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If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it

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The little signs among the banks of flowers said, “This is not New Zealand.” We all knew the intent of the words. They meant that the horrifying acts of carnage committed against Muslims in Christchurch were not the New Zealand we recognise. They meant, “We thought we were better than this.”

We were wrong.

For some, there’s comfort that the man charged with murder is Australian. And yet the attack happened here, against New Zealand citizens and visitors. “They are us,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said movingly of the Muslim community. Unfortunately, in the same way, this terrorist act is ours. Most of us no longer remember who committed atrocities in Paris, Delhi or London. Christchurch has just been added to that ignominious list, and the whole world noticed.

At home and abroad, Ardern has won deserved plaudits for her compassion and calm resolve in the aftermath of the savage attacks. New Zealand needed a leader and she has led. Her problem is the man sitting beside her. Although repulsed by the violence in Christchurch, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has, like US President Donald Trump, often bluntly shared his discomfort with Islam. Some will now question the extent to which Peters can represent us internationally.

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New Zealanders have long known that the image abroad of a green, harmonious and safe country was merely relative. It is more harmonious than many and safer than some, but racism is no stranger in this country’s past or present. Most who are honest acknowledge that every health, housing and social statistic is an indication that racism – unintentional or not – is institutionalised. It was evident in the infamous 1970s Dawn Raids and in the overstayer crisis of the 80s, in which 86% of those prosecuted were Pasifika peoples, even though most of the overstayers were from Europe and North America. Equally, though, we remember the passion and courage of so many New Zealanders in opposing the white supremacy of South African apartheid during the 1981 Springbok tour. In every era we choose by our actions which version of New Zealand prevails and defines us. That choice has just been put to us again.

Even for those New Zealanders who take a hard look in the mirror, the acts of March 15 were on a scale of ferocity that no one expected. We should remember, however, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said, terrorists are not mightier than us. They are always a minority who can muster only a handful of activists at a time to do their murderous work. Although they do not respond to reason or fact, they can be shown that their best and bloodiest efforts will not divide us.

There is, as in all things, a balance to strike in our reaction to this tragedy. Every freedom we chip away is a victory for those who hate open societies. Yet knowing the ease with which the alleged attacker legally acquired his weapons makes action imperative. There has never been a cogent argument for allowing New Zealanders access to semi-automatic guns, or to those that can easily be modified. Get rid of them. And every pressure that can be brought to bear on social media, where the live-streaming and subsequent copying of the perpetrator’s video added further revulsion to an already unspeakable crime, should be immediately applied.

We must be unafraid, in our words and deeds, to openly act upon the Kiwi values of fairness, warmth, inclusion, tolerance and kindness. It is not for politicians, community and religious leaders alone to do that. At this time of unfathomable grief, the Muslim community shows us what it is to be a source of inspiration.

In New Zealand, boards have been slower than workplaces, and workplaces have been slower than schools, to embrace diversity. But it’s clear that with racism, as with bullying, there can be no bystanders. We all have a duty to act.

The horrifying images from the Christchurch atrocities will forever be a part of our history, but the acts of heroism, the vigils, the flowers, the embraces and the spontaneous outpourings of love have great power. As US civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

The task is not simple but, together, we create this nation. If “this is not New Zealand”, let us demonstrate what is.

This editorial was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.