Why is nothing happening? asked Casper van Neirop, quoted in a New York Times column reporting on how the Dutch were reacting to the downing of passenger flight MH17 over the Ukraine. When will the government announce an official national day of mourning, asked Willem Vissers; Our leaders come across as cold and insecure, muses an NRC columnist. The overall thrust of the article was that the Dutch government, if not the Dutch people, were taking an all-too hands-off and detached view of the event, which killed nearly 200 Dutch nationals.
The American reaction would have been much more immediate and much stronger, I admitted to friends. We would want to do something, fix something, see justice served, hold someone responsible: express and act, strongly.
Soft Power, relying on cultural example and economic influence to persuade others in international relations, was never our way. Hard Power, political and military approaches, get results.
I think that the Times misses the depth of Dutch feelings, though, and in particular the way that the Dutch (in my experience) work things through.
There’s no question in my mind that the Dutch are deeply angry and sad about what has happened. It is the first and only topic of conversation. But there is a determined prioritization to their concern, first for the victims and in getting their remains back to their families. Most approve of the government’s public and private efforts to reach the site and to repatriate the victims, recognizing that this cannot be done in an atmosphere of anger.
There is also a patience to wait for the facts to sort themselves out. The Dutch tend to save their emotions until the full scale of the problem is clear, notes a commentator. The who fid it and how, why it happened and motives behind it, are animatedly discussed. As the news and opinion is gradually coalescing around a narrative and an identity, then towards measures that need to be taken to deal with the criminals and to prevent another tragedy.
Finally, there is the process of building consensus before acting. When surprised by events, the Dutch talk things through and argue about meaning and response until they come to a shared agreement. I remember how the ‘Polder Model’ governed our unexpected plant closure: there were daily meetings and discussion circles until everyone figured out how they all felt about it and what they would do next. Then the conversations and meetings stopped and everyone started acting in concert with one another. I expect that it will be much the same this time.
It’s one of those instructive cross-cultural moments when the differences in how societies process tragedies are really apparent. The failure of the Times was not to document how the process was unfolding, locally and quietly, but to judge the differences though their own cultural bias.