Under a remarkable young woman New Zealand is discovering deep resources of kindness and compassion. In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre people touched by the tragedy built mountains of flowers and in their thousands attended rallies in support of the Muslims living in their communities.
In the saddest of circumstances Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rose to the occasion and did what she said she never wanted to do, which was to express the grief of the nation.
In doing so she has projected a style of politics and public service rarely seen. Her actions have been acclaimed internationally by commentators around the world.
The Australian writer Peter Fitzsimons analysed her first comments made just after the shooting. He praised her poise and steely resolve, her inclusiveness and support for diversity. She didn’t say anything that was for political advantage or divisive, but was utterly inclusive. “They are us”, she said.
Fitzsimons said it was a magnificent speech, obviously off the cuff, obviously heart-felt, and calibrated to heal, to express the nation’s grief, to express the desire to move on stronger than ever before and to focus on aiming at it never to happen again.
“Many Australians wish we had leaders that could express that kind of inclusive, diverse, binding, uniting language” he said.
From the first hours after the massacre in Christchurch, in which fifty worshipers were shot dead and another fifty wounded in two mosques, Ardern has shown compassion, empathy and humanity, and she addressed several urgent and important issues. One was to ensure the availability of resources needed for the security of the city and the other was to address the deficiencies in the New Zealand gun laws.
She discussed a number of other issues. One was why the intelligence services didn’t know about the shooter in advance of the massacre and another was how to deal with the vilest of web sites that generate hate, division and conflict.
In her appearance too, Ardern has projected an image of calm, compassion, control and reassurance.
There is a photograph that has been shared thousands of times on social media. It was taken on the morning after the massacre. Ardern had flown from Wellington to a meeting of Muslim community leaders. The room was crowded so the photographer Kirk Hargreaves took the photo through a window.
It shows the Prime Minister in a Hijab, her brow furrowed and hands clasped, a picture of empathy, compassion, pain, suffering and courage. These are qualities she has reflected in her many statements, briefings and speeches since the shooting. Her delivery has been fluent, spontaneous and appropriate.
She didn’t waste time on platitudes about “thoughts and prayers”. In addition to projecting emotional support she managed the practical measures to be taken by her government. There would be help for the survivors and their families, funds for burials and other family support and extra security and police activity.
On the first sitting day of Parliament after the massacre Ardern repeated the phrases that have been at the core of her response from the first hours after the event.
Friday March 15 had become New Zealand’s darkest of days. The victims, Muslims killed at prayer, were New Zealanders. “They are us.”
She spoke of the bravery of the two country police officers who arrested the offender while he was still shooting and of the courage of the first responders.
There are many accounts of courage and sacrifice by worshipers inside the mosques as the gunman fired at men, women and children.
Ardern said the Cabinet had already agreed that an inquiry will examine what the authorities knew before the attack, what they could have known, and what they should have known.
Six days after the attack Ardern announced a comprehensive ban on Military Style Semi-Automatic guns and assault weapons.
But still fire-arms don’t need to be licensed In New Zealand. Cars and dogs must be licensed but not guns. The authorities in New Zealand have no idea how many guns are in the country and what sort they are.
Daily this presents problems for police. When the usually unarmed police attend calls to homes they don’t know what firearms might be present.
Combine that scenario with gun supply companies that are unrepentant when their guns are used for their designed purpose of killing. In the aftermath of the massacre the gun shop owner who sold guns legally to the terrorist refused to enter into debate about gun control.
Over the years efforts to tighten controls on assault weapons in New Zealand have been defeated. In 2017 a Select Committee of Parliament suggested twenty law changes. Most were rejected. The Police Association said it was a lost opportunity and, at the time, correctly predicted it would take a tragedy to bring the issue back to the table.
In her speech to the first sitting day of Parliament after the massacre, Ardern said she will never utter the offender’s name because one of the many things he sought from his act of terror was notoriety.
“And that is why you will never hear me mention his name.”
“To others I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.”
Social media played a gruesomely significant role in the terror attack. Racist and white supremacy sites promote hate and violence. Web sites continue to carry pictures and video of the attack which had been live streamed by the terrorist as he fired his guns.
Ardern said the role social media played in the massacre will be examined.
“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher, not just the postman. This cannot be a case of all profit and no responsibility.”
To describe social media platforms as publishers raises the hope that one day in the future they could be brought under laws governing libel, decency and race discrimination. Web site managers who are ungoverned, unrestrained and unrepentant are a current problem for the New Zealand police investigating the massacre.
A web site operator, Joshua Conner Moon, is an American who runs a web site which is one of three being investigated by police tracking material posted by the terrorist. Moon has refused requests to supply details of the posts and video links. In a series of emails to New Zealand police he called their request “a joke.” His ranting abusive emails contained many expletives.
As the first funerals for the victims were held in Christchurch the impact of the massacre also incorporated a diplomatic crisis, although this too reflected well on Ardern and her government. The President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed the video of the shooting at election rallies viciously accusing New Zealand and Australia of Islamophobia.
The Australian government reacted strongly with threats that all options are on the table. New Zealand despatched its amiable Foreign Minister Winston Peters to Turkey to “set the record straight” face to face.
Erdogan had already moderated his views. He said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post “All Western leaders must learn from the courage, leadership and sincerity of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to embrace Muslims living in their respective countries.”
Out of the deepest of tragedies, at least one positive element as emerged as Ardern is recognised around the world for her deep resources of leadership and public service and as a role model for, and champion of, peace and harmony at the highest level.
Max Hayton is a former political journalist and foreign editor in New Zealand.