By ANTÔNIO X
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 31, 2013, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: When the Music Stopped .
THERE’S a special sort of melancholy that arises from reflecting upon the death of young people who just wanted to have fun. The calamity in Santa Maria, a college town in southern Brazil, where a nightclub caught on fire and killed at least 235 people on Sunday (the number has been changing daily), has, like other tragedies, revealed the best and the worst of Brazilian society.
Offers to donate blood to the victims in Santa Maria, about 180 miles from here in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, have poured in from all over Brazil and protesters have taken to the streets demanding justice. Our neighbors have helped, too. Argentina — which suffered a deadly nightclub fire in 2004 that killed close to 200 people — quickly sent over a shipment of skin grafts for burn victims.
But the fire also revealed the country at its worst. Tasteless Facebook users engaged in a perverse relativism to say that hundreds of people die every day in Africa because of poverty. Fools joked that the nightclub fire was a kind of divine retribution, since the students at the nightclub were attending a “sertanejo” concert — a sort of melodramatic form of country music that is considered corny. I suppose that, for some, dark and twisted humor can be a coping mechanism.
Our national media’s sensationalist coverage has been even worse. It’s possible to tell heart-wrenching stories carefully and tactfully, like the accounts
I’ve read about how the victims’ cellphones, which rescue workers had placed on their dead bodies, continued to ring, as frantic parents sought to find out if their children were still alive.
What shouldn’t be happening is a crowd of journalists pointing cameras in the face of a mother who just lost her son and demanding to know how she feels. Freud once said that mourning is an intimate process. But Brazil’s media is making a reality show out of this tragedy.
The Internet coverage has been appalling: a major news Web site posted a picture of a handsome young man and invited readers to view a slide show to “see the faces of the young people who died in Santa Maria” in the same way it has presented slide shows like “check out the hotties at Ipanema beach.” The day after the fire, the largest newspaper in the state published a comic that presented boys and girls entering the club from one side, drinking beer and having fun, and leaving on the other side, escorted by death with a scythe.
Intense media coverage can certainly have a positive effect. Everyone is awaiting the government’s response and is eager to see that justice is served. U
nlike the many politicians involved in corruption scandals — a frequent occurrence in Brazil — the band members whose pyrotechnics caused the fire and the security personnel who blocked clubgoers from leaving will almost certainly be punished swiftly, if only because of universal public outrage.
But the fire is likely to be exploited in every possible way by conservative-minded politicians to persuade “the good citizen” (a mythical character that our politicians love to invoke) that youthful fun is dangerous. In search of a scapegoat, overcrowding will be blamed, as well as irregularities in the construction of the nightclub.
These criticisms are valid, but if you have ever been young and have been to a nightclub, you know that they are crowded and will always be crowded, and that your favorite nightclub is probably a small spot with only one exit.
Of course pyrotechnics should be banned in closed spaces. Of course nightclubs should have fire exits. Of course there should be laws and rules
regarding the construction of such spaces. However, it is pretty clear that politicians, just like journalists, are going to use this tragedy for their own ends.
Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, has in recent years been suffering from a witch hunt targeting bars, nightclubs and parties. The city government is shutting down many places because of complaints from older, conservative, religious and often homophobic voters who object to the noise and don’t like seeing same-sex couples kissing in the street. Strict new regulations on night life are watering down the city’s bohemian culture.
And it’s not the only Brazilian city facing draconian laws. Other politicians have come up with similar regulations: one seeks to ban alcohol consumption in public places.
But Brazil is a country known for its parties and laid-back attitude; in São Paulo, most bars have tables laid out on the streets, and throughout Brazil tourists and locals alike take great pleasure in having a beer while walking on the beach. Puritanical new restrictions will no doubt be proposed to please the mythical “good citizen,” and the Santa Maria disaster will be used as a pretext to needlessly crack down on young people’s having fun.
Somewhere inside this political and media circus are 235 dead people and a huge number of parents and siblings who are stuck in a nightmare. Tasteless cartoons, exploitative journalism and puritanical politicians won’t end it. The victims’ families deserve justice, and they also deserve a
measure of respectful silence from the media as they struggle to carry on after their irreplaceable loss.
Antônio Xerxenesky is a novelist and short story writer.