New Zealand Mosque Massacre
Jacinda Ardern, the 34-year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand, instinctively knew this was what she had to do in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history.
When an Australian white supremacist killed over 50 Muslim worshipers and injured another 50 during their Friday prayers, first, she articulated her nation’s grief and horror, by saying “we will remember the tears of our nation.” Next, she made sense of the event by defining it as a vicious act of racist extremism that violated the identity and values of New Zealanders. Then, having successfully helped her nation grieve and making sense of what happened, she redirected their energy and efforts to the future. “We reject you,” she said, to violent extremism and religious intolerance; and called on New Zealanders to renew their values to making the country a “welcoming, kind and compassionate place.” She pointed the way for ordinary people to repurpose the agony of violence by finding practical and immediate ways to take “small acts of kindness and compassion” that would reverse the impact of the crime. Making her presentation with passion and grief, she convinced her Parliament to ban assault weapons within weeks of the assault.
Grieving as a Society
The New Zealand attacker emulated Anders Breivik, the far-right perpetrator of a 2011 youth camp massacre in Norway. Like New Zealand, Norway then was confronted with a crime of unprecedented violence perpetrated by an individual. 9/11 traumatized Americans, because Americans going about their business were attacked on their own soil by foreign agents. The loss of innocence was unique in American history. Pearl Harbor was an act of war and a lethal surprise, but that was an act of aggression against a military base 2000 miles from the mainland in the backdrop of global war, 60 years earlier (granting how shocking it was to Americans, then). In contrast, 9/11 felt like the loss of innocence – the previously unchallenged sense of safety-within-borders was shattered by the attack.
Anyone who has suffered a break-in has experienced this sense of loss, the loss of something valued and comfortable and comforting. The sense of hearth and home, of being safe and being able to let your guard down. Most people respond to break-ins by shoring up their defenses in some way, to recover that safety as one of the most desirable conditions we have. Hunter-gatherers sought caves that could shelter them from storms and predators, and where they could pursue hobbies, tell stories, and other leisure activities that presuppose adequate safety and control.
But it isn’t only the loss of habitat that can feel devastating and unsafe. The 2004 movie “In Good Company” tapped into the anxiety of a loss of culture, the culture in which people who grew up in a firm could expect to keep their jobs and seniority for decades. Millennials who grew up afterwards can only guess at the cultural sense of loss to millions of people who had viewed jobs as lifetime security.
Because grieving beloved people involves powerful, almost overwhelming feelings, culturally we do not typically associate it with other, more abstract types of attachments, such as attachments to ideals, aspirations and ambitions, to values and principles, or traditions and customs. But people develop collective, societal attachments along with personal ones, which can be as powerful or sometimes even more so.
Jacinda Ardern led New Zealanders as a society and nation by helping them grieve, first by framing the attack as a violent affront to the nation’s identity and values as a tolerant, open, and humanistic society. Her actions, her demeanor, her priorities and her affect all expressed her own authentic feelings of horror, loss, and sympathy for the victims – which in itself demonstrably rejected the racist hate underlying the attack. “You (the perpetrator) are not us,” she said; “[the victims] are us.”
Leadership and Trust
By demonstrating extraordinary leadership in one of New Zealand’s greatest crises, by, among other things, helping her community grieve a violent loss, Ardern had built so much trust from her constituents that she was able to execute one of the world’s most swift and aggressive responses to COVID – also the most successful — leading to its “elimination” within a month. Once again Ardern was able to unite her country and recruit citizens’ easy compliance and cooperation to draconian measures. She did this by making it understandable, based on science and facts, why the specific behaviors and sacrifices were being asked of people; by being clear, transparent, and focused in the message; by demonstrating empathy and a sense of truly caring about her people; and by linking the effort to a higher civic purpose, the need for individuals to act in ways that support positive social cohesion and collective well-being. Angela Merkel was able to do the exact same thing to her considerably larger country of 80+ million (compared to under 5 million New Zealanders), leading to Germany being the European country with the lowest number of deaths in the first wave of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.
Sensemaking in a Crisis
Sensemaking in a crisis is extraordinarily important to the building of trust. It is essential for a cohesive, and ultimately resilient response to a crisis. A lack of a sense of meaning, priority, or a clear idea of what is the larger good to be attained –whether that is the survival of the community, overcoming tribulation, or the protection of an ideal – can result in in breakdown and chaos. Resilience and recovery become harder. Without a sense of meaning, higher purpose, or a unified path or solution, multiple narratives and focuses emerge and are chased by various groups pursuing various priorities, leading to fragmentation of the whole, making it difficult and confusing for people to know what to do. The United States is the largest nation worldwide on the verge of a fragmented, uncoordinated “reopening” of societies from COVID lockdowns, with competing priorities, directives and ideologies making it less likely that the country can be unified in its narrative, and therefore its behaviors.
I do not mean to suggest that there is ever a single right path in any given crisis. It is precisely because of the unknown — because every decision involves risks and sacrifices — that a good leader must be able to unify people by convincingly demonstrating why one path should be followed and not another. When, as in the case of the coronavirus, societies must act with imperfect knowledge, leaders must be transparent about what they know and what they do not know and how they come to the decision they make. This is where being worthy of trust is critical, because when a leader is acting, to some extent blindly, they must demonstrate that although mistakes might be made the leader is acting to the best of their ability in the interest of the group they lead – and not serving any other agenda.