The heroes honored after terrorist attacks are usually first responders, who rushed to the scene to rescue lives.
But after the Christchurch mosque attack, in which at least 50 people were killed, one young man rose to prominence about 1,500 miles away from the scene of the attack. A 17-year-old Melbourne, Australia, teenager, William Connolly, took matters into his own hands and egged a senator who had just blamed Muslims for the anti-Muslim attack that unfolded in New Zealand.
The video of the incident and of right-wing Queensland senator Fraser Anning subsequently punching Connolly immediately went viral. Around the world, he was celebrated, and Anning was condemned, even though some cautioned that a provocation that may result in further violence is never an appropriate response.
During his first interview on Australia’s Network 10 on Monday, Connolly acknowledged that “what I did was not the right thing to do.”
“However, this egg has united people, and, you know, money has been raised, tens of thousands of dollars have been raised for those victims,” Connolly told the network.
“I’ve had one lady reach out to one of my friends in Christchurch, and she said to me that throughout this period of darkness in her life was the one time since she smiled since the tragedy, and that, I’m speechless,” Connolly said.
Connolly may have been shocked by his sudden fame, after what appeared to be a more or less spontaneous idea in response to a tragic event. But researchers who have studied how human brains tend to react to terrorist attacks were probably less surprised. Prior research focusing on the 2011 right-wing extremist attack by Anders Breivik in Norway — considered a role model by Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant — showed that terrorism often has a cross-border psychological impact.
After the 2011 attack, in which 77 people were killed, stress and trauma-related illnesses surged in neighboring Denmark as a direct impact of the Norway shooting.
“Our research shows that the effect of terrorist attacks cross national borders and affect people in other countries to such a degree that they develop mental disorders,” Soren Dinesen Ostergaard, associate professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University, said at the time.
While traumatic disorders among observers who watch coverage of terrorist attacks abroad remain rare, the Danish study backs up decades-old evidence for a much broader impact of such attacks than we often realize. “Terror Management Theory,” Christopher R. Long and Dara N. Greenwood summarized in a 2013 study, referring to several colleagues’ findings, “posits that human awareness (whether conscious or unconscious) of the inevitability of death can lead to potentially paralyzing anxiety.”
And that’s where humor and the sort of response that captivated the world’s attention hours after the Christchurch attack come in.
“Humor production may be particularly relevant to staving off death anxiety, not only because it typically is a culture-bound phenomenon, and hence useful for reaffirming one’s place in society, but humor has also been identified as a psychologically useful coping mechanism that enables individuals to remain resilient in the face of aversive life circumstances,” Long and Greenwood wrote.
The two researchers also argue that humor "may be conceived of, in part, as a route by which a sense of meaning or control is achieved via adaptive distancing from an otherwise overwhelming situation.” In the case of the Australian senator, observers may have applauded what they saw as a justifiable public embarrassment of a politician whose anti-Muslim ideology has been condemned for encouraging right-wing extremist ideologies and for potentially radicalizing extremists.
Anning’s violent response to what appeared to be a harmless incident made viewers around the world rally around “egg boy” even more. That mix of the response to being egged and the underlying circumstances determine in which direction public opinion will sway. When John Prescott, who was British deputy prime minister at the time, was egged in 2001, he tackled the egg thrower in what tabloids later dubbed a “punch scuffle.” Surveys subsequently suggested that the public largely considered Prescott’s violent response to be justified. Such support rises and falls with the popularity of the target, though, and some politicians may have wished they had responded to being caked or egged in a more restrained way.
French politician Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, responded in fury after he had a pie thrown at him while he was still a local mayor. But about two decades later, then-President Sarkozy himself had to apologize after his own son threw a tomato at a police officer.
While eggs and other items thrown at politicians almost always spark debates over the limits of reasonable protest, they often distract from the more serious issues that triggered those incidents. In the case of Connolly, distraction may have been exactly what the millions of viewers were looking for.
But almost two weeks after he threw the world-famous egg, Connolly appeared to have second thoughts during his interview with Network 10 — not so much over the limits of reasonable protests, but over how much we should allow ourselves to be distracted: “It’s playing out completely out of proportion, to the point where it’s kind of embarrassing, because too much attention is actually brought away from the real victims suffering,” the 17-year-old cautioned.
“We should be focusing on them,” he said.
More on WorldViews: