The tragedy in Bangladesh last week is at once maddeningly complex and very simple. A proper response to this tragedy should keep a tidy mind as to which is which.
Let’s begin, where we should, with the simplicity. Over four hundred people are dead and thousands are injured. It’s a shame that in our rush to get at the complex nature of the context in which these people died, we forget this very simple fact. Four hundred people, made in the image of God, are gone from this world, not to return until the resurrection, and their loved ones are forced to pick up the pieces and continue living. I sometimes wish that our news outlets would, before they commit space to the pundits and the experts, make space to name the dead. It would bring a sense of sober simplicity to the spectacle of modern tragedies. These things are complex, but they’re also simple, and we should talk about them in ways that are brutally simple and clear, so that we recognize the brutality of death.
This simple brutality is all the more frustrating when the time comes for recognizing and understanding the complexity of the situation. Simplicity rules the day and the airwaves. The bodies were still being removed from the wreckage when the pundits and experts piled on with the slogans. “These deaths were caused by wealthy Westerners wanting cheap clothes.” “Shouldn’t a t-shirt cost more than a latte?” “Continuing to buy Joe Fresh clothing is the best way to ensure bargaining power for Bangladeshi workers.”
The reality is that the context in which those 400 or more people died is extremely complex. Take the economic context. Yes, cheap shirts were produced at that factory, but so were high end brands which sell for thousands in designer stores, so the cheap-clothes-for-Westerners line doesn’t tell the whole story. Neither does the “keep buying clothes so that incomes continue to go up” line. Yes, there’s truth to it, but what do we do in the meantime—forget the four hundred corpses? Ignore the political corruption endemic to Bangladesh and its garment industry, the lack of proper building codes, the limits on freedom of association in Bangladesh?
This tragedy is the result of a vast but weak social infrastructure in Bangladesh and—yes, let’s face it—at least partly the result of parties who are willing to gain from that weak infrastructure without a clear commitment to contribute more than just flows of capital. There are even geographical considerations—the building was built high on swampy land that was never meant to hold such buildings.
But if the context is so complex, how are we to respond? Do we blame God for placing people in the swampy delta that is Bangladesh? Do we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the complexity or fall headlong into rash action based on simple slogans?
Pope Francis, in his response to the tragedy asked this question: “What point have we come to?” He answered it with this statement: “To the point that we are not aware of this dignity of the person; this dignity of labour.” This is true. But let’s not dishonour the dignity of the human person, and the dignity of labour by conflating what is complex into what is simple or vice-versa.
Rather let’s follow the example provided by the families of those who lost loved ones. Let us first pray. And then, let us note that they are committed to holding those immediately responsible accountable for their actions. In some ways it’s very simple. They are not looking to take down global capitalism. They are not looking to fix the garment industry. They are simply looking for those who failed to be held accountable and to change. We should do the same with those connected to this tragedy who are closest to us.