Stardust Nightclub Tragedy, Unlawful killing, Censorship & Debian Scapegoating

Last week, the jury returned an unlawful killing verdict in relation to the 48 deaths at the Stardust nightclub fire in 1981.

In the context of an inquest, unlawful killing tells us that the circumstances of the death involved some sort of crime. The crime may be deliberate or it may be a matter of extreme incompetence. The verdict of a coroner's inquest does not name a guilty party. We could use the same framework to think about the deaths in the Debian suicide cluster.

Shortly after the jury announced their verdict, people noticed a blog from Russ Allbery in Uncensored.Deb.Ian.Community and other syndication services on the topic Review: The Stars, Like Dust. Russ publishes a lot of book reviews and it could have just been coincidence. Nonetheless, there are a lot of accusations about trolling in Debian so it seems like a good opportunity to look at the similarities between the Stardust deaths and the Debian suicide cluster deaths.

Some things change...

The tragedy was a long time ago in 1981 but it remains highly relevant today.

Some things changed. For example, both Ireland and the UK now have much stricter safety regulations in business premises. The quality of building materials and the standard of electrical installation work has improved a lot.

Forbidden music was censored

One of Ireland's most notable folk singers Christy Moore became a convicted criminal for singing about the fire.

Yet this is something that has changed: Ireland abolished criminal speech laws and and the Internet provided a way for people to circumvent the censorship and listen to Moore's song They Never Came Home.

To put that in perspective, nobody was ever convicted of a crime in relation to overcrowding, the ignition of the fire or the blocked fire exits. But Moore was convicted for singing about those things.

We can see exactly the same phenomena in Debian. Nobody has ever been investigated or convicted over the Debian suicide cluster deaths but there have been enormous efforts to punish those who spoke up about it.

... but some things don't change

The fire was on Valentine's Day, 14 February 1981 and the initial inquiry concluded in November 1981 with a finding that it was probably started by arson.

No evidence of arson was documented. It looks like this was not much more than guesswork.

Eventually, in 2009, a review was commissioned by the Government. The report declared that the finding of arson was not justified. The Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, publicly accepted his conclusions. The arson verdict was now erased. The families of victims were left in limbo for another 15 years waiting for the new verdict, a lot like the open source community has been left in limbo waiting for an official report about the suicides.

In 2019 the Government agreed to a new inquest. The inquest began in 2023 and last week it produced verdicts of unlawful killing. The finding of arson was not substantiated.

The Wikipedia page about Unlawful Killing tells us that such verdicts only require proof on the balance of probabilities. News reports suggest that in Ireland, the verdict had to be beyond reasonable doubt, which is a much stronger verdict.

Scapegoating in Ireland and Debian

The finding of arson in 1981 has the impact of shifting blame. By finding that arson was a possible factor, the inquiry was reducing the weight of blame on the owners of the nightclub and officials at the Dublin City Council for their own failings in health and safety practices.

Moreover, a finding of arson shifts the blame from the landlord classes to the youth. Rather than seeing the youth as victims, the arson finding encourages us to consider the possibility that one of the youngsters had a role in their own suffering.

We can see the same in the world of Debian. Frans Pop chose to write his resignation/suicide note the night before Debian Day yet Wouter Verhelst wrote a blog insisting that Pop had other reasons for suicide.

We can see the same phenomena in Debian and other open source software groups that have implemented amateur hour Codes of Conduct (CoC). Whenever there is some kind of conflict, the CoC is used to shift the blame from wrongdoing by the leadership figures and use some volunteer as a scapegoat.

We find the same thing again in the Catholic abuse scandals. The Crimen Sollicitationis is a Code of Conduct for handling abuse cases. In rule 73 of this code, the wording selected by the author in the original Latin version of the text explicitly suggests that the child is a collaborator in the crime rather than a victim. The finding of arson suggests that some of the youth may have been collaborators in their own demise.

Crimen Sollicitationis, the CoC for hiding abuse, goes on to provide a procedure for interrogating victims who make a complaint. The victims are asked to admit that they made the complaint because they are seeking forgiveness for their own "participation" in the forbidden act.

We saw the same phenomena in Debian. Dr Norbert Preining made a complaint about harassment from the Debian Account Managers. He gave an example of the nasty messages these people sent him in December 2018 ( evidence).

A common theme used by the abusers and those investigating abuse is the questioning of the victim's reasons for making a complaint. Victim's were asked if they were seeking forgiveness or absolution. The implication is that a victim asking for absolution is admitting they were somehow party to the wrongdoing. From the thesis of Sally Muytjens:

The confessional is a unique situational context for clergy and was utilised by DN actors as a multi-functional DN resource (Cahill and Wilkinson 2017, 16). Clericalism was exploited as a significant DN resource in this situational context. Where a victim is seeking forgiveness, they are extremely vulnerable as the priest has the power to grant or withhold absolution.

The church teaches us from a young age that the confessional is a place of secrecy and privacy. The messages Debian Account Managers are sending to their victims seek to exploit the same psychology, from the message published by Dr Preining:

We are sending this email privately, leaving its disclosure as your decision (although traces in public databases are unavoidable)

Sure enough, after a few weeks of this, Dr Preining was guilt-tripped into sending a public email where he asks for absolution and the absolution was subsequently granted to him.

In fact, we can see the same psychology in other social problems that Ireland is facing today. For example, for a long time, the Irish government dragged their feet over compensation to victims of the Mica scandal. The biggest social problems in Ireland today involve the health system, homelessness and insufficient housing, even for those who are working and able to afford the rent. In each case, public discourse about the subject tries to shift the blame to those who are suffering or some third party like the immigrants.

Please see the chronological history of how the Debian harassment and abuse culture evolved.