Wednesday, March 20, 2019

They Are Us

Via Internet (source unknown).
The people of any country that has experienced an horrific major event—such as a natural disaster, a major accident, or an act of terrorism—will take time to comprehend what’s happened before they can begin to heal. This is natural. In recent years, New Zealand, and the South Island in particular, have experienced all three, and while national mourning has happened each time, this time there’s something more, something stronger, something more hopeful than we’ve seen before.

I’ve been struggling with this post for days. What can anyone really say about a terrorist attack, like what New Zealand experienced this past Friday? So much of what would be obvious also risks sounding empty and superficial in the face of so much pain and hurting. There will be public policy and political things to be said, but not now, not in this post. Instead, this a personal reflection. And, it’s also a beginning of trying to resume normal life.

I won’t re-hash all the facts about the attack, since it’s been so extensively covered by the world’s news media. I’m not a journalist, and I have no new facts to report. All that I, or anyone else, has to offer that’s unique is how we feel about and react to despicable acts like this. Still, it's necessary to talk about some of the details of that day in order to explain how I reacted.

I heard about the attack not long after it began. I heard there was a “mass shooting” in Christchurch, and that six people were believed dead. Then, it was 12. And then, as the TV news switched to live broadcasts, talk of numbers ceased and they instead focused on what was known, and attempts to understand what was going on.

TVNZ’s One News, which I was watching, had a fixed camera providing live shots of the police blocking the road that one of the mosques is on. It was mostly to provide moving images while the anchor, Simon Dallow, talked to experts by phone. I watched the cops there holding their assault rifles at the roadblock and thought how focused they looked.

I was watching when a car approached the roadblock. The cops tried to gesture to the driver to turn away, and the driver didn’t immediately comply. I saw the cops lower their rifles and point them at the car. I’ve never seen that in New Zealand before. I would never have thought I would see that in New Zealand. The car did turn away, clearly not a danger, but maybe driven by someone who was confused and unsure what to do. Maybe it was a friend or relative of a victim who was desperate to get to the mosque. I doubt we’ll ever know. But the image of police weapons aimed at a civilian car was the first jarring image I saw.

Later, of course, there were images of survivors leaving the mosque area, their clothes stained with the blood of victims. I’ve never seen that in New Zealand before. I would never have thought I would see that in New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been having an ordinary Friday visiting parts of New Zealand, until everything changed. She spoke to us [WATCH] shortly before boarding a flight back to Wellington, where the national civil defense efforts are coordinated. “This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” she said. “Many of those who will have been directly affected by the shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.

It was the perfect response at a time when there was still so much that wasn’t known. We needed reassurance and certainty at a time when neither were evident. As the news coverage continued, there was eventually footage of the terrorist being arrested—alive. Cops from a rural area of the South Island who happened to be in Christchurch for routine firearms training, responded to the call. They rammed the terrorist’s car, which could be seen with its front end up on the police car, its wheel still spinning because it was in gear. The cops cuffed the terrorist and took him away. At the time they had no idea what weapons the terrorist still had, nor did they know he’d put improvised bombs in a vehicle he’d used. All they knew was that they had a duty to end the event, to stop the terrorist, and to protect the people of New Zealand. They did so and became instant heroes to us all.

More time passed. Reporters talked about how the Prime Minister would speak again once she was briefed in Wellington, and they suggested we should expect the casualty numbers to go much higher. They were right.

When the Prime Minister addressed us again [WATCH], she told us that there were 40 dead and at least that many more injured. which was the best information they had at that time. She said it was a terrorist attack, and she reassured us that the terrorist was in custody. Then she spoke to us in calm, measured tones, saying exactly what needed to be said:
Christchurch was the home of these victims. For many, this may not have been the place they were born. In fact, for many, New Zealand was their choice. The place they actively came to, and committed themselves to. The place they were raising their families. Where they were part of communities that they loved, and who loved them. It was a place that many came to for its safety, a place where they were free to practice their culture, and their religion.

