Christchurch Has Seen Trauma Before—Just Not Like This
The quiet New Zealand city has endured natural disaster. But until March 15, it had never faced an unnatural one.
The mass shooter was right about one thing. Christchurch, New Zealand, is a pretty cut-off part of the world. Until this week it had enjoyed low levels of gun violence, no domestic experience of transnational terror, and an often polite style of politics.
On the morning of March 15, passengers could have boarded a domestic flight in Christchurch with a full tube of toothpaste and kept their shoes on at security checkpoints.
But the man charged with murder in Friday’s mosque shootings, a white supremacist who wrote in his manifesto that he wanted to commit atrocities in New Zealand’s South Island to show there is nonwhite immigration even in remote parts of the world, was wrong about so much else—in particular his vicious implication that Christchurchers couldn’t handle the trauma he was about to inflict on them.
The opposite is true. Since massive earthquakes reshaped the region and killed 185 people in 2010 and 2011, residents of the South Island’s largest city were used to coffee bars made out of quake-proof shipping containers, sandbags cordoning off broken swathes of the city, and murals across buildings downtown, a visual reminder of renewal.
And even with this man-made tragedy—a mass murder intended to import the virulent hatred that has polluted so much of the West—New Zealanders are determined not to be shaken by yesterday’s attack.
Abbas Nazari, whose family moved to New Zealand from Afghanistan as refugees, said that in Christchurch—though it is not free from prejudice—such horrors have been distant headlines until now.
Nazari said that at an Afghan community meeting organized after the shootings, many people in attendance expressed that the attack was all too reminiscent of the places they had fled. “There was a blast in Kabul a couple of weeks ago that killed 200 people. And there was an attack at a university that killed 60 people,” he said. “Some of the older guys were saying that because this kind of thing doesn’t happen here, people were so shocked, but back home, this kind of thing happens every day.”
“I think we are just shocked, we didn’t expect any kind of terrorist attack in New Zealand,” said Soraiya Daud, a communications advisor who was leaving Friday prayers at a mosque in the capital city of Wellington when she heard about the attack.
“Prior to this we were always aware and conscious that this kind of thing happened around the world, but never in New Zealand,” Nazari said.
But Nazari said that Friday’s shootings, which left 50 people dead, won’t alter his view of the country he has come to call home. “I love this country, I love New Zealand and everything that it has given us—a home, and hope, and it’s shown us kindness, and the meaning of community,” he said. “So despite all of today’s events. I’m still so happy to call myself a New Zealander.”
Nazari said it’s not that he was naive about New Zealand, even though he had long thought of it as a place apart from terrorism. “We took our peace that we live in for granted. But in saying that, something that can’t be lost is that actually, the grounding was there to some extent for this to happen,” he added. “New Zealand does have this underbelly of racism.”
“There has been a general sense, particularly amongst young men, that as you start to become active in the Muslim community, as you start doing things, you also start to come under surveillance,” Daud said.
“This guy got away with planning and executing an attack,” she added. “I think that’s something that we are going to have to reflect on as a society.”
Around 46,000 people identified as Muslim in the last New Zealand census, making Muslims a small but visible group, and experiences of public prejudice aren’t uncommon. “It can be something really small,” Nazari said, “abuse on the street, in shopping malls, it happens on a daily basis. My own mum has had that experience crossing the street. After something like this, I think New Zealand will be emboldened to call it out.”
Indeed, the supposed innocence that the murderer ascribed to Christchurch always disguised a deeper resilience and a recognition that New Zealand has its own serious social issues to deal with. And today New Zealanders are being forced to grapple with them as never before
“If Kiwis take stock of what happened yesterday and imagine that happening on a weekly basis back home, then perhaps they will get an understanding of why people choose to leave,” Nazari said on Saturday.
As they have after earthquakes, Christchurch residents sprang into action after the shootings to help.
At a press briefing, Greg Robertson, Christchurch Hospital’s chief of surgery who led the clinical response to the shootings, said, “As a consequence of the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, we are unfortunately used to dealing with mass casualties.”
Set on the other side of the same park that borders al-Noor Mosque, where the first mass shooting took place, Christchurch Hospital is still caring for 36 people injured in the attacks, including two children, aged 2 and 13, who are currently in a stable condition. A 4-year-old was transferred to Starship, the country’s dedicated children’s hospital in Auckland.
But while the hospitals have dealt with mass casualties before, gun violence is extremely rare in New Zealand. According to local police, there were 69 murders using guns between 2008 and 2017 in a country of nearly 5 million people.
Nazari said he was outside al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch helping those who had escaped the shooting. “We all did as much as we could, bringing water, making phone calls on behalf of the survivors who had left their keys and all their possessions inside the mosque, but nothing could get through to the pain of what they were going through,” he said.
Nazari said that the survivors had fled so quickly many were without their phones or other essentials: “When you step into the mosque to pray, you leave your shoes outside. So everyone that was coming out was barefoot.”
One man in particular caught Nazari’s attention. “I thought, ‘That man over there has really dark henna on his feet,’ and as I got closer, I realized that up to his ankle, he had walked through pools of blood to get out of the mosque. It looked like he had red socks on.”
One suspect has been charged in the attack and a further three remain in custody. In a manifesto posted online and mailed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the alleged attacker—who is understood to be Australian—said he had come to the country initially to plan and train for an attack, but decided to commit the murders in Christchurch to make the case on the internet that nonwhite immigration threatens every place on earth.
Knowing that his social media would be scoured in the wake of the attack, on Wednesday the suspected gunman posted dozens of links to videos and articles espousing the idea that white people are at risk of dying out due to population growth among nonwhite groups. The Anti-Defamation League describes it as one of the most deeply held modern white supremacist convictions.
In his 74-page manifesto, the suspected shooter said that while he was not a member of any group, he had donated and interacted with many white nationalist groups. He said that he took his inspiration from Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011.
“The atrocity in New Zealand shows us, once again, that we’re dealing with an international terrorist movement linked by a dangerous white supremacist ideology that’s metastasizing in the echo chambers of internet chat rooms and on social media networks,” said Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks right-wing hate groups worldwide.
Transnational religious extremism has long been the focus of Western security concerns, but Friday’s attack underscores the risk of international diffusion of white nationalist ideology. New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes security alliance and has cultivated a reputation for the outsized skill of its intelligence personnel, and the measured presence of its law enforcement. But according to New Zealand Police, the attacker was not known to authorities.
For New Zealand, the disaster marks a new awareness that in the era of globalized, internet-driven hatred, no place is entirely safe.
“I want people to take racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia much more seriously,” Daud said. “I don’t want it to be dismissed in the way that it has been. This is real.”
Nazari said that his family had received an outpouring of support. “One of our neighbours down the road came by and handed out some biscuits and some flowers and said, ‘Look, you know we are here,’” he said.
“Amongst all that happened yesterday, it’s pretty lovely to connect with people.”
Update, March 16, 2019: This article was updated to reflect that the death toll from the attacks rose from 49 people to 50.
Jefcoate O'Donnell is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @brjodonnell