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Two mourners embrace at the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington (Getty Images)
Two mourners embrace at the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington (Getty Images)

The BulletinMarch 18, 2019

The Bulletin: Questions emerge after weekend of mourning

Two mourners embrace at the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington (Getty Images)
Two mourners embrace at the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington (Getty Images)

Welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Vigils held around country to mourn the victims of Christchurch mosque attacks, Muslim community speaks out about years of Islamophobia, and gun laws look set to change. 

The terrorist attack against two Christchurch mosques has sparked mourning throughout the country. The attack against the city’s Muslim community has caused a wave of outrage, revulsion and sympathy felt around the country and the world. What has happened in the past three days is likely to change New Zealand in profound ways, perhaps forever.

Every person who was gunned down has now been taken from the scene. The huge challenge remains of returning everyone to their families, and of burying all of those killed, in accordance with Islamic customs. Help and support is being sought for that task.

50 people died. 50 more have been injured. A huge number of those who were shot were parents. Some were recent fathers. Some were themselves children. Some were born here, others came as migrants or refugees. Victims and survivors are still being formally identified, but many of their stories are now starting to come out. In the coming days, all of their stories will be told.
Across the entire nation, vigils have been held over the weekend. In Christchurch, there is a constant stream of mourners coming to the police cordon, and an afternoon vigil organised by school students will take place today. In Auckland, thousands turned up to Aotea Square. In Wellington, the vigil had to be moved to the Basin Reserve because the previous venue wasn’t big enough. The entire ground was filled.

People came together in Hastings, Te Puke, Dunedin, Masterton, Mosgiel, and too many others to count. Flowers are being laid outside mosques in every city. More vigils, rallies and memorial services are planned for the coming days – the details can be found here, along with other suggestions for how you can help the Muslim community.

Multiple Givealittle pages have been set up to support the families of those killed. As of the time of writing, the official Victim Support facilitated page had reached well over $4.5 million. There are many other verified campaigns on Givealittle currently, all are worth supporting.

What I was struck by at the Aotea Square vigil was the many heartfelt condolences issued by those of other faiths. Hindus, Jews and Christians expressed their grief at losing people who were just as much a part of the community as they are. Those who spoke all made one thing decisively clear – they were united as New Zealanders, and having a different religion could never divide that.

It cannot be forgotten that while the country as a whole is grieving, this was first and foremost an attack on the Muslim community. This did not come out of nowhere for the people who were targeted.

There were many warnings that something like this could happen, and many examples of violence against minority groups that weren’t heeded as warnings. Dame Susan Devoy, former race relations commissioner, wrote that every Muslim New Zealander she knows has faced some form of racist abuse in this country. Police do not record hate crimes, which makes the constant, underlying level of violence, vandalism and harassment difficult to monitor. And Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women’s Council of NZ has documented the immense effort the community put into warning the government and police of the rising tide of Islamophobia, and says those concerns were not heard.

As such, there has been a lot of criticism made of security services, and how they failed to prevent this. Writing on the NZ Herald, David Fisher notes that the alleged murderer is believed to have travelled extensively to places associated with war between Christians and Muslims. That, combined with online activity and alleged links to extremist groups in the UK, raises questions as to why he doesn’t appear to have been on the radars of the country’s intelligence and security services. There has also been significant criticism that those services have put too much of their effort into looking for extremism and terrorism among those who ended up being the targets.

Writing on The Spinoff, Sohail Din said mosques had always been places of peace, and they had monitored their own community to stop extremism from taking root. “We protected ourselves from Muslim terrorists, but as a Muslim, my question is this: what was put in place to protect New Zealand Muslims from terrorists?” The PM has ordered an urgent review into why the attacks weren’t prevented.

The Prime Minister has indicated that significant changes will be made to New Zealand’s gun laws. Speaking in Christchurch on Saturday, PM Jacinda Ardern made that clear immediately. Of particular concern is access to the semi-automatic weapons and auxiliary equipment that is understood to have been used, and the fact that the alleged terrorist had a gun license. A gun owner and expert, who preferred to be known by the name of William L, wrote on The Spinoff that there are significant loopholes in our current laws that make it possible for people to own weapons more suited to combat than any other purpose.

Opposition to law changes has already been seen in what is being reported by Newsroom as “panic buying” of “semi-automatic weapons, ammunition and magazines.” Counter to some overseas reporting, the PM’s comments do not amount to an immediate ban. But it is being seen by some as now being imminent, and gun shops are reporting significant increases in sales.

The culture of the Dunedin gun club that the suspect trained at is also under scrutiny, reports Stuff. A former soldier spoke out about the things he had heard talked about on the few occasions he visited the club – topics included mass shootings – and the former soldier said he contacted police about his concerns. The gun club management strongly deny they had role in shaping the suspect or influencing their actions, and say the membership is saddened by what has happened.

Much of the attack appears designed to reflect a global, heavily online culture of white supremacism. The manifesto published by the alleged gunman contained many references to that culture. Some of them are clearly designed to be taken as ironic in-jokes by supporters, as sickening as that might seem.

On Friday, The Spinoff reported that the attacker was wearing a camera, and had live streamed what followed through Facebook. A link to the stream was posted to an online message board minutes before it began. New York Times technology writer Kevin Roose said while the attack can’t be blamed on the internet in general terms, this should be seen as an example of online extremism being indistinguishable from the extremism that takes place offline. And Duncan Greive writes that the conditions online platforms currently operate under facilitates and even encourages violent white supremacism to take hold.