For those of you who are watching at home tonight and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we were not a target because we’re a safe harbour for those who hate, we were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we’re an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. And those values, I can assure you, will not, and cannot be shaken by this attack.

We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages, and amongst that diversity we share common values, and the one that we place the currency on right now, and tonight, is our compassion and the support for the community of those directly affected by this tragedy. And secondly, the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people who did this. You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.
The Prime Minister’s words moved me to tears, for both her compassion for the victims and their community, and also for her defiance of the forces of hatred and racism. She consistently did both every time she spoke in the immediate aftermath.

On Saturday the Prime Minister led a multi-party delegation to Christchurch to express support for the survivors and their community, to mourn with all those who are grieving, and to demonstrate clearly that New Zealand will not tolerate extremist racism.

There were many photos of the Prime Minister wearing a headscarf in support of the Muslim community, and of her comforting those who were mourning. She was, in that moment, every decent and rational New Zealander.

Some New Zealanders have taken a small measure of comfort that the terrorist was not one of us, but a foreigner who targeted us. But evil knows no nationality. Hatred is hatred. Our mission is to stamp out hatred wherever it exists, not to blame the people of the country where a monster happened to be born.

And yet, in the immediate aftermath it was good to think that we don’t have home-grown violent extremists, even though we know that’s not actually true. In the days and months ahead, we’ll find out for sure how extensive this cancer is. The message so far has been clear that we will not tolerate violent racism in this country.

When the Prime Minister said of the victims, “They are us”, she was right. But it’s equally true that the racists among us are “us”, too, not because we literally are them—we reject them. However, because we don’t do enough to stop racism, we are complicit in its continuation. And because we don’t object to small expressions of racism, it can give fertiliser to those who will go on to commit acts of racist violence, including terrorism. We must do more.

This isn’t the duty of one race alone, but white people are the only ones in a position to stamp out white supremacism by forcefully rejecting it. This is where our work now lies: We all have a duty to stand up to racism whenever it pops up. That means that many of us will need to learn how to stand up to racism whenever it pops up, because New Zealanders by nature aren’t a confrontational people. I think that maybe this can lead us to develop ways to respond, even to racist “jokes”, in ways that don’t end up escalating the situation. The goal is to get people to stop being racist, not to publicly shame them or to make them angry; we want change, not to incite them.

In the meantime, though, jaded and cynical as I am, I've been ASTOUNDED by the reaction of ordinary Kiwis. They have embraced our Muslim fellow Kiwis in a way I've never seen happen before or anywhere else. It makes me get all teary-eyed when I see it on TV. Others are wearing a green ribbon in support of Muslim Kiwis. Some have gone to their nearest mosque to lay flowers and to be there in case anyone needs a hug. Yesterday in the Ponsonby neighbourhood of Auckland, a bunch of ordinary white, middle class-looking office workers, all millennials, I think, went on their lunch hour to a local mosque to join with the Muslims worshipping there. It was, to be honest, funny watching the dolled-up ladies taking off their expensive high heels to go inside—but it was very touching, too, and inspiring, So, too, have been the numerous stories of ordinary Kiwis just doing what they can to help, and it was gratifying to see the newsmedia report on what they were doing.

The terrorist—and I am doing the same as the Prime Minister who said, "one thing I can assure you, you won't hear me speak his name"—the terrorist tried to sow hatred and division. He utterly failed. It wasn’t just the nation he inadvertently brought together, he also specifically united New Zealanders regardless of background, religious beliefs, whether we were born here or came from somewhere else. We have, though this horrible event, become a stronger and more united people. I hope it can continue.

We will all move on from this, as always happens. The shock will fade, the rawness will go away, and the pain will ease. That’s what always happens. But we mustn’t let the unity and focus fade, too. We have so much work to do to cure the cancers of terrorism and white supremacism.

Now, let’s get to work.

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