TE ATATU, New Zealand — We’re Kiwis. We’re that place where Peter Jackson made those endless hobbit movies. We’re five million people spread out on two imaginatively named islands — North Island and South Island. We’re the land of the long white cloud that stretches over the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, over the sticky tidal mangrove swamps of the north, over the black shingle beaches crawling with seals and sea lions to the west, over the white sands of the east where Captain Cook first made footfall 250 years ago on Oct. 6, 1769.
We’re a long way from anyplace, and that’s the point of New Zealand: We like it like that. We’re lucky here. We’re out of the picture. We’re too distant and obscure for terror cells to bother infiltrating. We’re all good.
Except now we have to reckon with the tragedy and the grief and the awful, deepening shock of the terrorist attack in Christchurch. News came slow. At first it was described as multiple shootings, and that sounded bad, very bad, but the mind contained it — surely the figure was less than 10. But then the police confirmed 40 dead. An hour later, 49 dead. And then the survivors began describing the shooting and the victims: “One little boy, Somali, maybe 5 years old. He was a very nice boy.” The bodies in the mosque, waiting to be identified.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense. This sort of thing — an attack, an armed moron with a mission statement, three accomplices running amok in a flat, romantic city, with its gentle Avon River and its cherry blossom in spring — simply doesn’t belong here.
When we go about mass killing, we go about it furtively. The Bain family of five, shot at dawn by a deranged family member in Dunedin. David Gray, the lone gunman who shot and killed 13 neighbors in Aramoana. They were New Zealand killings, in the New Zealand manner — seething tensions suddenly unleashed, a mad dog gone wrong. They had recognizable national characteristics.
But the mosque killings were something new, something off the chart. This was organized, planned, slaughter on a large scale of the innocent, carried out by a killer or killers with a head full of militant trash — the usual rubbish of white supremacy, with its fear and loathing of immigrants.
But the terrorists weren’t hitting out at some separate, isolated community. Muslims in New Zealand are part of the fabric of everyday life. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is at her best when she addresses issues of national identity. She noted in her news conference held to announce the tragedy that many of the victims of the shooting were migrants. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home,” she said. “They are us.” The terrorists killed New Zealanders.
The attack, I confess, feels imported: the apparent killer who is Australian, the references in what appears to be his so-called manifesto to right-wing provocateurs and white supremacists in America and elsewhere. But it would be false and gross to describe this as some kind of end of innocence or solely a foreign import. Life in New Zealand is lovely, but it also comes with deep social problems brought on by poverty and homelessness, constant race-based tensions and, yes, lingering resentment of migrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Child abuse is a recurring national shame. Violence against women is considered so rife that New Zealand is routinely described as possessing a rape culture. All that and worse in our beautiful archipelago at the end of the world. But at least we seemed out of the terrorist loop.
Turns out we were evidently living in a fool’s paradise. We were otherwise preoccupied with the pleasures and challenges of everyday life. On the day of the mosque killings, tens of thousands of school kids marched in 40 demonstrations across New Zealand, demanding action on climate change. It was a wonderfully liberating sight, something meaningful and urgent, colorful and good-humored. They carried terrific signs and banners. Social media posted numerous photos from the marches. There was a cracking one of a bearded old geezer called John Geiser, in the North Island town of Masterton, watching the demonstration go by while holding a sign of his own. It read: WELL DONE YOUNG PEOPLE.
Well done, John, I thought. I retweeted it, with a comment: “Hey good on him! Great guy — respect. NZ is being a great NZ today.” That went up at about 11 p.m. The first reports of the mosque attacks started coming in about two hours later. NZ, suddenly, sickeningly, was being a horrifying NZ.
Steve Braunias is an author and a senior writer at The New Zealand Herald.
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