ChCHStrap

"Hello brother," said Haji-Daoud Nabi at the door of Al Noor Mosque, and the man he spoke to shot him dead.

We are not what we were. One year ago, on Friday, March 15, 2019, that man killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch. He brought more misery into the world than it seemed anyone could bear. And yet among us there are family and friends, emergency and trauma workers, neighbours, citizens, who did bear it. Who still do.

We have mourned with them, offered help, changed the ways we think about our country. Learned from that brutal lesson about love and tolerance and respect. A lesson we thought we already knew, but we know it now so much more deeply.

Survivors speak of forgiveness, have done so from the start. What great humility we have learned from that.

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"Certain things in life destroy everything," said Imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah. "They split friends, brothers and sisters, societies." He was not speaking of terror. "And one of them is: not forgiving. Nothing good can come from that. Getting angry opens the door to dark things."

We have worked hard to close that door. Embraced the virtues of resolution and speed, with swiftly changed gun laws and with the Christchurch Call, a working process to persuade the barons of social media to accept a duty of civil decency and respect.

We have learned pride, that we have a parliament and a prime minister whose instincts were compassionate and acted on, not twisted out of shape by opportunism and fear, and who took all this to the world.

Mourners placing flowers on the intersection of Deans Ave and Riccarton Rd near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, March 16, 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mourners placing flowers on the intersection of Deans Ave and Riccarton Rd near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, March 16, 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Hello brother: an expression of peace and friendship, a greeting that resonates in Islam. It resonates everywhere in this country, among everyone who knows we stand together in our common humanity. Who believes in hope and knows that hope must be reached for, insisted on, held fast, and knows that when it is, we will be nurtured by it. It is the sentiment embodied in Dave Dobbyn's "Welcome Home".

We are not what we were.

We saw such bravery on March 15, and afterwards offered what comfort we could to those plunged into so much grief. It was the worst that could happen and it brought out the best. That's our story. This is who we are.

It's a true story and we are right to be proud of it. But how true is it?

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THERE'S AN election this year. It's quite possible two septuagenarians will rant and rail, each endlessly abusing the other, deriding his supporters, sneering at values that are not their own. And the whole process will be compromised by state-sponsored interference from abroad.

And, oh yes, we're having an election here, too. We should cherish it. Ours won't be like theirs.

This is who we are now.

We are different and we know it. It's not just America. In Brazil, a president burns the rainforest and suppresses dissent with terror. In India, a new law strips 170 million citizens of basic rights. And who isn't anxious for Europe, a continent which has tried for 75 years to build the benefits of mutually assured cooperation? Fear of foreigners has unleashed the very extremism that was once so soundly defeated.

The barbarians are unleashed. Clinging to the backs of bears, they rampage through the villages.

But not here. Inside the Aotearoa pā, with our flimsy stockade and very wide moat, we prepare for our own election. We do have barbarians – March 15 told us that – but in the political contest no party rides those rampaging bears. There is no chance we will elect a tyrant as leader or, for that matter, a buffoon.

Many of the front-runners these days for high office in other parts of the world would not be thought to have the necessary qualities for political leadership here. We will, instead, on the whole, choose politicians on the basis of how we perceive their competence and their decency.

Messages of love and support adorn the front fence of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Photo / Mike Scott
Messages of love and support adorn the front fence of the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Photo / Mike Scott

We should remember this as the campaigns unfold and the criticisms fly. We won't be looking for candidates who feed our sense of outrage or exclusion. We'll be looking for the good ones. That is who we are.

WELL, MOST of us. Nothing is ever completely true in politics or society and the ties that bind do not bind us all. There stalks among us a politician who tub-thumps against immigrants – especially those from India – and claims to do so in the name of "ordinary Kiwis", supposedly like himself, "blokes" who think the world has gone mad through "political correctness" or the cultural domination of some bunch of "woke" overlords.

There's little evidence the protestations of Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones get much traction. The sense of social inclusion and respect across cultures that upsets him isn't fringe. It's mainstream. This is who we are now.

We know it from the polls. NZ First, the party that took Jones in during the 2017 election campaign, has stoked up anger at immigrants for years, and yet it languishes. Jones himself languishes: in four elections, he has never won an electorate seat. And we know it from March 15.

Immigration policy is important. Population and the pressures that growth causes bear directly on the way we continue to build this country. It's easy to see how much New Zealanders would like to debate this topic; certainly, the values we affirmed after March 15 do not and should not prevent it.

But Indian students have not "ruined" any tertiary institutions and members of the Indian community do not have to "go straight home" because they disagree with something a cabinet minister says. The absurdity of such proclamations is that they make the debate so much harder to have, because they reduce it to racism. They pollute the contest of ideas.

THERE IS another, more harmful consequence to all this. Casual "othering" of ethnic groups, blaming "them" for some falsely perceived harm done to "us", legitimises the real hate-mongers. The violent fringe on Jones' fringe gains a smear of respectability.

There aren't many people in this country looking for ways to act out their hate, but there are some. A young man was arrested in Christchurch this month after terror threats were made against the Al Noor Mosque; University of Auckland students began their semester last week to discover someone had stuck up white supremacist publicity. Fetid imaginings are smeared across the internet.

