Steve Braunias reflects on the darkest week in New Zealand history.
A 28-year-old man charged with murder will appear in the High Court at Christchurch on April 5. It will likely be a brief appearance. I wonder about going to look at him and to report on those few minutes.
Probably very little will be said – dates, procedure, the usual boring machinery of criminal justice at work – and not much to see. There doesn't seem much of him. He looks kind of short.
Christchurch is a long way to go to stare at someone and record information that might only take up less than a page in my notebook. But every journalist is a witness to history and every New Zealander is aware of his part in the dark and dismal history created last Friday at 101 Deans Ave and 223A Linwood Ave.
He is the hate that dare not speak its name. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared she will not say it, and already he's better known to New Zealanders not by name than as The Gunman. I suppose it gives him a certain mythic quality but more so it works to erase his identity, remove him like a stain.
I think I want to see The Gunman. Not that I regard him as fascinating or even particularly interesting, and anyway he's beside the point. The 50 dead, 28 critically injured and statistically incalculable number of families and friends suffering a loss are the point.
The two-minute silence observed yesterday said everything. Harrowing, but also kind of beautiful, to dwell on the quiet that settled over the country – New Zealand, the land of the long white silence - from 1.32pm to 1.34pm.
"Don't dwell on who he is," Ardern told students at Cashmere High School. Fair call. And yet earlier in the week I wondered about The Gunman's manifesto, and tentatively searched for it. I got this far: "Item not available." Another erasure, like his snuff movie, and his pixilated face.
I was relieved not to find it. Who cares what he thinks, what he has to say? His manifesto and 17-minute film were a narcissist at work – the great author, the lead actor, actually nothing more than an armed moron.
There are many, many times when I reflect on the wisdom of a lyric from a Wellington band called The First XV , a loud, shambolic and wildly entertaining group who played the best music in New Zealand in 1982, a fact known to at least 17 people.
Their song Fascist Tango had a line which singer Tim Scott repeated over and over. "Don't understand ya, mate," he droned, "and I don't want to."
Moana Maniapoto, who contributes to the excellent online news site e-tangata , raised the same point in a perhaps more articulate and thoughtful way on social media this week.
She wrote, "Setting aside any legal imperatives from the judge, might NZ media collectively agree to block any diatribe likely to exit the mouth of the gutless, white, terrorist who is panting after a platform? Genuine legal/ethical question."
There are pretty clear guidelines about not reporting hate speech and I suspect that might be the case on April 5 or any other opportunity that The Gunman has his day in court. In any case I'm not interested in his views, although I suppose I'm curious about the state of his mind.
A statement from the Mental Health Foundation on Wednesday began, "Following Friday's appalling terrorist attack, many people have speculated that the terrorist must have been mentally ill".
You don't say. I wrote in the paper on Monday, "Let's go out on a limb here and consider the possibility he's a complete nutter". But the Mental Health Foundation shut that down, and quite rightly, too. "If we let mental illness be the scapegoat here, we let ourselves and our country off the hook from reckoning with the racism, white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiments that directly led to these attacks."
No name. No face. No voice. No entertaining the remote possibility he's plain crazy. There seems to be a theme developing here and I'm picking up signs that I ought to stay away from reporting on The Gunman. I base this partly on a tweet from someone called Will de Cleene this week, when he wrote, "Stay away, @SteveBraunias." He added: "The ***'s fired his attorney and representing himself. It'll be a shit show."
He's probably right. Good old Twitter; it's full of actually pretty useful advice. But enough of social media for a second. What's the word on the street? I popped outside on Thursday morning to ask.
A team of civil engineers have been digging up the corner of my street this week and laying down a sewerage pipe to unstink six new town houses about to be built on a section the size of your iphone. Two of the guys were down in a hole, and I leaned over the barrier and said, "What do you make of The Gunman?"
One of them said, "Aw, mate. Why give that *** the time of day?"
The other one said, "Just take him out the back. Two shots."
