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When silence isn’t golden

The EU’s three minutes’ silence for the tsunami victims shows a competitive approach to grief.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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What was the purpose of the European Union’s three-minute silence for the victims of the tsunami?

According to a European Commission spokesman, the silence at noon today was to ‘show solidarity and mourn the victims of the disaster’ (1). But it’s hard to see how the bowed heads in London, Frankfurt and Lisbon are really for the sake of those in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Homeless bereaved villagers have no TV set on which to watch our ceremonies, and in any case they have more pressing concerns.

Many Europeans have a natural sympathy for those who have suffered, and a desire to help. But rituals such as the minutes’ silence twist this spontaneous reaction into something much less sympathetic. The point of the gesture isn’t concern for them – it is to demonstrate the strength of our emotions, to show how much we care.

We’ve seen ever-more and ever-longer minutes’ silences punctuating public life in the West. The two minutes’ silence for those who died in the World Wars was first introduced in 1919, but this was merely one of many by the late 1990s. In 1997 there was a one-minute silence after the death of Princess Diana; since then one-minute silences have become two-a-penny, a regular ritual at football matches, warranted by anything down to the death of a groundsman.

The one-minute silence was soon upped by two-, three- and even five-minute silences. It’s not merely showing that you care, but that you really, really care. The EU observed three minutes’ silence for victims of 9/11 on 14 September 2001; a year later, friends of the murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler met for five minutes’ silence (2). Last Sunday, Denmark got in first with two minutes’ silence for tsunami victims, but it was pipped by the EU’s higher bid (the Danish prime minister decided, after consulting parliament, that another silence would be ‘too much’).

Holding silences has become such a ritual that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as his alter ego Borat, a TV reporter from Kazakhstan, managed to get Oklahoma City councillors to observe 10 minutes’ silence for the anniversary of a mythical massacre that he claimed had taken place in his country.

Every British institution seemed keen to use the three minutes’ silence for the tsunami victims to show its compassion in public, from the churches to the royals, Scottish MSPs to the BBC. The government is trying to take a lead, with culture secretary Tessa Jowell emphasising that ‘the government hopes that employers will do all they can to ensure that employees are able to observe the silence and pay their respects at that time’ (3).

Far from being a spontaneous expression of sympathy, the minutes’ silence is becoming a coercive grief ritual to which we are expected to submit. Those who don’t join in may face some cold shoulders and barbed looks. To carry on walking or talking is to mark yourself out as uncaring, a person apart from those who have stopped with arms by their sides.

They may be ritualised, but silences allow individuals to read their own meaning into the ceremony. ‘How people chose to mark those three minutes at 12 o’clock is down to the individual’, said one Downing Street spokeswoman (4). The minutes’ silence is an apt ritual for an age that finds it hard to agree on slogans for pomp and ceremonials.

After all of the futile chatter on the comment pages about what the tsunami says about God, the world and everything, a bit of silence could be no bad thing. In today’s Guardian Blake Morrison writes that ‘the tsunami, as a natural disaster, defeats words’, concluding that ‘today, just for three minutes, please shut up’ (5). But this isn’t really about keeping a dignified silence, which would involve helping the victims as best we can and then leaving their grief out of our newspaper columns. In fact, the minutes’ silence goes hand-in-hand with the chatter.

Today’s Independent led with a blank white front page, and the headline ‘To remember the tsunami victims…silence’ – but then inside, pages one to nine detailed the ‘tide of loss’ that had ‘overwhelmed’ Sweden, the story of the Sri Lankan now living in Britain who had ‘lost his wife and more than 100 relatives’, and much more. Other media outlets have used the silence as an opportunity for an action replay of the tragedy. At the time of the three-minute silence, Sky News showed a succession of images from the disaster, while BBC 1, BBC 2, and BBC News 24 broadcast a special ‘Asia Remembered’ programme between 11.30 and 12.15 (6).

The silence has its critics, with the Daily Mail asking ‘Is a three-minute silence too long?’, comparing it to the mere two minutes observed for the millions of World War dead. Conservative Party vice-chairman MP Roger Gale said it was ‘the worst kind of gesture politics’, arguing that the government was using the minutes’ silence to ‘salve the consciences of some politicians’ for not doing more sooner (7). But these criticisms don’t touch the core of the problem – they are just arguing for different or more sincere ways for expressing grief.

Soon after today’s minutes’ silence, BBC News put the story at the top of its homepage, revealing the narcissism of Europeans admiring images of their gestures of sympathy. Never before has silence made such a racket.

Read on:

After the tsunami: horrifying, but not ‘humbling’, by Mick Hume

Riding the wave of compassion, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Europe Falls Silent to Mourn Asia Tsunami Victims, Reuters, 5 January 2005

(2) Quoted in Conspicuous Compassion, Patrick West, Civitas, 2004

(3) Jowell plea for workers to observe the silence, Telegraph, 5 January 2005

(4) Britons to hold silence for tsunami victims, Reuters, 5 January 2005

(5) ‘A time to mourn’, Guardian, 5 January 2005

(6) Jowell plea for workers to observe the silence, Telegraph, 5 January 2005

(7) Britain and Europe remember tsunami victims in three-minute silence, The Times, 5 January 2005

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Topics Politics

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