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The Downing of Plane MH17: A Personal Perspective

"Today we are all Dutch"

Today we are all Dutch” was the heading above an article in an international newspaper on the national day of mourning in the Netherlands to commemorate the victims of the MH17 plane that was shot down over Eastern Ukraine on July 18, 2014. Of the 298 victims, as many as 193 were from the Netherlands. There were various families with young children who were going to enjoy their school holidays in Asia. There were people from 10 different nationalities on board this plane, including 43 Malaysians, 27 Australians, and 12 people from Indonesia and vatrious other nations. 80 children perished in the terrible disaster.

Only three days before, my wife, my son, and I were traveling on that same route with Singapore Airlines to our holiday destination in Singapore and Borneo. Little did we know that a few days later the world would change forever. While staying in a hotel in Singapore it became increasingly clear to us that there were several people we knew on the doomed plane. The Smallenburg family—Charles, Therese and their two children Carlijn and Werther—were going on a journey of a lifetime to Malaysia. Just days before we left, I had spoken at length with Charles who was an active, highly respected member of the community in Hilversum, the city where we live, and, like myself, a soccer dad.

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All in all as many as 15 people from Hilversum were traveling on the plane. The disaster has left a huge hole in our community (the local city government is now thinking about creating a monument of dedicated to the people who perished, whihc I greatly support). The worlds of so many people shattered by a single strike. These victims had nothing to do with the conflict on the ground. They were innocent passers-by in a civil war going on deep down in the Ukraine where pro-Russian rebels in the East are fighting government troops. It is increasingly clear that these rebels are aided by Russia and the allegation, confirmed by various independent sources, is that the plane was shot down by a missile defense system given to the rebels by Russia.

This tragedy was not completely unexpected though, and could have been prevented if the airlines would have followed the example of such companies as British Airways not to travel over this unstable region.

Tensions have been mounting between Putin and the leaders of the West for many months now over the fate of Ukraine. In a previous Psychology Today Blog appearing two months ago, I raised the question whether President Vladimir Putin has a Napoleon complex. This syndrome refers to a tendency for men of short stature to be overly aggressive to compensate. Although the blog was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, I ended the blog with the following words.

“It would be quite dramatic for the world if the megalomaniac and Machiavellian tendencies of a man of short stature (Putin), who is trying to impress his political opponents, his people and his younger wife would result in a Third World War. Nothing is impossible however, because history shows that major political decisions are often made by short men.”

This is all too real now, and I am not sure where this ends. A century after the first World War ended, we seem to be heading in the same direction.

As leadership researchers we must now focus all our efforts on understanding the personalities, motivations and anxieties of the political leaders involved. Forget about leadership in business, it is leadership in the political arena that affects us all.

Bringing justice to the victims of MH17 will be crucially important, but so is the process of grief. First there was the denial phase where we could simply not believe that this terrible thing had happened. Then there is rage against the mass murderers, the regime that supported them and the airline industry. Our anger still continues today but it slowly makes way for moments of deep sadness as the bodies of the victims are being identified near Hilversum.

Whether we Dutch can ever come to terms with this tragedy and reach some closure, together with the other affected nations, remains to be seen.

Charles and Werther: I miss you dearly. Rest in peace.

Follow me on: @ProfMarkvugt

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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