There have been some suggestions that because the alleged murderer was born in Australia, and has spent significant time in other countries, this isn’t necessarily a problem that was made in New Zealand. But that misunderstands the global network of these sorts of ideas which had entirely demonstrably reached New Zealand. Back in 2017, the NZ Herald’s Kirsty Johnston infiltrated some of these online networks under a pseudonym, and reported exactly that – people with these views were getting organised here. It is not clear if the alleged killer had any direct links to NZ based organisations or groups.

Praise has been voluminous for those in the emergency services who ran towards danger, and have been working ever since to save lives. While the work of medical professionals goes on, special praise has come in for the arresting officers, reports the NZ Herald. They were able to prevent further loss of life by ramming the suspect’s car, and taking him into custody. Police took only six minutes to scramble officers to the scene, after the first calls came in.

The police presence around the country will be significant today, reports Radio NZ. Commissioner Mike Bush says it will be “highly visible…so, you will be safe going about doing what you want to do tomorrow.”

The accused shooter has appeared in the Christchurch District Court, charged with murder. Madeleine Chapman was there to report on it. It is widely expected that further charges will follow.

Another 22 year old man has been charged with offences under the Films, Videos and Publications Classifications Act. He will appear in court this morning, and is not believed to have been directly involved in the attack.

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Auckland Aotea Square Vigil (Photo: Jihee Junn)

Three other things on The Spinoff that are worth reading: Rose Hanley-Nickolls, a survivor of the 1996 Dunblane massacre, writes about what will help survivors of this attack. High school teacher and counsellor Louisa Woods offers some advice to parents who are struggling with how to explain what has happened to their kids. And Toby Morris has taken on the sentiment that ‘this isn’t us’ – he says unfortunately, Islamophobia has existed in New Zealand for a long time.

I want to use this section today to talk about how the media responded to the attacks. New Zealand’s news organisations have never had to cover anything remotely like this before. As such, and without naming names, a lot of mistakes were made.

In the immediate aftermath of a story like this breaking – where it is almost instantly clear that nothing else will matter for days or even weeks – a lot of things happen all at once. Journalists in the city are rushed out to the scene, to find out whatever they can from bystanders. Digital journalists are told to start looking for any information at all posted online, and documenting all of it. A massive volume of material comes in all at once, and somebody has to decide what gets published. News organisations are in the business of telling people things. Some of the information they get to the public could save lives. And under immense pressure, people can panic and make severe misjudgements.

In these situations, that’s almost always the primary mistake a news organisation will make. The audience is desperate for information. Something might be reported that later has to be retracted. Something might be broadcast or posted that is deeply insensitive. When that happens, the huge amount of anger that gets directed at journalists hits hard, and is felt personally by those wearing it. Often they may even agree that it was wrong to have shown what their organisation did.

For the journalists who covered this on the scene, these days will be among the most difficult they will ever experience. Those back in the newsroom will face the same, only they’ll be trying to process dozens of streams of information as well. Almost everyone will see some horror that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. And don’t forget that for every ghoulish mistake made, there will be dozens of examples of outstanding, humane work that will go unheralded.

In the immediate moments after reports first started coming in, New Zealand’s journalists were trying their best. In the weekend since, they’ve been trying their best. And in the weeks and months to come, they’ll still be trying their best. Mistakes will be made, and it’s entirely fair to call them out when they are. But please also try to have compassion for the people whose job it is to try and make sense of this all, and communicate any information that needs to get out.

That is one strand of criticism. But into the future, another one will loom larger. There are many in media and politics who have engaged in Islamophobic or otherwise racist rhetoric, with varying degrees of vehemence and intensity. Some have allowed it to flourish on their platforms, or in groups they’re part of. Again, I’m not going to name them. The list would be too long. It would include people from all sorts of places and organisations on the political spectrum, and all sorts of media outlets. And to be honest, if we’re also talking about people who have simply turned a blind eye to it at times, the list would also include me. I deeply regret it.

Many see this as a moment of reckoning, and it should be. So to those people who this applies to, and you should know who you are, I urge you to search your conscience. Think on the effect your words can have, and the worldview they may have helped build. Think about what can be unleashed when racism is allowed to fester, unchallenged.

Because there will be times in the future, when whether for ratings or poll numbers, it might seem like a good idea to engage in it again. And when it does, I hope you remember how you felt when you first heard that peace-loving New Zealanders had been singled out because of their religion, and murdered while at prayer.

The Bangladesh cricket team have flown home, after being seconds away from walking into the mosque while the attack was taking place. The final test of the series was due to start in Christchurch on Saturday, but was cancelled. Speaking to ESPN Cricinfo, Tamim Iqbal has revealed how close a call it was. The Bangladeshi Cricket Board sent sympathies and condolences to the families of those who were caught up in the attack.

Other sports events were cancelled in the wake of the attack, including two Super Rugby games. And the Crusaders, who play in Canterbury, have indicated that they will consider changing their name as a result of what has happened, reports Radio NZ. The Crusader name, and the branding of the team as being literally Crusaders on horseback with crosses and swords, has long been seen as problematic. And Jamie Wall argues the time to change it is right now.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you liked what you read, and know other people who would find it useful, pass on this signup form to them. Peace be upon you.

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