Failing to offer your condolences, and instead claiming a share in the grieving, is despicable. The newspaper owes Rhode Island, and especially those in mourning, an apology.