I don't know if I want to see The Gunman. Everything about him is adding up to nothing, a waste of space. The Herald reported this week that the trial might be held behind closed doors, and that in the meantime he's in segregation and solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, most likely at the new $300 million Auckland Prison at Paremoremo.
There was admiring detail about his piece of real estate: "Walls made of concrete blocks so dense that they each weigh 17kg." Yes, that's quite dense. It suggested more than simple confinement. It suggested he was being concreted over, buried alive.
He's an absence. He's going, he's gone. We've consigned him to a void – he's entered that state described so fluently and exactly by another creature from the black lagoon of harm, Charles Manson, in the title of a song he wrote: "Cease to Exist."
It's the way we do things now. We blank history, we delete it. Are we afraid of something? What are we afraid of?
If I'd been alive and working as a journalist in 1945-46, I'd very much like to have reported on the end result of the most profound and deadliest event of the 20th century: the Nuremberg trials.
Goring, Frick, Jodl and the other last remaining wretches of the Nazi regime, brought to order, in courtroom 600 at the magnificently titled Palace of Justice.
Odious to compare The Gunman to Hitler or the Christchurch killings to the Holocaust. But Nuremberg was open for inspection, and The Gunman is being treated as a dirty secret, something we can't handle, best ignored ("Don't dwell on who he is"), best concealed.
Duncan Garner has called for an open trial. You know you're not living your best life when you start quoting the Newshub blatherer in chief for support, but I think he has a point. I think we ought to consider the face of evil. I think we should look at his face and know who he is, like we did with Clayton Weatherston, with Tony Dixon, with Malcolm Rewa; like the world did with that square-faced hedonist, Hermann Goring. I think I want to see The Gunman.
Meeting at the mosque
I went to see the chairman of the Masjid e Umar mosque at 185 Stoddard Rd in Mt Roskill on Wednesday. We met at midday. Ahmed Bhamji said not to come any earlier, because the only people there would be police.
"We are the people who will keep watch while you pray," Simon Wilson wrote in the Herald on Tuesday. I wasn't sure what or who he meant by that until I arrived at the mosque, where the gates are locked, and heavily armed officers patrolled the vast carpark.
Bhamji was a bit tied up that morning: he was trying to arrange Jacinda Ardern, National Party leader Simon Bridges, and Auckland mayor Phil Goff to speak to the congregation.
It was on the ambitious side of things but Mt Roskill has long housed the largest concentration of Muslims in New Zealand, and the mosque has long claimed it has the biggest congregation (about 1000) of any single place of worship in New Zealand.
Beautiful, and not at all harrowing, to imagine the adhan, or call to prayer, sounding out from the Masjid e Umar mosque yesterday at 1.30pm – Islamic music, out loud, in the Muslim metropolis of the Antipodes.
Early autumn in Auckland has been short-sleeves weather, mellow and warm. I caught the western line train from Henderson to New Lynn, and then the 24R bus to Richardson Rd in Mt Roskill, that quintessentially boring Auckland suburb, the Albany of the isthmus, "boxed-in, centreless and character free", as author Garth Cartwright described his birthplace in his bitter-sweet 2011 memoir Sweet As .
But it always feels exotic to wander along the Stoddard Rd shops. This is the resettled New Zealand, really not overwhelmingly white, with frozen taro and lamb flaps at the Valonia Dairy, charcoaled meals at Kabul House, saris at Makanjees, Hash The Tailor, Fakatouola Pawnbrokers, the cutely initialled HFC chicken shack. And grocery store Mohammeds ("The Name You Can Trust"), where I called in and spoke to Subin Sulaiman, 34, from India. He has set up a takeaway counter at the back of the shop. Incredibly, his first day of business was last Friday.
He spent that morning setting up. Exciting times; it's a new opportunity for Subin, a second chance. Five years ago he leased a takeaway in Manurewa. Things didn't work out. It went under. He nodded and didn't say anything when I asked if he lost his shirt.
