What do you say in times of trouble?

by Andreea Vasile

I’ve once asked a wiser man than myself how can one comfort someone with words? “When you can’t find the words to say, it’s better to keep silent”, he said. Yet, there are hard times when words are needed and expected and no matter how difficult it is to express them, something must be said.


Due to Friday events in Norway, that greatly and unpleasantly surprised me as well as they surprised an entire world, PM Jens Stoltenberg held a press conference the very next day, on Saturday morning. Listening to his warm message and his kind words of encouragement towards Norwegians, it felt even more upsetting that such tragedy took place in an welcoming, friendly country like Norway. But there was more. Though I was paying attention to the PM’s words, I couldn’t help but think of another speech, given by formal US president, George Bush, after 9/11. The speech was also addressed to the media, but the message and the energy felt completely different.


I printed out both speeches looking for whatever gave me the funny different feeling in my tummy and it wasn’t long before I reached my conclusions.

Both speeches start by recreating the context of what happened, but at one point they go on differently.

“The acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America (…). America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. America has stood down enemies before and we will do so this time.” (George Bush)

We all feel the need to contribute, talk together and take care of each other.” (Jens Stoltenberg)


There it was. While Norway’s PM focused on the people, their unity and their ability to keep strong together, US’s formal president talked about how America will bring down those threatening this great country. I understand that each nation react to different kind of messages, but in the light of such tragedies, to empower a grieving nation with more negative feelings it’s what I call a bad choice.

I admired Jens Stoltenberg’s speech for its focus on the people helping eachother. There wasn’t any moment where he might have threatened an invisible enemy for bringing down the peace of the country, nor did he expressed the greatness of his society whose friendly values and security were shattered. He just said that people are there for eachother and that they remain the same loving nation fighting for democratic values.

In contrast, George Bush’s speech appeared revengeful and hateful. And, in America’s case, where the attacks were related to religious motives, to end your speech, as a president, with a psalm – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me” – is hilarious. Probably the attackers on the planes thought the same while crashing into the World Trade Center – “I fear no evil, for You are with me.”

Jens Stoltenberg speech.

George Bush speech.

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stefan July 24, 2011 - 6:31 pm

Two essential differences stand out and should prompt different responses from the respective leaders: first, one of the targets was (by pretty much any standard) the most powerful country in world; the second, one of the atacks was executed by “cultural outsiders” while the other by a “cultural insider.” (Sure, there’s a number of differences secondary in importance: the history of bloodshed in each country, the secularity of each of the two states, the political landscape at the time of the atacks, or the scale of the tragedy, etc.)

Witthout endorsing either response as more appropriate than the other, we need to judge the two atacks and responses independently of eachother. With the two essential differences in mind, comparing the first reactions (tempting as it may be) does little to further our understanding of what should be fixed in the future.

Andreea July 24, 2011 - 6:40 pm

i compared them on a strictly human level (which i fancied more and found more appropriate on a tone level given the circumstances) aka if i were to be a citizen of one of the two, which discourse would i have related to more. no other purpose for the comparison otherwise 😉

thank you for writing! agree with the view.

stefan July 25, 2011 - 8:07 am

You are correct — on a human level we find it easier to relate to Norway in general. An overwhelming majority of earthlings will (myself included). We have more in common with a small country trying to stay afloat, than we do with the country that yields the greatest international power and responsibility, that country for which everyone has expectations (of action or inaction).

Should this surprise anyone?

I am not questioning the point of your post – rather I’m pointing out how partial the rest of the world was in understanding 9/11 and the subsequent reaction to it. Whatever course of action Norway takes, it will inevitably be more palatable to us. I hope it will be effective.


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