New headstones placed on the graves of victims of the March 15 mosque attacks in Christchurch last year. Photo / Alan Gibson
New headstones placed on the graves of victims of the March 15 mosque attacks in Christchurch last year. Photo / Alan Gibson

All of this matters. The world will not be easier to live in any time soon and that's as true for New Zealand as it is for everywhere else. The moat that surrounds us cannot always protect us.

That is the task of our civic institutions. March 15 showed us how much we could trust them: Government and its agencies, Parliament, the media, emergency services, local bodies. All the people and organisations who create the web of services and support we live within, who stepped forward to help. We call it community.

Mostly, we learned they were strong. But we saw they were also fragile, and the world keeps teaching us that lesson. Democracy, held in the care of people of goodwill, is an ongoing project.

WE HAVE a Royal Commission looking into March 15 because not all the institutions of our democracy served us well. The security agencies, especially, did not take the threat of white supremacy seriously.

This wasn't because they didn't know about it. The long string of terror attacks by white supremacists in the US, Europe and elsewhere has been obvious for years to anyone who read a newspaper. If it could happen in Norway, why did we think it could not happen here?

Who are we now? We are the people who allowed the hate to hide in plain sight. We need to know why that was.

Even more disturbing, the protective arms of Government were told. Muslim groups like the Federation of Islamic Associations and the Islamic Women's Council have told us now, how commonly they are harassed in this country. And they have told us how their appeals for help were ignored.

The Women's Council has reported on the long series of meetings and appeals it made to the Department of Internal Affairs, the Office of Ethnic Communities, the State Services Commission, the police, the security agencies.

"At least five years of solid Government engagement across a National-led and then a Labour-led Government," spokeswoman Anjun Rahman said. "We begged and pleaded, we demanded. We knocked on every door we could, we spoke at every forum we were invited to."

They were not listened to. Given a token hearing. Just ignored. Rahman's colleague Aliya Danzeisen challenged the security sector: "If you can spend so much on surveilling our community, why can you not spend on preventative programmes?"

We know the answer: because Muslims, not white extremists, were perceived as the enemy. Why was that? Because our security agencies merely borrowed a blinkered view held by other, larger security agencies? Why did they do that?

This is also who we are: a country with a vulnerable sense of its own independence. Is that changing? We need to know.

WHEN A gunman runs amok, it's worse than anything. And it isn't easy to know what to do. If it was, more countries, more communities, would respond the way New Zealand responded after March 15.

But when a gunman runs amok, it's not hard to know what is right and what is wrong. We have now discovered that when a virus strikes, it's different.

Who are we now? Chinese New Zealanders report other people walking wide around them on the street. Noodle houses and yum cha restaurants have emptied out, unlike all the pizza and pasta places. Some schools went through their own awkward moments, thinking it best to exclude children who were, or maybe just seemed, Asian.

The coronavirus Covid-19 is our new big test. It measures the depth of our inclusive impulses. It asks how susceptible we are to fear. It reveals the limits of our sympathy for frightened people.

We've been shocked at the panic buying, or perhaps done some of it. But if you've been near people who've been in a centre of infection in recent times – and that would include many Chinese New Zealanders – stocking up for a lengthy stay at home might look like a rational thing to do.

There's no call to laugh. There's no call to shun others on the basis of their skin colour, either.

Friday prayers at the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, one of the scenes of the March 15 attacks last year. Photo / Alan Gibson
Friday prayers at the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, one of the scenes of the March 15 attacks last year. Photo / Alan Gibson

Fear drives us all to do mad things. If we know it as fear, if we name it as wrong, we can start to overcome it. Fear cannot be our excuse, because aren't we the people of March 15? Not diminished by fear, but inspired by hope. Isn't this who we are?

TERROR, HATRED, unbearable loss. It wasn't us until it was. March 15 jolted us into today, and today Covid-19 jolts us into tomorrow. This is our world and it will get harder. There will be more disease, and droughts and fires and storms, and possibly more terror, too.

Are we fit for purpose? Do we have the strength and compassion we need in our civic institutions and communities to thrive? Will we commit to making it so?

Tomorrow is a day to honour those who fell, and those who went to their help, and those who grieve and are hurting still. That makes it a day for all of us, because it happened in our country, in a place where they had the right to know they were safe. The Prime Minister reminded us of that. It happened on our watch.

The Irish have a saying, from a song, used 25 years ago at the end of the terrible violence of the Troubles. "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

You have to earn that one and we haven't done it yet. But we could, couldn't we? Don't we have to try?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington. Photo / Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington. Photo / Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images

We are not what we were, we know this. And we are not yet what we could be.

A hundred years ago, the American philosopher John Dewey said: "Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is the midwife."

Who are we now? Maha tātou, kotahi mātou. We are many and we are one. Go into almost any school and see how they do a haka, how they sing waiata, how the kids, all sorts of kids, stand together to do those things. It enlarges them. It's not that they are without fear or ignorance or the racism those things breed. Children are not angels.

But that sense of identity and community, cultures coming together, is what's normal for them now. They can teach us.

Hello brother, hello sister. Maha tātou, kotahi mātou. We are many and we are one.