The small city I am currently in is 320 miles from Christchurch. This feels more like a small town than a city to me, with a population of just over half a million; even though I only know one other person here, I am not short of friends as people here greet me on the street, the beach, in the coffee shops…there feels to be few strangers here.
I am a visitor here and so witness to, while unaffected personally by, the atrocity in Christchurch yesterday. However, it is impossible to be in proximity to something like this without being drawn in, however tangentially. This is such a little country, at least in population terms; under 5 million people live here in a place around the same size as the (dis)United Kingdom. Of course it isn’t perfect here, but there is a concerted effort, as far as I can see, from government downward, to do the right things; to be inclusive, to be open, to be welcoming, to learn from their own past colonial mistakes…something like the mosque shootings would of course be terrible wherever they happened, but here they just seem totally incongruous. Alien, even. The irony of a white foreigner coming to a country previously colonised by white settlers to protest about other foreigners settling in other countries is a bitter one.
The mosque in this city is a small, unassuming building situated in a quiet residential street well away from the city centre. This morning, we went there to leave some flowers. The mosque was, of course closed, with the gate locked; a small sign saying the building was currently closed, with a contact phone number, had been attached to the gate. Another car was already there when we arrived, and a small display of flowers, plus one teddy bear, had already been left against the gate. Some, like my yellow carnations, were bought from flower shops but most looked to have been hand-picked, presumably from gardens, and fashioned into bouquets with ribbon or wire. They were beautiful, all of them. You could feel the love in every stem, every petal, every leaf. Four notices had been fixed to the fence by people who had visited before us. The first three said ‘WE’ ‘LOVE’ ‘YOU’ and the fourth said ‘We are one people’
The sight of the flowers and signs, and the imperative and sentiment behind bringing them, was extremely moving. A woman was standing sobbing quietly in front of them, and when she saw us arrive, she came over to hug us. As I hugged her, I realised I had run out of words entirely; she thanked me for coming, and I found that I had nothing to say in response. I just returned her embrace, and this, at least, was not difficult. I have seen this sort of spontaneous floral display on news reports before, following other tragedies, and have never given them much thought beyond finding them a little puzzling. Seeing one close up, however, was much more powerful than I would ever have expected. This signified something tangible. These are not meaningless gestures from random people. These are love in action, and I hope the Muslim community here understands that, and finds comfort and consolation in them.
The enormity of all this hasn’t begun sunk in, I think; how could it have, so soon? There will doubtless be consequences and will need to be changes – the admirable Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already promised gun reform – and the ripples will spread as the immediate shock gradually wears off, the investigation widens and the trial gets underway. I am seeing anger online, amid the many questions which need to be asked again around the propagation of hate speech, the rise of the alt right and the insidious spread of fascism. There is, of course, a place for anger, as there is for justice. However, I believe it is more important than ever to remember that the purpose of terrorism is to spread terror, and acts like this are carried out primarily to create fear, provoke anger and incite hatred. Those of us who are not directly affected should think carefully if these are our first reactions, and try hard to move past these emotions. Those who seeks to spread hate would be scornful and uncomprehending of the signs on the fence, and the floral tributes, and I pity them for that. We are all one people, and we must not let hate, fear or anger divide us.
This piece couldn’t be published contemporaneously for technical reasons; the delay has given me the opportunity, now that I am back in the northern hemisphere, to think about what I remember most clearly about all this. There was the message sent to every mobile phone in NZ on the day of the memorial service (mine included), which signposted counselling and support. There were the many, many hakas performed across the country in remembrance, grief and solidarity. There was the #ScarvesInSolidarity initiative, which saw many NZ women from all backgrounds wearing a headscarf in support of their Muslim sisters, some of whom had been too afraid to leave their homes since the attack. And there was, of course, the inspired and inspiring figure of Jacinda Ardern, who turned out to be exactly the right woman for the occasion, and who reminded the world what compassionate leadership looks like. And that it is still a thing.
This is how to react to terrorism.
I can only imagine how baffling this outpouring of unity, support, solidarity and love must seem to white nationalists.
Imagine if they finally understood that the more they hurt, the more we will heal and the more they hate, the more we will love? Imagine if we did?