But he drove cabs – Discount, Co-Op, Uber - and worked long hours to get back on his feet and build a future for his family. He and his wife Arti have three daughters, aged 8, 5 and 2. The older girls attend Iqra Elementary, an Islamic school in Mt Roskill.
He went to the afternoon prayer at Masjid e Umar on March 15 and came back to Mohammeds to begin work. His first customer bought butter chicken. And then he heard about a shooting at a mosque in Christchurch. "I didn't take it seriously at first," he said. "Maybe an airgun, something like that. Because this is New Zealand."
A European woman came into the shop later that afternoon just to give them a bunch of flowers. "She stood there silently," Subin remembered, with awe. Yes, he said, the shock and the suffering has been immense.
"But then the love and support we saw from New Zealanders from top to bottom, from Jacinda Ardern to the common man, was overwhelming. That's the greatest thing you could see. You know, I always told friends back home, 'God has kept us in heaven on Earth in New Zealand.' I've been here 10 years and never faced racism. No, not once. And now – now we are all so united."
That exact sentiment is shared from top to bottom in New Zealand this week. If Subin was the common man, then Ahmed Bhamji is a leader of Auckland's Muslim community as chairman of Masjid e Umar; and he had much the same message when we met in his small office in the huge mosque, formerly the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa.
At first we talked about the tragedy. He said he got a phone call about it at 2.32pm. "I will never forget that time." A few days ago he visited a dairy in Balmoral to ask if they would take a box for customers to donate Christchurch Victims Relief Fund. "He held me and cried. I know this man; when his father passed away, he never cried. But this was too much for him."
And then he said, "This has united this country like never before. Rugby World Cup, America's Cup – it didn't unite us as much as this ... The love and affection has given us a lot of strength, and also an awareness of just what New Zealand is all about. If you have any doubts about this country, this should open your eyes ... No, I've never experienced racism. I came here in 1987. I will not say I have ever encountered it. Because I have not, not once."
There was almost something ... disappointing about these affirmations of a decent society, these descriptions of peace and harmony. It wasn't so much that they didn't ring true or that I had any right or some inside knowledge to argue the point with the Muslim chairman and the takeaway chef.
But all week there have been wise heads proclaiming the mosque attacks in Christchurch weren't actually shocking, that it was on the cards, that racism is endemic, that a violent and hateful white supremacy movement lurks like a many-headed monster behind the façade we create of a good New Zealand.
Anjum Rahman, spokesperson at Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ), wrote on Radio New Zealand this week, "No, New Zealand media, we are not surprised. Why would we be?"
She described the years of fruitless meetings between the IWCNZ and government to plead for funding to implement programmes that would confront and address "rising levels of discrimination". At a March 2017 meeting with senior public servants, for example, "We told them about our concerns over the rise of vitriol and the rise of the alt-right in New Zealand."
And this, from Victoria University cultural anthropologist Catherine Trundle: "Our nation was built upon the racist principle that Māori needed to be 'elevated' up by the 'progress' of a 'superior' white society. Racism has long tentacles. Of course it's still with us in myriad insidious ways ... Anti-racism activists [have] wondered, what was it going to take for white supremacists in Christchurch and elsewhere to get noticed? Now we know."
All of which was taking The Gunman out of the void, out of the vacuum we have created for him, rejecting the notion he was some kind of import, not having any truck with the idea he was just plain crazy, and instead taking him seriously as part of a "rise", someone who belonged to the alt-right and white supremacy movements, a representative of a bad New Zealand. It all comes back to Taika Waititi's famous remark. It's now regarded as an established fact that New Zealand is "racist af".
But there I was in Mt Roskill on Wednesday with Subin Sulaiman, telling me about his experience, his reality, his faith in New Zealand. He talked about unity. He talked about people coming together since last Friday.
"This is the greatest thing you could see," he said. He clasped his hands together. "Like one hand." He was such a good man, and his butter chicken looked really delicious, simmering in a rich brown sauce. Mohammeds Halal Meats, 208 Richardson Rd.
