The Dutch grieve in silence

When you’ve got a total population of 16 million crammed into a country smaller than 41 of our states, everyone is within a couple of degrees of separation of everyone else. If you don’t know someone, chances are your uncle does.

This much I learned in my six years living in Amsterdam, and it came to mind as I’ve watched somber memorials unfold like dreams in cities all over the country this week.

Roughly two-thirds of the 298 people who died on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were Dutch. I asked several Dutch friends how they were doing. As expected, each one knew at least one person who was on the plane.

One acquaintance, who lives in The Hague, said her daughter was friends with a girl whose entire family was on the flight: they were going on vacation to Borneo. “They were in primary school together and took the same ballet lessons,” my friend said of her daughter and the girl who died. “When you think of their empty house, it is all very unreal.”

A few people want to lash out, saying the country should strike out against Russia. Someone posted the address of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, who lives in the Netherlands, on the Facebook page of the Netherlands-Russia Center. There are some vicious tweets.

But mainly the reaction to the sudden loss of a cross-section of Dutch society – the proportionate loss of life for a country the size of the United States would be about 6,000 people – has been muted. Even the idea of a national day of mourning, floated by a few politicians, hasn’t taken hold. It was already happening in a natural, unofficial way. A mountain of flowers in front of a restaurant in Rotterdam. A pall of silence descending on the “Roze Kermis” gay festival in Tilburg. The deaths were evenly across the country, and the memorials are localized.

The Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in how they react. Hit with a national shock, Americans will instinctively reach for ideals. People saw the Sept. 11 attacks as an assault on “freedom.” The Dutch innately distrust ideology. You could relate that to World War II and their experience under Nazism, but it goes much further back. It also stems from the fact that Dutch society grew not out of war against a human foe but out of the struggle against nature. Living in low lands on a vast river delta, the Dutch banded together to battle water. Building dams and dikes and canals was more practical than ideological.

For better or worse, the Dutch are more comfortable with meetings and remembrances than with calls to arms.

Geography has defined destiny throughout Dutch history. The little country has reached outward, and prospered thanks to its ability to trade and engage with others; it also has proven a haven for refugees from less tolerant lands. Even before its 17th-century golden age, Holland had become an intensely polyglot hub for goods and ideas, intricately connected with far-flung places.

Flight 17 reflects and updates that history. By definition, the plane was packed with travelers. But this tragedy gives an inadvertent indication of how racially mixed the country has become. Among the Dutch passengers listed on the flight manifest were a Vietnamese family that lived in Delft, the city of Vermeer; a Chinese couple from Rotterdam; a Dutch-Israeli student; a Dutch-Malaysian family; a Dutch-American; people born in Curaçao and South Africa; and others with German, Indonesian and British backgrounds.

We hear about the growing multiethnicity of the country mostly through the screeching of right-wing fanatic Geert Wilders, the leader of the Party for Freedom and a member of parliament, who riles up some elements of society by declaring that newcomers (read Muslims) are torpedoing Dutch traditions and turning the land of windmills into a giant mosque. The international media is a sucker for Wilders because he seems to give the lie to what the Dutch are most famous for (besides tulips and marijuana cafes): tolerance.

The Dutch pioneered the concept in the 16th century, enshrining it in their de facto constitution two centuries before “all men are created equal.” America’s own founding fathers were deeply influenced by the Dutch commitment to fostering a heterogeneous, freewheeling society – a commitment already introduced into North America via the Dutch colony of New York.

Wilders knows the media always glom onto a counter-narrative, and he has used that repeatedly to his own advantage and to the detriment of his country’s image.

But the truth revealed by this tragedy is that this country is intricately connected to other parts of the world. The Dutch people who died on MH17 mirror their own rapidly evolving society, and remind the rest of us that our futures don’t lie in tribalism, but in expanding our connections.