Newspaper article International New York Times

The Problem with Collective Grief

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Problem with Collective Grief

Article excerpt

The Dutch mourn the victims of Flight 17 in their own sober way.

Less than two weeks ago, the Netherlands was still delirious with World Cup fever. The Dutch unexpectedly achieved third place. Dutch nationalism, usually muted, was turned into mandatory enthusiasm, as the Dutch team racked up victories over Spain, Australia, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica and, finally, Brazil. On Twitter, a soccer commentator who ventured a few critical remarks about the Dutch team received comments to the effect that he should be thrown out of a plane.

Then, on Thursday, while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine. Of the 298 passengers and crew members who were killed, 193 were Dutch nationals, among them a famous AIDS researcher, Joep Lange, and a senator and legal scholar, Willem Witteveen.

The compulsory enthusiasm so rampant during the World Cup -- at least until the semifinal match against Argentina -- quickly switched to compulsory mourning. "Everyone knows at least someone," the usually sober newspaper NRC Handelsblad proclaimed on its front page.

Dutch leaders were more circumspect. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Mark Rutte expressed outrage at the "utterly disrespectful behavior" of pro-Russian separatist rebels, who had refused to release most of the victims' bodies, housed in refrigerated boxcars at a decrepit railway station -- a ghoulish limbo. But he has avoided any outward expression of grief. So has the new king, Willem- Alexander, who has offered his condolences but stopped short of anything like calling for a national day of mourning. Which was a wise decision: Mourning is not the government's business.

It's a cliche that the Dutch are "sober." Sobriety is a part of Dutch identity, but -- especially after the gay right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn was killed in 2002 -- the country also displays symptoms of hysteria. When I was growing up in Amsterdam in the 1970s and '80s, nationalism was considered evidence of bad taste. There are historical reasons for this, including the collaboration of many Dutch officials with Nazis during the Holocaust and the history of Dutch colonialism in modern-day Indonesia, Suriname, South Africa and the like.

Yes, when the national team played soccer (especially against Germany), a modicum of cheerful nationalism was allowed; when a Dutchman excelled in the Tour de France, a certain amount of national pride was permitted. Beyond that, however, nationalism was considered a throwback.

All this changed after 2002, and especially after 2004, when the film director Theo van Gogh was killed by a son of Moroccan immigrants. Newcomers, particularly Muslim ones, were accused of a lack of patriotism. Of not being really Dutch, or even worse: According to Geert Wilders of the extreme-right Party for Freedom, most Dutch Muslims were out to transform the kingdom into a caliphate. …

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