Darkest day will linger
Where are we now? Where are we going as a people? It might seem a travesty, a mere indulgence, to wonder about the national psyche at a time when grieving Muslim families are burying their dead. But that darkest day will linger for a long, long while, as in forever. These are uncertain times in New Zealand and the instinct, the need is to look for certainties.
We only had to look as far as Jacinda Ardern. Terribly sorry to go overboard, and even good old right-thinking Matthew Hooton went all pinko and ended up doing the same in his Herald column on Friday ("It is as if all her past life has been but a preparation for this hour ... she has demonstrated the empathy of Ronald Reagan ... the steely resolve of Margaret Thatcher"), but there was certainty in everything she said and did and even wore this week.
She was unequivocal, and swift – who bans semi-automatic firearms that quickly in a parliamentary democracy? "Misery is a match that never goes out," wrote Darwin's great advocate, Thomas Huxley, but so is hope, and Ardern lit that flame and kept it burning. She called for calm; she called for strength; she announced the 1.30pm call for prayer on Friday.
There was absolutely nothing to laugh about last week until she issued that announcement, and Bishop Brian Tamaki rode into view, New Zealand's blustering fool in shiney, shiney leather, our national joke, Cap'n Comedy always willing to lighten the mood.
"This is Offensive to all True Christians in Aotearoa ... Our National Identity is at stake," he posted on Twitter, his capital letters run amok. More, please, Bishop! Keep 'em Coming.
But there were other, more serious responses to Ardern. This, from Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal: "I can't help marvelling that a story about 50 dead Muslims ... has become an endless encomium to one white woman doing her job." And: "She is a clean-up operation for whiteness." Also, although actually she only quoted this, approvingly, from someone else: "A woman who campaigned on reducing immigration but looks demure in a scarf."
Well – alright. This moment in New Zealand life, this tragedy and what we do about it, isn't about Ardern, anyway. We've made it so that it isn't about The Gunman, either. He's been removed, along with semi-automatics, and copies of Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules For Life got caught up in the great purge, too. Hard to worry too much about Whitcoulls taking his book off the shelves with everything else going on and in any case it seems to be the New Zealand way to expunge, to make things disappear.
What's been left behind? Poor old Simon Bridges got a caning for his recent invocation to protect "the Kiwi way of life". But it's that very quality which is dear to us, which we cling to. It's all around us.
There were bits and pieces of other news going on around New Zealand this week. I took great heart in reading up on current events outside of the four main centres.
There was the news that 12-year-old Alexandra Henry, 15-year-old Isabella Jameson, and 18-year-old Sharon Klijn from the Northland Pony Club won the team showjumping competition at the annual, week-long Horse of the Year event. It was held in Hastings.
Today, in Tauranga, to be precise at 67 Courtney Rd, Row B, Gate Pa, from 10am-2pm, the Society of St Vincent de Paul is staging a free clothing sale. According to media reports, "They are all donations that have come through the organisation's op-shops in Mount Maunganui, Greerton, and on Cameron Rd. We've spotted I Love Ugly jeans, Trelise Cooper, Karen Walker dresses and great quality merino."
And on Tuesday, school bus driver Jim Guyton, in the town of Mossburn, Southland, met Richie McCaw. It was arranged by Jake Mackie, 7, for a competition run by Fonterra to meet the former All Blacks captain. The visit came as a great pleasure and also a great surprise to Guyton, 71. McCaw told reporter Damian Rowe: "He obviously knows what's going on around town, so it was pretty good to get one over him."
Such is the Kiwi way of life. The Gunman, too, is a part of it. It's a small part. It's insubstantial. He's nothing. The rest of us are something. "Most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant," Michael King wrote, in the concluding paragraph of his great document, The Penguin History of New Zealand .
He got it right and he also got it wrong. The next sentence reads, "Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism seen in other parts of the world."
It didn't save us on Friday, March 15.
But his next sentence, the last one in that seminal book, is good for all seasons, words to live by in New Zealand, in 2019: "They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country's future."