Cameron Bennett

New Zealand Notebook

New Zealand Notebook
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In a blink, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. Life goes on. The long, hot days of a record summer are lazily tumbling into autumn, gridlock has returned to the motorways, the kids are back at school. But the murderous events in Christchurch last Friday have distorted everything for us as a nation. This far-flung little haven of ours — we’ve been so proud of its unspoilt coastlines, its quirkiness, its outsized achievements (in our minds, anyway), its inclusiveness and safety. Bad stuff happened somewhere else. We thought we were different. We thought distance protected us from global extremism.

The horrendous events have left us questioning so much of who we are and what we stand for. Our sense of security has been stolen. Christchurch is a city still traumatised by the earthquakes of 2011, and now this — 50 dead and dozens more wounded. In our desperation to reassure ourselves and the world, we have stood together at vigils and on social media over these past days to declare ‘This Is Not Us’; that Kiwis aren’t like that. Our news stories unfailingly point out that the gunman quite literally isn’t one of us — he’s an Australian. As if that somehow distances us from his kind. The fact is, though, there’s no distancing us from him or what he did: Brenton Tarrant was resident in Dunedin, he was cleared for a Kiwi gun licence, he accumulated a small arsenal of firearms here. He will be tried in a New Zealand court, where he plans to represent himself.

A message of support from one Wellington artist has gone viral. It reads: ‘This is your home and you should have been safe here’. But these people, some of whom were refugees from war-torn countries, weren’t safe. The Islamic Women’s Committee of New Zealand argues that none of us should be surprised. One member, Anjum Rahman, says that in recent years, Muslim representatives have ‘knocked on every door we could, we spoke at every possible forum. We pointed to the rise of vitriol and the rise of the alt-right in New Zealand.’ Donna Miles-Mojab, a Muslim writer in Christchurch, estimates there are around 4,000 Muslims living in the Canterbury region from up to 40 different ethnic groups. She says that for all Kiwis’ talk of accepting diversity, we actively choose to ignore Islamophobia. Hijab-wearing Muslim women, she points out, have been spat at, had their scarves pulled off, been called ‘terrorist whore’ and ‘jihadi bitch’. She also notes that there have been few convictions for religious or racial abuse in New Zealand in the past decade.

The attack has revealed the ugly rise of white extremism. Academics such as Dr Paul Spoonley — author of Politics of Nostalgia: Racism and the Extreme Right in New Zealand — have warned of growing white nationalism, particularly in Christchurch. The city, he says, has been a hotbed since high-profile skinhead attacks in the late 1980s — and the recruits are male, working-class and resentful. They feel they are losing their place in society. As the 24-hour news coverage grinds on, serious questions about our law and intelligence agencies are emerging. Have they been too preoccupied with Islamic terrorism and even Maori extremism? Were they turning a blind eye to a much greater threat? Counter-terrorism expert Dr John Battersby says the warning signs of an attack like this have been apparent for some time, but that New Zealand has assumed ‘extremism is not here’. It turns out it is.

Another reality check for Kiwis: New Zealand is awash in legal and illegal guns — an estimated 30 guns per 100 New Zealanders. That’s around 1.4 million guns in a population of just 4.8 million people. But, alarming as that sounds, gun-related homicides are relatively low. The figures for 2014 put the rate at 0.11 per 100,000 people. By comparison, it was a full 10 per 100,000 in the United States. A strong gun lobby in New Zealand has insured that Kiwis aren’t overburdened with regulation. For instance, it’s the gun owners and not their weapons that are licensed. There are around 15,000 military-style semi-automatics (MSSAs) in circulation and under very strict traceability rules. But there’s little to stop a basic A-category owner illegally converting his weapon to an MSSA by adding a high-capacity magazine, just like Brenton Tarrant did.

Things haven’t reached anything like the level of gun-culture wars in the US, but it’s still a thorny issue for politicians. In 2017, a parliamentary select committee looked into the possession of illegal firearms and offered 20 recommendations. Two thirds of them were rejected by the then governing National party. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government has already met to discuss fast-tracking changes to gun laws — a ban on most semi-automatic weapons is almost certain. She’s now urging owners to hand them over to police. The PM is also calling out tech giants, saying they need to take some responsibility. After all, the murderous rampage in Christchurch was live-streamed on Facebook, then shared on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit. This was a massacre carefully produced for the cyber world.

Mourning families in Christchurch will bury their dead according to Islamic ritual after the bodies are released from the identification process. As fellow Kiwis, we will watch on with a sadness that is hard to express. If there is anything to be learned, it is that New Zealand is not immune to extremist hatred or protected by distance; and that maybe, for the first time, we’re seeing our fellow Muslims not as stereotypes but as people just like us.

Cameron Bennett is a documentary presenter and former foreign correspondent for TVNZ.