Last Friday’s massacre in Christchurch by a lone gunman was, as numerous people opined on Twitter, the per capita equivalent of New Zealand’s 9/11. The 50 people killed represent 3,000 fatalities in a similar attack in the US. That does give perspective to the overwhelming feelings of sorrow and confusion many of us felt last Friday and the global grief we have felt every day since.
New Zealand rarely makes international headlines, unless it’s an earthquake, a volcanic eruption or the Wallabies beating the All Blacks. We mourn the irrevocable loss of innocence.
Like Ten’s social commentator Waleed Aly, I did not really want to talk about this today, but as he and others have said, I feel as if I need to say something. I grew up in a sleepy little town in the North Island, a place where nobody locked up and people left their keys in the ignition while they went across the road to the dairy for a bottle of milk.
I remember the shock that was shared around the country in 1963 (I was 15), when President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Things like that didn’t happen in New Zealand so we were shocked, dismayed and very sad. Then as with Christchurch, we shared in a global grief experience.
Songwriter Kath Tait, an expat Kiwi living in London, found out about the massacre at two Christchurch mosques when she got up on Saturday morning (Friday night over here).
She wrote on Facebook: “I’m totally gutted; it’s a big shock for us NZers because we still cling to the notion that NZ is a safe peaceful place and not really a part of the wider world out there. I guess we’re wrong about that.”
George Jackson, a fiddle player now based in Nashville but raised in NZ, encapsulated his feelings by re-learning a plaintive waltz written by his great-great grandfather George Dickson.
I spent the weekend at the Blue Mountains Music Festival where more than a few festival guests had something to say about the atrocity in Christchurch, which had only just happened. As we all now know, 50 people died of gunshot wounds inflicted by a lone attacker and many more suffered serious injuries. A male person has since been arrested, by two brave rural coppers in Christchurch for, of all things, an armed offenders’ training course.
He has been charged with one count of murder and remanded in custody until April 5. Like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, I refuse to speak his name. And, despite a plethora of online and offline speculation about the alleged perpetrator’s background and likely motives, it remains for a court to decide upon his fate.
Irish songwriter Luka Bloom started his set at the festival in Katoomba saying that people who perpetrate such atrocities “Do not speak for me – “they never have and they never will.”
“They have no idea about the amount of love there is in this world,” he said.
And as Laurel Wilson recounts: “When New Zealand comedy duo, The Topp Twins, who hail from Christchurch, first heard about the atrocity that had occurred in their city, they asked each other, “How can we go on stage and be funny after that?”
“The Topp twins are two openly lesbian, feminist, politically active sisters who are also very, very entertaining – loved by a great diversity of fans in their native New Zealand but also in Australia and elsewhere. They have, no doubt, known prejudice themselves, but have not let it define or limit them. I believe this is the message that they wished to convey when they decided to go ahead with their show at the Blue Mountains Music Festival. And they lifted everyone’s spirits when they finished the show with an audience participation version of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, complete with choreography”.
Stephen Taberner, musical director of the Spooky Men’s Chorale, is also from Christchurch. He refrained from commentary about the events of that day, instead recalling an incident he once witnessed where a mother was remonstrating with one of her kids. The mother said to one of the other kids: “Don’t stir the pot”, which Taberner said meant, “Don’t make things worse.”
The Spooky Men then closed out the festival with a stirring rendition of Joni’s Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum.
Taberner’s wisdom in choosing to bypass commentary or bare his feelings was the right choice, given the amount of pot-stirring that’s been going on over the past seven days on social media and in the conventional press.
The Urban Dictionary’s broader definition of ‘stir the pot’ might give us pause for thought about which media outlet we trust:
Pot-stirrer: Someone who loves to proliferate the tension and drama between two or more feuding people/groups in public…in hopes of starting a shitstorm of drama and uncomfortable conflict…”
The above could also aptly describe our accidental Senator, who has been in the public eye, grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. Boycott his press conferences, I say. He will still be free to say what he wants to say, just not on the front page.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put the lid firmly back on the pot with an apolitical, compassionate approach that above all took the feelings and beliefs of the Muslim victims of the massacre into account. Within days, she and Muslim leaders were collaborating with police to fast-track the release of the victims’ bodies to their families. The Islamic faith requires that burial rituals happen as soon as possible. The fact the NZ PM understood this and promised that the country would also pay for the burials, built a few bridges at a time when all connection could have been lost.
Defining the nation’s role in this global grief, she wrote in a commemoration book: “On behalf of all New Zealanders we grieve, together we are one, they are us.”
These words have taken on a life of their own, as a hashtag on social media. In just three words she defined New Zealand’s inclusive attitude towards refugees and immigrants in general. Ms Ardern’s approach every day since has been consistent, compassionate and yet firm, as shown with the swift introduction of stricter gun laws.
The chief pot-stirrers, unfortunately, are the loosely-regulated chat sites and bulletin boards where people can post anonymously. Telcos including Telstra, Optus and Vodaphone are temporarily blocking websites which continue to broadcast the live GoPro video filmed by the assailant as he went about his bloody business. None of the Telcos will say which websites they are actively blocking, although they say the bans will be lifted once the video is removed.
Apart from George’s fiddle tune, the most moving thing I have seen about the Christchurch massacre is a black and white ink drawing by Isaac Westerlund of a Maori woman and a Muslim woman exchanging the Hongi. This is a traditional Maori greeting where two people briefly touch noses and foreheads, exchanging a symbolic breath of life.
Thanks to open-hearted people like Isaac Westerlund and George Jackson, the healing power of music and art help us overcome emotions we don’t quite understand and to make sense of the senseless.
*A Tui is a native bird with a distinctive tuft of white feathers at the throat and a beautiful call.