A busy passenger train from the Bulgarian border to Turkey’s biggest city Istanbul derailed on Sunday, killing 24 people and injuring hundreds more, but rather than examine the causes of the crash Turkish leaders and state media have sought to deflect criticism, ensuring valuable lessons are not learnt.
The news, which would be shocking in any country, was covered by the news agencies and sent to media outlets around the country. Television stations and news sites were soon headlining the breaking news.
But soon the state media’s response kicked in. In an effort to pre-empt any blame on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the one-man regime that would formally begin the next day, his media pre-emptively pointed out other major train crashes that had happened in Europe and the United States.
Predictably, many of his opponents did blame the government, with the most coherent pointing out that the contract for the maintenance of the track had been cancelled due to lack of funds.
The more conspiratorial of Erdoğan’s supporters decided the disaster was a deliberate act carried out by domestic or foreign opponents of the government in an attempt to overshadow Erdoğan’s swearing-in ceremony.
Despite apparent faults with the rails, the two train drivers and four others were detained by police in the wake of the disaster, although the drivers were released after giving statements.
In short, it looks as though two dozen people lost their lives as the end result of a series of mistakes, short-cuts and accidents – something that, as Sabah newspaper has been at pains to point out, could have happened anywhere. And it does, but rarely with the frequency that it does in Turkey, where you are seven times as likely to die in a train crash than if you were to go the same distance by rail inside the European Union.
On one hand, this is unsurprising. Turkey is a lot poorer than EU countries, and lives are considered much cheaper by the private and public sectors alike. But on the other hand, it should inspire a response from politicians when a disaster of this magnitude occurs, including a list of things they will make sure are done better next time.
Instead, there are not only no governmental resignations over the incident – though a group of engineers and architects have called for the resignation of the transport minister – but no real signs that anything will be done about it.
The “normalisation” and “contextualisation” by the Turkish media and government politicians comparing this to disasters elsewhere means in practice they have chosen not to take any measures and to just wait for the next disaster to kill members of the Turkish public.
No one even resigned after the worst mining disaster in Turkey’s history left hundreds dead in 2014, and there are few signs the mining industry has updated its practices.
At the root of this strange disregard for the lives of the citizenry is the dialectic of government and opposition rhetoric that we saw in last month’s election.
The elections in the early years of this century were fought over the question “should we punish the secularist military for interfering in politics?”. Those following the purges of the secular elite from 2008 onwards asked electors the question “do we want Erdoğan’s ‘new Turkey’ or the ‘old Turkey’ of the secular and nationalist parties?”. From the 2016 failed coup attempt onwards, that question has been replaced by a new one: “Is Erdoğan or is it sinister foreign-backed forces who are to blame for the state of the country?”
The hidden genius of this question is that it absolves both sides of any responsibility for any failures, whether they be failures of governance or failures of regulation. The economy can be hit badly by turbulence and people can struggle to feed themselves, but in place of more constructive criticism the opposition can revel in their constitutional impotence and insist that Erdoğan is first removed.
Turkey’s first nuclear power plant could go badly wrong due to a lack of safety oversight, meanwhile, and Erdoğan and state officials will shrug their shoulders and blame rival Islamists, Kurdish militants or Islamic State – all in their view carrying out the wishes of “the mastermind” – the United States.
The government believes the country is being targeted through sabotage whenever an accident happens. Some members of the government even believe that natural disasters are provoked by international enemies through earthquake machines and the seeding of flood rains.
Many more lives will be lost unless they revise that view.