Friday March 15th, 2019 is a day that will be remembered in New Zealand history as the darkest day this small nation has seen. In what must be called out as an act of terrorism, Brenton Tarrant entered two mosques in Christchurch and indiscriminately opened fire on those congregated at their place of worship. The shooting is without precedent in New Zealand and as of Sunday, it had claimed 50 lives and left approximately 36 wounded and receiving treatment at Christchurch Hospital. This act of terrorism has shocked not only New Zealand but the world. It seems many have operated under the impression that these kinds of heinous acts just don’t happen in New Zealand. Journalists have described this as the end of New Zealand’s innocence, a sentiment which certainly rings true when it is considered alongside the view being expressed, largely over social media, that this is not us. Maybe this incident will cause kiwis to take a look around and realise that we are no longer immune to acts of extremism in our communities.
Tarrant appeared in the Christchurch District Court on Saturday, initially on one count of murder. His case has been remitted to the High Court where he is due to appear on April 5th. It is anticipated that this will allow for the preparation of the case against him by police and Crown prosecutors. Tarrant was apprehended quickly after leaving Linwood Avenue Mosque, and New Zealand Police must be commended for how they handled the incident. Tarrant live-streamed the attack on Facebook. The sixteen and a half minute video – appalling beyond words – depicts the murder of at least 41 people at the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Avenue and mercifully cuts off before Tarrant reaches the Linwood Avenue Mosque. As TVNZ reporter Simon Dallow reported, “This was a calculated, premeditated act of terrorism.” It was no coincidence that this happened on a Friday. Friday is the holiest day for the Islamic Community. It is the day when mosques will be the busiest as the Muslim Community congregates for prayer. This sort of religious violence perpetrated by a white extremist was not the sort of thing that happens in New Zealand except now it is, and this will have far-reaching ramifications.
Tarrant released a manifesto titled “the great replacement” online a short time before the shooting. In the 74 pages of text, he attempts to justify what is about to happen and describes in detail the belief that white civilisation is under attack from non-white immigrants. This abhorrent document aside it is clear that Tarrant represents an extreme xenophobic view that New Zealand had apparently considered itself immune from. This has been shown to be false. New Zealand, just like every other place, harbours minority groups with extremist views. Such is made clear from some of the comments on social media expressing support for the attack. The sentiment that ‘this is not us’ is just plain wrong. It represents the naivety that has contributed to a lack of vigilance around extremist views and the potential danger they can bring about. This naivety and ambivalence towards white extremists may have contributed to the fact that Tarrant and others like him have not been picked up on any security intelligence watch lists. Until now it seems as if the intelligence community has been focusing its effort on Middle Eastern oriented terrorism when in reality, the larger threat has been much closer to home.
It is almost certain that gun laws in New Zealand will change following this, with Attorney-General David Parker expressing a desire to ban semi-automatic weapons. This change will not be the end of it, and other measures will almost certainly be introduced following New Zealand terror threat level being raised from ‘low’ to ‘high’ for the first time in history. But the impact of this dreadful day will reach far beyond tighter legal measures. It is a blow to the nation’s collective psyche. It has, without doubt, damaged how we see ourselves. This is a reflection of how New Zealand society looks and it reflects the fact that we are just like everyone else and not above heinous acts of terror. As we look at that reflection, it shows us the reality of the world that we live in, but that reality should not change our values. Extremist views must not be a source of division in our society, but we must acknowledge their presence and no longer be naïve to the potential the risks that exist. Freedom of speech must still remain important but not without vigilance over those who attempt to incite intolerance.
New Zealand must not become divided by such objectionable views and acts. Unity and solidarity are what is required to come to terms with what has happened and realise that we have caught up with the rest of the world. This may be what the state of our society looks like now. This may be us. But this is not me, and it is not you.