California Nightmare

Meet Derick Almena, model Californian and prototype for the next generation of Americans.  Derick—in his world we dispense with formalities—is “manager” of a warehouse in Oakland California, where he sublets space to various artistes.  At this for-profit arts collective, which he named the Ghost Ship, Derick and his rentors throw parties.  At a dance party last Friday night, a fire started and raced through the rabbit warren, killing at least 36 people.  Derick’s first reaction, posted on Facebook, expressed no sorrow for the victims—much less remorse: “"Everything I worked so hard for is gone.  Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound.”

Appearing with Matt Lauer on Good Morning America, Derick was bright enough to say, “I’m sorry,” but when pressed on the question of his responsibility, he could only say: “What am I going to say to that? ... I can barely stand here right now.”  You see, what counts is not the 36 (and counting) victims, but his feelings.

But, some soft-hearted soul is going to respond, Derick didn’t start the fire or want it to happen.  It’s an accident, something like an act of G-d.

Perhaps, but before deciding to give Derick a pass, we’d have to ask a few questions.  Did he comply with the law?  For example, were people living in a building zoned only for commercial use?  The answer appears to be “Yes.”  Did he have the proper sprinkler systems and alarms?  No.  Was he under investigation for his violations?  Yes.  Had there been dangerous incidents before, e.g., a flame-breather who set himself on fire?  Well, yes.

I would tell Derick what I told the friend of one of my children.  We were driving in rural Maine, and he blew through a stop sign at a blind intersection.  When I drew this to his attention, he said, “There is never anybody at this corner.”  I pointed out that in fact we were at this corner, and it was just as likely that someone else, in the next few hours, would come through from the other side.  “If you run over a kid on the bike or smash into a school bus,”  I observed, “it will be your fault, 100%, because you refused to live up to expectations, comply with the rules, observe the norms.”    If you do the right thing all the time, and something goes wrong—if a driver runs the stop sign from the other side—even though the same harm is done, you are guiltless.  But when you break the rules and take the law into your own hands, either through a practical joke or self-indulgence, then the blood is on your hands.

This simple but profound bit of wisdom I have borrowed from Samuel Johnson.  In his novel Rasselas—the wholesome alternative to the wickedness of Voltaire’s Candide—the princess blames herself for permitting her lady-in-waiting to go off on an adventure in which she has been captured.  The philosopher consoles the princess with these observations:

“When we act according to our duty, we commit the events to Him by whose laws our actions are governed, and who will suffer none to be finally punished for obedience.  When, in prospect of some good, whether natural or moral, we break the rules prescribed us, we withdraw from the direction of superior wisdom, and take all consequences upon ourselves.  Man cannot so far know the connection of causes and events as that he may venture to do wrong in order to do right.  When we pursue our end by lawful means, we may always console our miscarriage by the hope of future recompense.  When we consult only our own policy, and attempt to find a nearer way to good by over-leaping the settled boundaries of right and wrong, we cannot be happy even by success, because we cannot escape the consciousness of our fault; but if we miscarry, the disappointment is irremediably embittered.  How comfortless is the sorrow of him who feels at once the pangs of guilt and the vexation of calamity which guilt has brought upon him!”

Derick Anselma, by refusing to take proper precautions, is morally responsible for the death of 36 people in Oakland, and if there is any law in the state of California, he will be held legally accountable.  Of course, if we applied the same principle to politicians who refuse to carry out laws designed to protect the American public from criminal illegal immigrants, then the mayors of San Francisco and Chicago—along with the President of the United States—would be in jail already as accessories before the fact to an endless series of homicides that dwarf the grisly fire in Oakland.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina