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Public response to tragedy: The five stages

The recent attacks in Paris (and so many other cities around the world, before and after) shocked the world, in the way that only terrorist attacks do.  But as the days passed, while people mourned, looked for somebody to blame, or swore revenge, I noticed a pattern in how the public responds to tragedy.  I’ve noticed these common threads form over many months and years, after many different types of disaster, both human-made and natural.  It reminds me of the famous Five Stages of Grief, so I’ll use that as my metaphor to share it with you.

First, disaster strikes.  It may be a bomb blowing up a cafe, or an earthquake triggering a tsunami which floods a nuclear power plant, or just an air crash.  News spreads at lightning speed via twitter (the medium of choice for those who absolutely must know the news first).  It then gets picked up by broadcast media, then facebook, and then filters through into everything else.  And we all react with shock, sadness, or horror, which we express on our social media profiles.  Stage one, then, is the big, public display of compassion.

Shortly after the compassion comes the anger.  People cannot grieve for long, over people they’ve never met, so the emotions begin to shift.  Even before we know who to blame, we create a bogeyman representing all the villains, the negligent technicians, the officials who did not send out warnings in time, and cry for his blood:  “Somebody must pay!  Send in the troops!”  The second stage of the public reaction to tragedy is a collective howl for revenge

Then, as time passes, the first backlash appears.  Some never really identified with the victims and grow tired of pretending to care as much as they think they are supposed to.  Others start finding reasons not to care, or even to relish in the misfortune of those who they now call “deserving”.  So we get people suggesting that the victims were somehow responsible, in part, for their own suffering: “Why were they living in an earthquake-prone area in the first place?”

We also get cynics asking why the death of a mere few hundred is such a big deal, compared to the thousands who die in traffic accidents every week.  And we get opportunistic politicians crowing about how such a thing would never have been allowed to happen, if only they were in charge.  And these, too, all generate their own backlash so that the third stage of the public reaction to tragedy is a war of words between those who would still show compassion, and those who feel that they are past that.

Soon, though, some of us tire of the fighting.  We step back, become thoughtful, and start to realise that other tragedies have happened.  We think of similar disasters in less prosperous regions and start to ask why those people don’t deserve the same reactions. We write articles, all parroting the same outrage that “The Media” have focussed on white european suffering while ignoring the plight of africans, or central asians, or south americans.  And we point trembling fingers at those who dared to show solidarity with the victims who perhaps needed it less than those who were less privileged.  We accuse each other of caring in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons, or for the wrong people.  The fourth stage of the public reaction to tragedy is the care-shaming.

Finally, when the story begins to cool, and the official investigations start to uncover the first concrete facts, we get tired.  Thanks to the constant activity on our news feeds reminding us of the tragedy, we become emotionally exhausted, and crave any distraction that will let us rest.  We have become bored.  A rare few have the courage (or simply the lack of tact) to ask why we are still hearing about this thing. And so we simply stop listening.  The fifth stage of our public responses to tragedy is fatigue.

Eventually, though, the next big news event arrives.  We’re able to forget what happened for long enough that the fatigue passes.  We’re once more able to contemplate the horrible events that started this whole process, and often we’re able to reason it through more calmly, more rationally, more dispassionately (although not always – 9/11 is STILL a hot topic).  And once this happens, the five stages are complete.  And what are the signs that we’re done?  Two things begin to appear that would be unthinkable any earlier:  Conspiracy theories about what really happened, and jokes.


Published inEssays

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