Fire in Babylon: Ignoring flames at our peril

Fire in Babylon: Ignoring flames at our peril
Undermining public safety in the name of cutting costs ties London to Baghdad and beyond, writes Hadani Ditmars.
5 min read
16 Jun, 2017
At least 17 people were killed in the Grenfell tower tragedy [AFP]
The Towering Inferno was a classic Hollywood blockbuster: a 1974 hit produced by Irwin Allen starring Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

The tale of hubris and greed leading to the deaths of more than 200 people in a modern glass high-rise in San Francisco was a thriller complete with nefarious love triangles and a villainous cost-cutting contractor. 

Sadly for hundreds of residents of London's Grenfell tower, the profit-making shortcuts that sacrificed public safety for short-term gain appear to be alive and well in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, as reports emerge that fireproof cladding would have cost just £2 more per sheet

With cuts to crucial fire-fighting personnel as well as basic fire code safety issues ignored for years, it was a tragedy that might well have been avoided. 

But as I sat transfixed to the BBC on the night of the fire, wondering how so many souls could be sacrificed in the midst of billionaire's row, the scene was strangely familiar.

It wasn't images of the dystopian 70's disaster flick I recalled as much as scenes from modern day Iraq. The nation whose joys and agonies I've been documenting for two decades has endured countless infernos, and still lacks conditions for basic fire safety.

For those who see the 12-year UN embargo as a kind of intensified neoliberalism, Baghdad and London may well enjoy a kinship of sorts. The 12 years of draconian sanctions helped smash a state that once had high standards in public education, health and safety.

And the years of post-invasion violence ushered in after 2003 have resulted in countless bombings, IEDs, and explosions that further stretch the state's meagre public safety resources. Baghdad's 5 million population now has just 2,000 firefighters.

I remember when the fire-bombings of churches began in Baghdad, and I recall a mass at the Virgin Mary church in Karradeh, where the inheritors of Babylon had a priest who took a bowl of fire to the altar.

The nation whose joys and agonies I've been documenting for two decades has endured countless infernos, and still lacks conditions for basic fire safety.

Both towers and fires are rich in symbolism and metaphor - from the tower of Babel to fire in Babylon - to dystopian films of the 1970s. But increasingly, their Biblical and apocalyptic dimensions are taking on terrible new meanings.

Consider the bombing of the multi-storey al-Hadi shopping mall in Baghdad last July that killed more than 324 people - mainly women, children and young people out celebrating the last nights of Ramadan. While the initial death toll from the bombing was limited, most died because the building was not up to code and lacked proper fire exits.

While the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombing, many residents of the area held the Iraqi government to account, calling Prime Minister Abadi a "dog" and a "thief" - and throwing stones as his entourage visited the site to pay their respects.

Locals were outraged at what they perceived as the government's complicity in the tragedy, with rumours rife that the car bombs may have made it past checkpoints where Iraqi security forces still used bogus bomb detectors such as the ADE 651 - a remodelled golf ball finder - sold widely in Iraq and Afghanistan for as much as $60,000 each. 

In a subsequent statement, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence admitted that they were overwhelmed, with not enough resources, military checkpoints, and intelligence services to properly manage the security of Baghdad.

I remember touring Baghdad fire stations - beleaguered by years of an embargo that stripped Iraqi society of its basic building blocks while empowering the regime - in the late 1990s, with the anti-sanctions group Voices in the Wilderness. While the group consisted of often painfully earnest humanitarians with little understanding of realpolitik, their efforts to support Iraqi civil society were admirable.

Public safety is a human right and its erosion only serves the interest of the ruling class.

But just as I documented the global prison/ security industry's clout in my book, Dancing in the No Fly Zone, in a chapter about an erstwhile PR tour of Abu Ghraib prison lead by Janis Karpinski some eight months before the scandal broke, with leading US contractors like Virginia based Dyncorp (of Guantanamo fame) working on prison construction in the "new Iraq", increasingly public safety and security is also being privatised - from Baghdad to Baltimore.

While war reparations for Iraq are a distant dream, the line between burning buildings in Notting Hill and Baghdad is becoming clearer.

A random search for "fire safety in Syria" for example, reveals a website run by "Notting Hill Media", with listings for dozens of companies - based primarily in the US and the Gulf, offering their wares.

And a recent New York Times article entitled, When you dial 911 and Wall Street answers notes that "since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms have increasingly taken over public services like emergency care and fire fighting, often with dire effects".

It notes an alarming case where "A man in the suburban South watched a chimney fire burn his house to the ground as he waited for the fire department, which billed him anyway and then sued him for $15,000 when he did not pay."

While war reparations for Iraq are a distant dream, the line between burning buildings in Notting Hill and Baghdad is becoming clearer.

As the world resembles one of those prophetic dystopian disaster films of the 1970s more and more each day - we are all in that towering inferno together. We ignore the flames at our peril.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars