Apeldoorn and Other Tragedies

Tonight I’ve been following the breaking news on Twitter about the tragedy that happened at Apeldoorn in Holland. A crazed motorist, apparently intending to crash into the royal coach, ploughed through the crowed at high speed, killing 4 people and severely injuring 17 others. According to the reports the attack on the Dutch royal family was intentional.

Among the posts of heartfelt sympathy for all those affected by the tragedy have been other posts of anger and outrage expressed against the perpetrator.

It reminded me of the aftermath of the bushfires here in Victoria in February, when it was found that some of the fires that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless were actually deliberately lit. Then too, anger and outrage were heaped on the arsonists – some folk saying they should be put to death, or even be burned alive.

And another memory – this time of the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania back in 1996, when Martin Bryant went on a shooting rampage that left 35 people dead and 21 others wounded. Bryant finally pleaded guilty and is serving 35 life sentences with no possibility of parole. Again, Bryant was vilified by many, who argued that he should be shot himself.

Along with heartfelt sympathy for the victims, the rest of us feel horror that such events can occur. And bewilderment that anyone could perpetrate such crimes against their fellow human beings – all of whom were innocent bystanders and had played no part in any original cause or motivation for the crime.

Horror, bewilderment – and anger against the perpetrators – are natural responses to such stories.

Tonight my heart is very much with all those in Apeldoorn and elsewhere who have been affected by the Queens Day horror. As it was with those so devastatingly affected by the Victoria fires or with the people who lost their loved ones at Port Arthur – two tragedies that have reverberated so powerfully in our Australian national psyche.

But each time I’ve found myself wondering ….

Can we also find room in our hearts for compassion for the lost souls whose grip on sanity or reality became so fragmented that it led them to commit these horrendous acts?

I do not mean their crimes should be condoned, or that they should avoid the consequences of their actions. After all, whatever personal tragedies, abuse or horrors they may have suffered, many others have had similar experiences but do not wreak revenge or havoc on their fellow human beings. So I am by no means suggesting their actions should go unpunished.

But perhaps there are also some bigger questions to ask in the face of such events?

I remember after the Port Arthur massacre, that the whole issue very quickly became a debate over gun laws. And to listen to either side – the anti-gun or pro-gun lobby – you’d think the opposition had suddenly grown horns and a forked tail!

It seems in the aftermath of any such tragedy we are more comfortable dealing with issues of crime and punishment in simple terms. And projecting all the evil – all the ‘shadow’ – on to the actual perpetrator or the ‘other’ so we can feel safe. We can then ignore it and don’t have to deal with it any more.

But how is it we have created a society in which some individuals can become so lost, so alienated and so damaged – yet this remains unnoticed and unrecognised until their actions explode in such a tragic way? Why do we ignore the shadow of our common humanity so completely? A shadow that’s perhaps also reflected in the sanitised euphemisms of ‘collateral damage’ or ‘friendly fire’ in war zones.

Ok, so crimes such as these are the extreme expression of that dark side – most of us experience a pale imitation of it by comparison. We are not about to drive a lethal vehicle, light fires or take up arms against others.

But is it possible for us to embrace the shadow sufficiently to have a sense of “there but for the grace of God, go I” and allow the light of compassion into that darkness?

And by doing so, can we shift our focus more effectively to creating a society in which these tragedies are less likely to happen? In which those whose grip on sanity is fragmenting are noticed and either supported to regain their balance or, if need be, contained before such great tragedy ensues? We may not be able to prevent all such crimes, but might it be a good start?

I wonder …


  1. Sue, I understand where you are coming from and share a similar perspective. I wonder too, what need is not being met that triggers such acts against humanity by some individuals. Furthermore, it is even more worrisome when whole groups, or sects are so disenfranchised or alienated, they carry out a rampage or terror of some kind. I especially think of uncared for kids, orphaned or not, from wars that are going on who get manipulated into joining violent groups to get a sense of belonging and community.

    Caring for hungry kids – hungry physically, emotionally, spiritually – is humanity’s priority. We need to love them and show our compassion. We need to hear their stories.

  2. Yes, yes, yes .. :-) Hatred and war are so often accompanied by a sense of disenfranchisement and alienation. Sometimes passed down from generation to generation.

    And I’m not sure whether the perpetrators of the particular incidents I mentioned were also ‘hungry kids’ or whether something in their souls twisted and soured much later in life.

    But somewhere along the line must have been a story that needed to be heard compassionately by others. And a time when some kind of caring intervention just might have managed to help reshape that story before it swelled to tragedy.

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