Distance from the disaster

My breath catches in my throat, I take another look at the page I just opened. It was a morning like every other one, after starting my computer a brief look at the world news on the site of a Dutch newspaper, expecting nothing special.It’s really there, on that newspaper site, more than one hundred and fifty Dutch people died in an airplane crash. Hurriedly I try to find out what happened, while my Cambodian colleagues start talking about the news as well and my boss comes to tell me how sorry he is about it. I wonder what will be the impact of the crash in the Netherlands. The grief will be indescribably for the family, of course, but a disaster of this size will become a collective memory as well.

In 1992, when a plane crashed into some apartment buildings in the Amsterdam Bijlmer, I studied in Madrid. At that time there was no internet and I didn’t even have a television, so I heard the news on the radio. What I felt back then was pure disbelief; it couldn’t have happened in the Netherlands, such a crash could happen only in places where airport security was not organised well. The next morning I searched the city for a Dutch newspaper. That turned out to be not so easy, most newsstands didn’t sell anything that looked like a foreign newspaper, and the few that did had already sold their Dutch ones, but finally I succeeded. Although I almost literally spelled that newspaper and followed the news closely during the next days, back in the Netherlands I discovered a lot of things had made less impression on me than on others or had made no impression at all.

Physical distance seems to lead to emotional distance, watching from the sideline instead of experiencing something that reinforces the collective. I’m impressed by the speech minister Timmermans gave at the UN as well, but the talk of the town here is a different subject and that changes the involvement. It works like that with disasters, but just as well with positive experiences. Sport makes for some good examples. I can still remember very well the Dutch victory at the 1988 European football championships, I was there, I have experienced it together with all other Dutch people. But the gold medal Ellen van Langen won at the 800 meter-race during the 1992 Olympics? I was there, in Barcelona, to watch part of the Olympics, but I remember much less than the people that experienced it collectively in the Netherlands.

This kind of unifying experiences partly define Dutch identity. The North Sea Flood in 1953, which for many people happened even before they were born, is part of the collective memory, just like the murder of politician Pim Fortuyn. Strange enough distance in time doesn’t seem to matter as much as physical distance and might even reinforce the collective. It might be because everybody has seen the same images over and over, and they have stuck in everyone’s memory. Precisely because images are so important with this kind of incidents, internet brought the collective experience closer. Through all kinds of channels and pages it’s possible to follow what’s happening and to see the pictures come in, so that’s what I do. Still, however often the tears come to my eyes when reading the stories or looking at the images, still the collective Dutch recollection of what happened in the Ukraine, will be different from my experience here in Cambodia.

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