September 11: New Zealand's decade-long reaction

Kiwis were shocked by the 9/11 attacks, but were never going to embrace or maintain the war on terror with the same fervour as others, terrorism specialists argue. Photo / AP
Kiwis were shocked by the 9/11 attacks, but were never going to embrace or maintain the war on terror with the same fervour as others, terrorism specialists argue. Photo / AP

Questionable laws, two dubious wars, a brutal murder and some airport inconvenience. Ten years on, this is how the average Kiwi sums up the legacy of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.

Australia's neighbour was among the fastest in the world to react to the horrific events of 2001, swiftly introducing anti-terror laws, sending troops into Afghanistan and adopting other measures to show solidarity against a new and frightening threat.

But with its fierce pro-peace stance and liberal policies, New Zealand was never going to embrace or maintain the war on terror with the same fervour as others, terrorism specialists argue.

"New Zealand felt very removed from September 11 and the Bali bombings, both geographically and ideologically," says Associate Professor Stephen Hoadley from the University of Auckland's Department of Political Studies.

"They were terrible events, yes, and they made people feel very uncomfortable, but in terms of their impact on the country and its people, it was very different to, say, the United States and even Australia." Contributing to this is the country's terror death toll. Just one New Zealander, 48-year-old environment lawyer Alan Beaven, was among the estimated 3,000 who died in the attacks on the US.

He was on board the hijacked plane that crashed in a Pennsylvanian field.

The Bali bombings one year on left 202 dead, including 88 Australians and just three New Zealanders. No New Zealanders died in the 2005 bombings.

"That's four Kiwis dead as a direct result of terrorist attacks," says AUT criminological researcher James Rodgers. "And while that's not insignificant, that's enough to help keep the events feeling very foreign indeed." Despite the toll, its nuclear free policy and estrangement from the US, New Zealand reacted to the first attacks with the same gusto as other developed nations.

It joined the United Nations response condemning the attacks and introduced new security screening at airports. Within six weeks its SAS troops were operating in the Tora Bora province of Afghanistan, fighting to recapture Kabul.

NZ authorities supported international police cooperation to restrict terrorist groups and within a year there were new laws and a reorganisation of government, all designed to combat the terrorism threat.

There was even, says Mr Rodgers, a level of moral panic among citizens.

The difference in New Zealand, he argues, is that while swift and certain, the combative measures were largely cosmetic and the fear, briefly felt.

The governmental rearrangements were minor, pragmatic and inexpensive, while the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 was "relatively mild" compared with other nations.

There's no preventative detention, suppression of speech or disbanding of inflammatory organisations, features of new terrorism acts seen in some other nations.

And it has only been invoked once, for a case of domestic "terrorism" that was ultimately downgraded to firearms charges.

"It was about making people feel safe rather than necessarily responding to any real threat," Mr Rodgers says.

"And of course the pressure to be part of the international effort, to show the US that, yes, we were prepared to take what happened to them seriously." "In that sense it was quite ... cosmetic, security theatre even." The panic it induced was temporary, he says, even in the wake of the attacks in Bali - not a traditional playground for Kiwis.

"If it was Fiji or Samoa it would be a different story but it wasn't." Local Muslims likely felt the effects but the attacks did not trigger race hate crimes or violence on the scale seen during Sydney's Cronulla riots.

One Algerian asylum seeker, Ahmed Zaoui, fell under suspicion for terrorist links, claims that were eventually deemed unfounded.

"Prior to 9/11 I don't think that would have happened," says Mr Rodgers, "but times had obviously changed things." Assoc Prof Hoadley is quick to point out that racism exists in New Zealand, with many older people believing Muslims do not make suitable immigrants.

"Those views very definitely exist and 2001 didn't help that," he says. "But it's certainly not the socially-accepted view in New Zealand. Publicly, people do their best to be religion-blind, colour-blind and generally keep their views under wraps." Another impact of the era of terror has been New Zealand's involvement in war.

As Professor Robert Ayson, director of The Centre for Strategic Studies: New Zealand, points out, New Zealand has its sizeable response to the Afghan war effort to thank for its new-look relationship with the United States.

"Without that commitment I don't think we would have seen the relationship between Wellington and Washington warm as quickly as it did after so long in the cold," Prof Ayson says.

But while the bi-lateral relationship improved, New Zealand's interest in anti-terror wars waned.

It was unconvinced by the Iraq invasion, refusing to take part without UN support, and Afghanistan is going the same way. A recent survey found 70 per cent of Kiwis want their SAS to return home.

"In New Zealand there is an idealist, almost pacifist view that military affairs are somewhat suspect and New Zealanders shouldn't be involved in killing people, even for a good cause," Assoc Prof Hoadley says.

"Call it peacekeeping and its totally fine, but guns and shooting and it's not." This is in stark contrast to Australia "where soldiers are more respected and sharp-end deployments are, if not applauded, at least accepted as part of what Australia has to do," he says.

This military scepticism extended to the death of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at the hands of US soldiers earlier this year.

Assoc Prof Hoadley says America's celebrations after bin Laden's assassination made Kiwis feel uncomfortable.

"In the eyes of most New Zealanders it was murder and a lot of them felt very queasy about it," he says.

So with the wars largely condemned, terror laws never used and few everyday reminders of that time beyond the racist rhetoric, have those events changed life at all? "Very little I'd say, beyond a bit of annoying airport security which many of us see little reason for," says Mr Rodgers.

"We now know the word terrorism but it's still very much a concept rather than a reality."

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