Brazil went into collective shock when 235 young people died in a nightclub fire last Sunday. The rest of the world shrugged - my subjective analysis of available news
Brazil lost roughly 10 times as many promising youth as the U.S. did in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff declared three days of national mourning.
But the world media largely ignored that profound sense of loss. They tended to focus on more superficial elements:
Statistics: How did the Brazilian tragedy compared with other nightclub disasters? Not as bad as the Cocoanut Grove in Boston, in 1942, where 492 died. Or Louyang, China, 309 people in 2000. But worse than Rhode Island, 2003, 100 people. And Buenos Aires, 2004, 194 deaths.
Pyrotechnics: Most of these disasters resulted from flares and other incendiary effects generated on stage, which have less to do with music than with desire to wow the audience.
Corruption: The Brazilian nightclub's licence expired last August. It had close to 2,000 people inside, twice as many as legally permitted. It had only one exit.
But then, what can you expect from a Third World nation? Shrug.
I haven't been in Brazil for 40 years. Back then, I remember, alleged corruption in Brazil's construction industry made Quebec's current scandal look like kiddies in a sandbox. Rip-offs in contracting; rip-offs in inspection and enforcement; rip-offs in construction materials, resulting in the roof of a multi-acre supermarket collapsing.
Gee, just like one did in Elliot Lake, here in First World Canada.
Brazil is now a member of the G20, a rising star in the world economic order. Yet news reports imply that not much has changed there.
What caught my attention, though, was not the self-righteous toothsucking about Third World incompetence and inefficiency, but a few paragraphs about the nightclub's bouncers.
Apparently, when fire first broke out,
security guards refused to let panicking patrons out, because they hadn't paid their bar bills.
Some reports suggested that the bouncers relented when they realized the situation. Others indicated that the bouncers were simply overwhelmed by the crush of people trying to escape.
But by then it was too late. The pile of trampled bodies at the sole exit prevented anyone else from getting out anyway. Rescue crews had to force their way through a solid wall of bodies to reach the survivors still inside.
Some of the 235 dead were crushed in the stampede to get out; the rest asphyxiated from toxic smoke inhalation.
The guards, we should note, were simply doing their job. They had instructions. They did what they were told.
The same rationale used by German guards in the Nazi death camps.
Let's acknowledge that it's comfortable to know exactly what's expected of you, so you can do it. The nightclub's rule was clear - don't let patrons out without paying.
And as long as the situation remained normal, that rule maintained order.
But situations have a habit of changing. The primary lesson of evolution, it seems to me, is that simplicity never lasts. Situations keep getting more complex. And what had been a comfortable norm turns into a horrifying extreme.
At that point, continuing the extreme simply because it used to be the norm is wrong. Or criminal. Perhaps even sinful.
My book, SIN: A New Understanding of Virtue and Vice, argued that sin (or
whatever else you choose to call it) is almost always a virtue taken to an extreme. Self-esteem becomes pride; enjoyment of food becomes gluttony; labour-saving becomes sloth.
The extreme is usually too much. But it can be too little. Too much physical interaction with children becomes abuse; too little, neglect.
In the Brazilian nightclub, the intended virtue was to maintain order. Under normal circumstances, the extremes would be either to let patrons cheat the owners, or to ruthlessly prosecute cheaters with criminal charges.
The same extremes face the owners of retail stores - from the corner grocery to Walmart.
The nightclub chose a middle ground, avoiding both anarchy and criminal prosecution - don't let patrons out until they've paid. The same way Costco checks your cashier's receipt as you leave the store.
But the middle ground unexpectedly morphed into an extreme. When a member of the band lit an outdoor flare and set the place on fire, cheating was no longer the primary concern. What had been the right thing to do suddenly became wrong. Dead wrong.
It's a salutary lesson for all of us. As Kenny Rogers warbled in The Gambler, "You gotta know when to hold'em, know when to fold'emâ€¦"
The principle applies to climate change, gun control, interest rate manipulation, race and religious intolerance, women's rightsâ€¦
Whatever your ideologies, if you hold'em in spite of new evidence, if you can't fold'em when the game changes, even the best of intentions will go awry.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at