HO CHI MINH CITY -- Can an entire people go mad? Sometimes it certainly seems so.
Images of North Koreans in their hundreds of thousands howling with grief over Kim Jong-Il's death suggest something very disturbing. But what? An exercise in mass delusion? A ritual of collective masochism?
Kim was a brutal dictator, who pampered himself with the finest French brandies (allegedly $500,000 a year's worth), fresh sushi flown in from Tokyo and the best chefs money could buy, while millions of his subjects starved to death. Yet, here they are, masses of his bullied, downtrodden subjects loudly mourning his death as though they had lost their beloved father.
Granted, the people publicly mourning in Pyongyang belong to the most privileged class, and dramatic bawling is a traditional Korean way of expressing grief. Even so, the behavior broadcast from North Korea looked unhinged. Is there a plausible explanation?
First of all, North Koreans are not unique. Few countries suffered more from Joseph Stalin's cruelties than Poland, yet many Poles, too, wept publicly after his death. Of course, it is possible that this was coerced -- a horrible form of forced self-abasement. Not only did people have to put up with being kicked in the teeth; they also had to thank their tormentor and lament his death.
Clearly, North Koreans who refuse to show deep sadness on occasions of public mourning risk serious trouble -- children expelled from school, careers blocked, perhaps even time in a slave-labor camp. Believing the propaganda in a totalitarian state can be a form of self-preservation. The more one feels doubt, which cannot be openly expressed, the more torturous life becomes.
Whether an intelligent human being can force himself to believe in something totally insane is an interesting question. Can human skepticism be suppressed? There is, in any case, no doubt that it can be silenced.
But coercion, though certainly a factor in the scenes from Pyongyang, is perhaps not the only explanation. Mass hysteria can take many forms. It is too easy to assume that such humiliating behavior is always false, a form of play-acting.
Consider, for example, a less sinister outburst of public hysteria: the extraordinary emotions expressed by many people in Britain after the death of Princess Diana. Men and women who had known her only from magazine features or television coverage claimed that Diana's death had affected them more deeply than the passing of their own parents. They probably were not lying. It may sound grotesque, but the feeling appeared to be sincere.
We often suppress real pain, such as that caused by the loss of a family member. Numbness, rather than hysteria, is the norm. But our feelings must find an outlet somehow, and they can emerge when a celebrity dies.
All of the pent-up emotion of real personal bereavement comes gushing out on a public occasion. People who ostensibly are weeping for Princess Diana are actually mourning their own loved ones. The feeling is displaced -- indeed, misplaced. Mourning of this kind is a form of sentimentality, but it can be heartfelt nonetheless.
Sometimes, a public figure's death makes us mourn the passing of our own lives. Whether the person who has died is a beloved princess, a popular singer or a bloody dictator is irrelevant. We grew up with them; they are part of us. When they die, a little bit of us dies with them.
Mass hysteria is highly contagious. I visited North Korea the year that Kim Jong-Il's father, Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader), died. Part of our compulsory tourist program was to pay our respects at his monument -- a giant statue of him -- in the center of Pyongyang. We stood at the Great Leader's marble feet, surrounded by flowers and funeral wreaths, while the sound of women sobbing was played through huge loudspeakers.
I watched rows and rows of uniformed schoolchildren being led to the monument by their teachers. They looked impassive at first, with the poker faces worn by people accustomed to waiting for authorities to tell them how to behave. Then the teachers began to make the appropriate noises of public grief. Low moaning changed to loud wailing, then to cries of “Father, father, why have you left us?” Little by little, the children followed their teachers' example, crying their hearts out. They wept at the sight of their teachers weeping.
Was this an authentic expression of grief? Who can say? The tears looked real enough. Teachers and pupils alike probably felt something, perhaps even profound distress. Some may have been sufficiently indoctrinated to feel that the Great Leader really was a benign father figure to whom they owed everything.
Others no doubt displaced their emotions, which could have stemmed from any number of private and public sorrows. After all, the poor North Koreans have plenty to cry about. Life in a totalitarian dictatorship is a daily misery. And so they cry for the men who are largely responsible for it.
Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College, and the author, most recently, of “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.” © Project Syndicate 2012.