Joan Smith: 'Thoughts and prayers' don't do the job

The way the Norwegian prime minister responded to events earlier this year was exemplary
  • @polblonde

From time to time, every country has to deal with tragic events. It's a sad requirement of a politician's job to respond to terrorist attacks, fatal fires and the multiple fatalities caused by motorway pile-ups such as last weekend's dreadful collisions on the M5. In such circumstances, we need public figures to speak for us, expressing sympathy for the victims and acknowledging a collective feeling of sorrow in the face of sudden death and destruction.

Not to be touched by such events would be inhuman. But each time another disaster or tragedy starts to unfold, I can't help wishing that the people who speak on our behalf would use a little more imagination and eloquence. The conventional formula that the victims and their families are "in our thoughts and prayers" exhausted its meaning a long time ago, so much so that, however well-intended, it sounds thoughtless and insincere. It's become an empty ritual, especially in a country where millions of people never attend a church, mosque or synagogue.

I feel very sorry for the people who drove unwittingly into a black cloud on the M5 on Friday night, going from a routine journey to unimaginable horror in a matter of seconds, but I didn't pray for them. I'm not religious and the only consolation I can find in such catastrophes is the bravery of survivors and members of the emergency services, who risk their own lives in the hope of saving total strangers.

It's a testament to the human spirit that people perform these acts of heroism, and quite proper that their efforts are acknowledged. But a flat phrase such as "thoughts and prayers" is not an adequate response. It invokes a nation that no longer exists, united in agreement about the role of religion both in social life and as the principal source of comfort in hard times, whereas many of us now find that comfort in the company of family and friends.

Just to be clear, I'm not calling for gushing displays of emotion. In 1997, Tony Blair went to the opposite extreme with his speech about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, creating one of the best-known sound bites of his premiership when he called her "the people's princess". But Blair's public displays of feeling always had an actorish quality, as though he knew perfectly well how it was all going down with his intended audience.

Earlier this year, after Anders Breivik cold-bloodedly murdered dozens of people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, I was hugely impressed by the response of the Norwegian prime minister. Jens Stoltenberg managed to strike exactly the right note, sounding genuinely moved and at the same time talking about his country's values. It was a rare demonstration of sincerity and human solidarity, and I wish our leaders would learn something from it.