Tragedy brings out the best in us. The Christchurch earthquakes. The Pike River Mine disaster. Now the senseless murder of Grace Millane. The tributes, memorials and marches are reflections of our caring selves.

They're important as a demonstration of our collective grief and also our collective shame in failure to live up to our ideals. How else to explain that a 22-year-old woman foreign visitor was not able to be safe in this land?

Public display of contrition and sympathy are a necessary response to this young woman's untimely death. But none of us, no matter how far we stretch to extend our own empathy can truly know the pain that now and forever envelops the Millane family. That's why the vigils, worthy in themselves, are insufficient unless we take from the common crisis the opportunity to do more than sympathise.

Read more: Jay Kuten: Bullying and abuse of power
Jay Kuten: The great divider
Jay Kuten: Ghost in the machine


We need to take this opportunity to put in place measures to prevent the repetition of violence against women. Not just gender-based violence but the issues that underlie this particular tragedy and the others, the domestic violence whose toll in this past few year has been 92 women and 52 children, 144 deaths too many.

We need to acknowledge the cultural support that makes these killings possible. The common theme is abuse of power and betrayal of trust, fostered by an absence of empathy.

We're learning every day that verbal violence in the form of outright bullying or sexual harassment is widespread and may involve anyone, especially those at the top of their professions. If we want to lessen the possibility of domestic violence at the household level we need to start with a no tolerance policy at the upper level.

One element that supports the violence of the powerful is secrecy that permits institutional protection of abusers.

That's why it's so important to have complete open independent investigations of allegations of bullying by parliamentarians like Maggie Barry (which she has denied) and claims of harassment at law firms like Russell McVeigh.

For the rest of us, we need to start at the primary grades and work upwards.

"Roots of Empathy," a programme for enhancing empathy consists of introduction to early grade children of an infant (with mother in attendance) to the classroom on a regular basis, allowing children to watch a more vulnerable being develop over a period of time. The programme, which has been successfully trialled in Canada and here in three major centres, works to diminish bullying and ultimately to generate a greater sense of identification with the needs of a less powerful being, the core of empathy.

For middle and high schoolers, dispute resolution short of violence should be part of the curriculum. Peer-based adjudication with negotiation skills have been successfully trialled in the US in Cambridge, Massachusetts schools. The resultant skill sets are a spillover that promotes behaviours useful throughout life.


When it comes to intimate relationships, it's romantic but foolhardy to believe that "All You Need Is Love." The Beatles, themselves, are an argument that much more is needed. It's the skill in dealing with conflict that determines the growth of relationships that are nurturant and safe, bringing out the best in the participants.

The skills needed for dealing with conflict, an inevitable part of the differences that any two people bring with them, can and should be taught. No one is born or simply grows to have such skills unaided.

It needs be said that alcohol and domestic conflict is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Our national drinking behaviours and their known association with violence need as much review as the other cultural supports of bullying and deficiencies of empathy.

No more fitting tribute can we make to the memory of Grace Millane and to the 92 women and 52 children than to determine that we have the will and resolve to put in place known means to prevent such violence from occurring in the future. We know the means to end the need for vigils. We need the will.

Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.