They are us: Terrorism in New Zealand

It’s Friday afternoon, March 15, and the headline flashes across a colleague’s computer screen. My initial reaction has been preset. The gaze drops and the heart braces, ‘oh no, another shooting. How many this time?’

But this wasn’t just another shooting. This was New Zealand’s one and only mass shooting in history. Over the next few days hurt, sadness and a shocking reality check veils the public consciousness. New Zealand’s social contract is no longer immune to such racist violence.

It was a shift for me to see the lack of anger in the county’s response. Jacinda brought the leader of the Nationalist party with her to the Muslim community in Christchurch to offer condolences and an unabashed rebuke of the sentiment and ideology that inspired the attack. She also puts forth an authentic and well articulated message of remorse and not only acceptance of but full support for the Muslim community and all the citizens, non-citizens and refugees that have come to reside here. From the public, the usual vigils are held in all ‘major’ cities across the country over the weekend. All of Wellington showed up and Wellington’s Basin Reserve filled to the brim.

Wellington Vigil for Christchurch at the Basin Reserve, March 17 2019

Part of me felt like a curious outsider watching a social experiment. In the US mass shootings have been effectively normalised whereas New Zealand’s aftershocks resembled an immune system that tripped into action — hone in on the invader, choke it, disassemble the parts and dispatch warning messages out to the rest of the body.

Within 4 days of the attack, Jacinda reaffirms the tone with a new assertion that she will not be caught even mentioning the name of the terrorist attacker. His manifesto is categorized as hate speech which incites violence and is uncontroversially banned from public dissemination. Articles begin to flow through the media and local news to educate readers about the sliding scale of racism and how to counter any range of expressions of racist behavior. Graffiti goes up around town and posters fill shop windows striking down racism and supporting Muslim ‘brothers and sisters’.

I empathize with the expression of solidarity but I check any feelings of resolve because I know hope sours and rots if the government fails to respond beyond thoughts and prayers.

Within 10 days, an unequivocal ban on all semi-automatic and military style weapons is set into motion. To stem the rush on gun purchases, the announcement is made only a few hours before the ban takes affect. Any parts that can be used to convert a weapon into a higher capacity weapon are also included in the ban. A buy-back program is organized and the cost is not cause for hesitation.

My hope bubbles up as that action is more than I have ever seen before. But don’t think that I don’t know the difference between a temporary executive order and actual legislation. There is still a high chance the move just quells the hype while parliament widdles away solutionizing until the media dies out and protesters become white noise.

5 days later legislation is introduced to the House for consideration. 60% of public respondents were in favor of the ban. 27% were against it. Over the next 10 days, the bill journeys through three rounds of debate. Then, 26 days after the attack, on April 10th, a ban on the possession and sales of semi-automatic weapons along with the buy back program are all passed with a vote of 119 to 1. (source: NZ Parliament)

Labour Party MP Michael Wood acknowledged the gun owners who would be affected by the change in law but told Parliament it had to balance the competing rights of citizens.

Those who own illegal firearms were given an amnesty until 30 September to hand over the weapons to police. Police Minister Stuart Nash said if anyone is found to be in possession of one of the illegal firearms after that date they could face up to five years in jail. (source)

My cynicism is checked but the legislation is only modestly acknowledged by the public. NZ just came out from the dark side of the moon and no one around me seemed to be awestruck. Its a logical response and completely within the public’s jurisdiction to expect government to ‘balance the competing rights of it citizens.’ But I have never seen a city government act with such resolve, much less a national one.

Just one day before the shooting, the World Happiness report was published and New Zealand ranked in at number 8 on the list, just behind all 7 Scandinavian countries. I ended up having to closet my enthusiasm around the report because most people were not able to celebrate the news while social consciousness admonished itself for not taking action on the warning signs.

I do not deny that the Muslim community was wrongly targeted for years by intelligence agencies nor do I intend to overlook the fact that white nationalism has been swept under the rug. But I can say this; I do not know his name. I did not see his manifesto. No grassroots uprising drenched in anger was required to force the hand of lawmakers to act. I can report that within one week, 10 million dollars was raised to support the families of the victims even though 100% of burial costs for both citizens and non citizens are already covered.

I know that the government is also planning to pursue a second round of gun reform legislation this year to review the vetting process for licenses and explore the viability of a national register. Jacinda holds to the point by collaborating with French President Macron to host a summit on May 15 in France with international leaders and social media giants to align on a pathway forward to extricate extremist and inciteful terrorist rhetoric from social media platforms.

Its odd to feel pride for something that isn’t yours. My friends and I can’t keep track of the number of terrorist shootings so far this year in schools and places of worship in the US. New Zealand isn’t my country but I am proud of it and thankful that it allows my cynicism to rest and my world view to grow.

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Open Letters

Open Letters

Slow Traveler, Tree Hugger, Flawed, Productivity Enthusiast, telling my story