Today marks the first anniversary of New Zealand’s black day. On 15th March 2019, a mass shooting on two mosques in the city of Christchurch killed 51 people, left almost 50 wounded, and scarred a whole community. One year on, the accused awaits trial for his actions through a government inquiry.
It is a good time to remind ourselves of what went wrong, retrospect about lessons learnt, and respond with a greater consciousness and empathy.
What happened one year ago?
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, describes it to be one of the darkest days in New Zealand’s history. During the Friday prayer, two mosques, Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Center, were attacked in Christchurch.
The gunman, later identified as the 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, was charged as a terrorist in relation to the attacks. In addition to live streaming the attacks, he put up a “manifesto” which reeked of far-right, white-supremacist sentiments. The footage combined with this document put forward a disturbing agenda, threatening New Zealand and the rest of the world’s fundamental humanity.
Immediate aftermath: what went wrong?
The attack sparked a series of dormant issues. Concerns about media coverage, role of networking platforms in dissemination, efficacy of gun laws rose quickly and responsibly. But most importantly, it made evident that far-right extremism is a tangible reality in a nation which thought itself immune to it.
Various media organisations, including The Sun and The Daily Mail chose to re-publish the manifesto and air either parts of or the whole of the gunman’s video. They were quickly taken down after facing criticism. Facebook recorded more than 1.5 million reuploads of the video in less than 24 hours.
The government reacted quickly in tandem with Facebook and other platforms to restrict its circulation. It also banned the distribution of manifesto and fined anyone in possession of it. The double-edged sword that the internet is finally probed sharply enough, and it left everyone to wonder whether the digital footprint can truly be erased.
What have we learnt?
For the world, the anniversary ignites memory of the event. The attack on the Muslim community sits uncomfortably in our heads, and we think long and hard about the horror and scars. For the people in New Zealand, it is hard to imagine that the echo of the tragedy ever died down for it to resurface now.
There have been concerted efforts by the government, acts of reparations. Bills are in the pipeline to ban all semi-automatic weapons. Schools were changing policies to allow hijabs in schools because it wasn’t a matter of uniform but a question of identity and acceptance. Facebook and other platforms reportedly strengthened their social surveillance to avoid allowing similar instances to happen.
The official inquiry against the accused, however, has been criticised by several Muslims, according to Al Jazeera. There was a sense of exclusion from the process and the government has responded with consideration; consequently pushing it forward by four months.
Has the world changed?
Probably not. It would be nice to believe that moments of horror segue into immediate reparation – individuals reassessing their beliefs and communities vowing to ensure that history defies its adage of repetition.
But this wasn’t an isolated incident – it has happened before and it has happened ever since. El Paso Walmart shooting in the US, synagogue killings and shisha bar attacks in Germany, even the attacks on the Muslim community in parts of New Delhi this year – they all connect to produce a disturbing visual of far-right extremism. The very fact that I’m able to count these incidents on my fingers speaks to the larger truth of how normalised and rampant violence is.
The numbers don’t disagree, either. Reports suggest that far-right terrorism has more than trippled in the last four years. Attacks have surged by 320% in the West in a span of five years. In the UK itself, counter-terrorism officials believe far-right to be the fastest growing threat.
The underlying cause is more systemic, institutionalised, and wired. Stereotypes would still be perpetuated, people would still be looked at differently. I wouldn’t dare to deconstruct the rationale of any far-right extremist. Notions of white supremacy and xenophobia all feed into one ideology – hate.
Where do we go from here?
It was a tragedy, and tragedies never fully go away. It documented that moment of exceptional vulnerability which now taints a place of worship, a place of safety, a place of love. The fear, anger, hurt, pain – they are profound and much more deeply embedded for Muslims everywhere.
On a global level, the reaction of communities expressed hurt over the fact that innocent people were murdered.
Marx said religion is the opium of the masses, and I, respectfully, propose to amend that. We have seen moments of grace and resistance in these troubling times, and if there’s one thing which has fuelled the masses – it’s hope.
Where do we go from here? To be honest, there’s nowhere to go. One year is a marker of time, and every anniversary will remind us of the day humanity failed. As spectators, as allies, there’s a lot we can do.
We check ourselves and our instincts prone to give way to prejudices. We learn to identify hate in all its macabre forms. We strengthen our support and love to communities marginalised by hate. Most importantly, we respect the loss of life, love, security.