After the terror, fear must not win

As we start to wrestle with the pain and lessons of this heart-rending act of terror in Christchurch, let us not fall into the trap of being driven by fear and ignorance. Because that's how this all began

As we wake up the day after 49 people were murdered at two mosques in Christchurch, it's to a flurry of comments about how New Zealand will never be the same, has lost its innocence and is no longer beyond the reach of the world's evil.

Along with the sheer grief of the moment, it's natural for people to try to make sense of the senseless theft of so many innocent lives and to wrestle with what it all means. While the words can seem cliche, they reflect people grasping for a way to express shock and reflect the magnitude of what is simply slaughter. Surely something so awful, so wicked and so unnecessary must have repercussions and must change us.

Undoubtedly it will. Undoubtedly alongside our time of grieving, we will begin a time of questioning, debating and sel-examination. Because these events have consumed us and so much else seems insignificant by comparison. In a sense, we have been invaded. We want to figure out why this happened and how to stop something like this happening again.

But it's important to remember that we get to decide who we are and how we respond to tragedy and trauma. We should not be defined by the fear that prompted this terrorist attack. We should not simply react.

At these times it's always worth remembering what lies at the heart of terrorism; a desire to use fear to change the way people live and see the world. It's to spread division through fear.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set the tone for New Zealand's reaction to these killings by saying that this country has been and will remain a place of refuge and acceptance. She powerfully said of the victims,"They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not".

In her second speech last night, Ardern said the terrorist or terrorists behind these murders chose New Zealand precisely because "we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it."

Opposition leader Simon Bridges said he hoped that in the days ahead we would not lose sight of who we are and our New Zealand values.

For now, the focus is on events and shredded lives. But soon enough the conversations will indeed turn to what this event says about us and just what those New Zealand values are. Who exactly are we, when we are confronted by the worst life can offer? These are the moments that test character, both individual and national.

The simple truth is that we are many things. Different people will cling to a range of different values and priorities and if indeed we are a place of diversity and kindness, we need to make room for a wide range of values, even those we disagree with. We can firmly and determinedly repudiate violence and racism, ignorance and hate, but we must remember that even those values will mean different things to different people.

That's why diversity and kindness are hard. They are mahi, not just words and ideas.

For me, it's vital that what happens next is not driven by fear. That is how the hate spreads and the terrorists get their way. Over the days and weeks and months ahead, one thing we must not be is afraid.

That does not mean people shouldn't wail and rail, to ask hard questions and to scrutinise what change may help. There is a time too, to condemn and say 'no more'.

But it does require vigilance. Because fear can take on many guises. It can come dressed as security, caution, strength and even respect. 

So let us not be afraid. Fear divides. Fear is the root of hate. Fear corrupts relationships and burns bridges. Reading the words allegedly written by the person known as Brenton Tarrant, it's clear that fear was the driving motivation of these murders. It should not be part of our reply.

The 49 murdered were chosen to be symbols; they were killed to sow division and distrust. Surely then the way to respond to that is to imagine what the opposite looks like. And it's hard. What does that even look like?

It involves accepting what seems strange to us, challenging our own assumptions about 'the other' and - to quote from my own faith - loving my neighbour and my enemy, both. "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus was once asked. 

He responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. About an innocent man on a journey attacked and left for dead. The people who were expected to be good and kind would not get involved, would not sully themselves. They stuck to the rules and the other side of the road. But a Samaritan "took pity" on the stranger and saved his life.

Samaritans in Jesus' community were the essence of 'the other'. 

What does that mean for us? That in response to violence and fear, we need to cross the road to 'the other' in our lives. That will mean kindness to people of other cultures and faiths, but it also means understanding the perpetrators of this violence and what was so broken in their lives that they would resort to such evil.

The 'manifesto' that has surfaced talks of a world of white people being over-run by 'the other'. It talks about Europe for Europeans, declining birthrates and the sufferings of one culture, while ignoring the pain of others. It talks of one sort of people being superior to others. It's not incoherent, but it is deeply, cruelly wrong-headed.

While many are refusing to engage with this ideology of hate, I believe we must confront it, hear it and understand it to be able to save others from it. How do we stop this happening again? Not by suppression and mental walls. Not by refusing to listen. Not by bans and ignorance. They do not defeat evil; loves does,

And what I think love must remind us in the days and weeks ahead is that before we define ourselves by our culture or religion or ethnicity or beliefs, we must first define ourselves as human.

Our commun humanity comes first. If we stand true to that, then there is no 'other'. No-one to fear. Tarrant and his message of invaders and scary foreigners cannot take hold because the invaders he sees coming to take over his way of life are just our brothers and sisters. 

What unites us all must be stronger than the human-made constructs and ideas that could yet divide us. I hope we remember that as we decide who in fact we are now, as New Zealanders.