By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
Since much has been written on the completely unexpected catastrophe that hit our nation on Easter Sunday, I wish to limit this piece to just TWO main points: how do we understand ourselves individually and as a society recovering from this and how do we avoid making past mistakes. As such, it will avoid many issues that others have already written about.
What is happening to us as individuals and as a nation?
It’s not just psychologists who are familiar with the Kubler-Ross characterization of the stages of grief resulting from some type of unexpected loss. It can be loosely described as a cycle of emotions that humans can expect to feel after such a shocking event as that which took place on Easter Sunday. While these stages are primarily applied to those facing the loss of a loved one, they appear to extend to entire societies too.
Just 48 hours after the horrific events that took place that day, we can see these different emotions playing out especially on social media where people are able to express their feelings more openly. However, it also is evident in street corners, public places and corridor talk.
Judging by such responses, most of us are experiencing the first stage of grief, shock and denial: the families immediately affected clearly displaying numbness, others of us expressing these feelings with confusion (who did this and why? what earthly reason was there for churches to be targeted? etc), yet others reacting in fear (wipe out all those involved! how can we walk the streets again? never again trust another of a given background/appearance etc) and then those who are looking for who did it – who’s to blame. These are all well understood variants of the first stage of grief.
Some however, especially those of us who are less directly affected, have already started moving on to the second stage of grief, anger. It is the emotion that starts with the quest for searching for a single scapegoat on whom their emotions could be unleashed. This leads to the blame game which most notably the government is currently playing out before the public. It is all the fault of the Intelligence Service/Minister/PM/ President/previous regime/the Muslim community/the Buddhist extremists, are the content of a significant amount of content both in the mainstream as well as social media. While this generally is futile, it is understood to be an essential (even healthy) part of dealing with loss and grief. It is likely to affect those closest in the coming days and weeks, but those of us some distance from them (as clearly the state actors have proved to be) have embarked on this early. Frustration, anxiety, irritation, embarrassment and shame are feelings expressed in this stage of grief. One can only imagine how these must play out on (extended) families of those responsible for the attacks and their entire community, who at the same time will be dealing with the glare of suspicion of society.
Then comes the bargaining stage, where feelings of guilt that things could have been different and the situation avoided if only some other action was taken or condition met. Already in some social media postings we see this phenomenon playing out, and this article could also be thought of as an incarnation of this stage. How could we have avoided this, and in my case, how can we avoid something like this in the future. Feelings of guilt will also affect those who go beyond the blame game as well as those who narrowly escaped even while being at the affected site.
Our primary empathy as a society should be to those directly affected as they face the fourth stage of this process of recovery: depression. The first type of depression, that of facing the practical implications of the loss will hit members of these families and communities – especially those who feel responsible for how the family/families move forward. The other, more difficult type of depression is what goes on in private in the inmost thoughts of those affected. Groups such as Bakamoono.lk have provided and pointed to good resources in all three main languages for caregivers to help these families in this phase.
Reaching the acceptance stage of grieving unfortunately is a gift not afforded to all, it seems. However, it should be the goal of all who truly care for those most directly affected as well as the shattered community we live in today. This stage is deeply personal and singular in the case of those who’ve lost loved ones, but needs to somehow become a collective experience if we are to move forward as a healthy society.
Several critiques have been aimed at this model since its presentation in the early 1970s, but have mainly been directed at the fact that these stages may not occur strictly in sequential chronological order. Despite these however, the model itself is taken as helpful in understanding, primarily the process of grief taking place in an individual facing loss of a loved one. Its application to society has most probably been more thoroughly thought through in later work, which the author is not familiar with.
How do we move forward without making the same mistakes?
Since several have already written, arguably prematurely, about the way forward, I want to simply alert us to the way we should NOT go. The lessons we should draw on as a society that has been through 30 years of a previous ‘war’ which we fumbled through. There’d be no excuse for us as a nation, if we get this one wrong. So what did we do wrong last time around and what can we learn from it?
A primary lesson that we need to learn is that just because a terror group has members of a particular community, it doesn’t mean that all in that community are supportive or even sympathetic of it. Even with the restrictions placed on social media platforms, we see many of our society already making this dreadful and dangerous mistake. From suspecting every woman wearing a burka or even a headscarf and man sporting a long beard or headgear to calling for bans on such clothing is not unlike characterizing LTTE suicide bombers as Kurta-wearing pottu-bearing dark women. And history showed how wrong we were in making such simplistic generalizations.
Other generalizations such as that suicide is a way to get entry into heaven for Muslims need to be desisted from, since the Quran is clear that life is sacred and belongs to God (and those who take their own lives will face hell). In the present circumstances, judging by the information coming in, it seems that even many close members of the families of the bombers were NOT aware of what was going on. This, we should know is one of the modus operandi of all extremist groups ranging from al-Qaeda and ISIS to LTTE, Boko Haram and the Taliban.
We also need to realize that a terror group’s activities are also targeted at winning citizens over and not alienating them as it appears on the face of things. As such, just as the LTTE gained every time the Army harassed or killed a non-LTTE person, the extremist Muslim group responsible for the attacks (a fraction of the so called breakaway National Thowfeek Jamaath, almost certainly ‘handled’ and not just inspired by an international group such as ISIS) will only gain by us citizens attacking or even marginalizing the Muslim community at large. As such, our actions from now on, as individuals and the armed forces (forget about the politicians on whom we clearly can’t rely) will largely determine who will ‘win the war’ of attracting the majority of Muslims to ‘their side’. As Sri Lankans (not as Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or Christians) we need to see how we should act in order to rise from this catastrophe as a stronger nation, one which can show the rest of the continent, and indeed the world, how to really win the war against terror.
As such, it would not be enough simply to be indifferent to the Muslim community – instead, we’d have to go the extra mile to befriend (even defend) them and accept them as an integral and important part of our society – one which is essential for our progress and prosperity (as indeed they have been thus far).
The question then is: are we strong enough to learn from past mistakes and take this country forward despite our politicians, or are we content to let them make their opportunistic decisions and make the same mistakes we made with the Tamil community and take this country down with them, so that our children will long to flee the country even in unsafe makeshift boats?