When Tragedy Strikes: Reaction or Response

by Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith
17th November 2015

The world is aghast at the recent tragedy in Paris. In fact this is one of many tragedies that continue to shock us, leaving us bewildered at the extent of hate that could perpetuate such violence. What makes someone strap explosives to their own body and walk into a crowded public space? What makes someone step into a classroom and open fire? What makes someone shoot down people walking out of a church? The senselessness of such tragedies leaves us reeling. We feel helpless and vulnerable. Our sense of freedom feels violated. We grieve for the strangers who got killed in these strategies. And, those of us who are fortunate enough to be spared, feel grateful that we didn’t lose any loved ones.

Beyond such reactions, there have been many ways in which people have responded to tragedy. For example, in the aftermath of the Sydney hostage shootings in 2014, people covered the site of the shootings with a sea of flowers, and started a social media campaign to ride alongside Muslim people in public transport as a sign of solidarity. In the aftermath of the Paris killings, amongst many other responses, people have been superimposing the French flag onto their Facebook photos as a sign of support. We want to show that we care. We want to alleviate our sense of loss, even though we may not have been directly affected. We feel the need to do something to show that we’re not okay with what has happened.

The fact that a great number of us both react and respond to tragedy shows that we still value human life. It shows that, despite the shootings, the bombings, the earthquakes, the fires, and many other disasters that clamour for attention in news headlines, we have not become apathetic. This is news worthy of headlines!

But sometimes it is easy to respond in the heat of the moment, to post messages on social media or do some other form of public support for as long as a tragedy remains the main focus of headlines. Then comes the next big tragedy, and the next. While short-term reactions to particular situations might be satisfying in the moment and foster a sense of global solidarity, I think we should think about holistic responses to environments that foster such tragedy. A call for love in the face of tragedy is good, but not enough. We must actively, continually, choose to perpetuate love rather than hate – for both of which are indeed socially perpetuated.

Hate is perpetuated. The person who hates a certain group of people enough to want to kill them was not born with that mindset. S/he was once a child, grew up with adults who taught her/him right and wrong, experienced a bunch of social interactions that may have reinforced these values, perhaps sat in someone’s classroom as a student. Did this child learn to look at a certain group of humans as lesser beings? Did this teenager make a racist joke that no one corrected? Did she refuse to sit next to someone in class because that someone was of a different colour? Was he dismissive of people who were not of his faith? Did you see any of this? Did you choose to ignore a prejudiced comment from someone because it seemed harmless?

Perhaps I am more cognizant of this because I teach intercultural communication in my day job. I encourage students to recognise their own cultural biases and understand perspectives that are different from theirs. Understanding does not necessarily mean agreeing. But it means you’re willing to take someone seriously, to recognise their point of view, and to understand what the world looks like from their perspective.

Love is also perpetuated. My own worldview is indelibly shaped by my Christian faith. I love others, albeit imperfectly, because perfect love has been modelled to me by my God. I have been reading calls for unity, peace, and love by people of many different faiths, in response to recent tragic events. The unpredictability and increasing frequency of violence in the world frightens us as we contemplate a possible future dictated by terrorism. But tomorrow’s world is shaped by our choices today. If we do not want to live in a world dominated by hatred, then what can we do about it in our own neighbourhoods? Perhaps it starts with honest introspection to confront our own prejudices. Or perhaps it is a conscious choice to speak up whenever we hear an ignorant comment about a group of people. If you’re a praying person, perhaps it is the choice to pray for those who perpetuate violence that they may be enlightened.

As we reflect on recent tragedies, let not our responses stop at outraged reactions or heat-of-the-moment solidarity. Let us think of specific ways in which each of us, in our own field of influence, can daily foster the loving world for which we hope. It is easy to unite against a perceived common enemy in times of tragedy. But we shouldn’t need a tragedy to remind us to be proactive in love.

My reaction to the recent tragedy is shock, grief, indignation. My response to is to challenge myself – and you, if you’re reading this – to do better at co-creating the type of world in which we want to live.