The rocks we carry

The mosque attacks are weighing heavy on our hearts, but grief is not the only rock we carry. We must look hard at ourselves, our communities, our history, our bigotry and - if we are all us - face it all

A haunting weight. It presses down with dizzying effect, defying easy description. Its surface etched with the familiar language of human loss, heavy with regret and shame. But some rocks we must carry.

At work, others pass by, grappling with their own psychic load, arms straight, jaws locked in strain. Setting down their boulders to hug, there’s a lot of hugging in this place. The usual eloquent indignance at the state of the world, has given way to a bumbling, poorly articulated sorrow and unfocused anger.

We sit at the lunch table and hurl toothless invective against that senator, the greedy gun shop owners and shock-jocks, binning their incriminating archives. No-one mentions the shooter. The worst words we can think of don’t seem harsh enough.

At times this weight feels like personal grief. But, it’s not. It can’t be. That awful task belongs to those who actually knew the people injured and slain. Most of us don’t. We musn’t let this mourning sickness, this well meaning empathy, crowd out those who inhabit this tragedy in a real sense: the family and friends of those who died.

I’m thrown back to last year, the passing of a friend of mine, a public figure who left us in a way which was shocking to many. People he didn’t know, even those he actively disliked, wrote copiously of his death and their loss, the gap his departure had left in their lives. I strongly resented their familiarity. What right did they have to such intimate thoughts?

Perhaps I could have been more generous. They had their rocks to carry.  This week I find myself grieving strangers, people who didn’t know me. Nor me, them. I find myself imagining their last terrified moments and crying to myself as I watch something banal on Netflix.

I am bothered by thoughts about what may happen to my hometown, my country, my life, my kids future. It feels wrong. I don’t want to conflate that remote fear, with the actual tangible terror of further attack experienced by the friends and relatives of our fellow New Zealanders slaughtered in cold blood. At times like these things can get tangled in your head.  I have to remind myself that their grief and mine are sorrows of a completely different order of magnitude.

Yes, we can and we should have empathy. We can and should express human solidarity. We should celebrate the majority of things we have in common as humans, but let’s not swamp their mourning or take away their own particular grief. Let it not be subsumed into our own general angst.

Flags fly at half mast. We grieve our lost innocence. Is that really a thing? It has never happened here before. Does that make us innocent? Are we grieving reputational damage? Will the world stop regarding New Zealand as a place where nothing bad ever happens? That was never the case.  Unlike David Grey, this did not come out of the blue. 

I remember interviewing white supremacists at a Christchurch rally in the 90’s. The biggest group in the country. Talking to victims. Somali teenagers afraid to speak of their beatings, two Japanese students chased down the street. The skinheads wanted the immigrants to leave. History-blind to the fact that all of us whities are blow-ins.

“They steal our jobs,” one of the marchers informed me.

Skinny, jittery, no swastikas just the usual Celtic tattoos. Which job did they actually steal from you? No reply. Stupid and largely harmless, I thought at the time. That was before the internet. Purpose built platforms for a sub-culture where ethno-fascists show off to each other. Where they seek and find approval. Goad each other along the resentment superhighway to the spectrum of hate.

What does he think now? The hapless skinhead. He’ll be in his early forties. Is he still in Christchurch? Did he get a job? Kids? A mortgage? Is he connected to those messageboards? Did he watch the video? Where does he sit on the spectrum?

And further to the centre, what of the common or garden bigotry of whites in my anglocentric hometown, reflected in their jokey comments about a lack of driving skills, or inability to speak the Queen’s English. What are they silently thinking now? Do they recognise those little jokes are on the spectrum too?

I’m not saying that anyone and everyone who made a casual racist comment in Christchurch is a fascist collaborator. Or that everyone who failed to call someone out for that sort of behaviour, is responsible for what happened at the mosques. Or wait. Maybe I am.

Maybe this seemingly harmless activity at the lower end of the spectrum is critical to the environment which nurtures extremism. At the very least it provides cultural camouflage.

Great relief seemed to emanate from the city, early on, when it was revealed the shooter grew up in Australia. A welcome opportunity to scapegoat, blame our problems on another culture, to insinuate that because of where they were from certain conclusions could be drawn about their desirability, their values, trustworthiness and moral standing. Sound familiar? Yep. That’s racism in action.

However odious it may seem and however neatly it works in a stirring speech, we need to reject the idea that the shooter is not one of us. In these dark and heavy times we have to avoid buying into the sort of hate which comes with nationalism, the breeding ground for white supremacy and racism. If we are all “us” then we have to embrace the good the bad and the ugly, the victims and the perpetrator and deal with them all, not imagine that the threat sits outside the door.

Thankfully, the “us” also embraces the thousands of school children who marched together against climate change just hours before the massacre, with placards of hope for the future. They were part of a global movement trying to break down the barriers between cultures and countries as they unite in defence of our planet in all its diversity. It is sickening to imagine that the shooter might have used this act of love as some sort of distraction for his hate-filled attack.

Christchurch is hurting, we are told. Poor Christchurch. After the earthquakes this is too much. Like this was another act of God, the deranged shooter a force majeure killing people at random.

He wasn’t. He was a vector of hate with a singular target. He didn’t have it in for Christchurch, just a certain group. Not white people, although third-generation Kiwi and Pakeha Linda Armstrong was amongst the victims. But the largely white population of the city was quickly able to mark themselves safe; after the smoke cleared it became obvious this was a shooting they were completely immune from.

Also, dear Christchurch, please change the name of your rugby team. Crusaders (yes that’s what they’re known as) management told the media Sunday that the time was not right for a conversation about that. When exactly would the time be right?

A team named after mounted zealots who headed East on horseback putting Muslim men, women and children to the sword, solely because of their religious beliefs. A bloody historical example researched and venerated by the shooter. To select the name Crusaders in the first place demonstrates a distinct lack of sensitivity to the muslim community. Not to change it now is bordering on irresponsible.

They are us. Kia Kaha Christchurch. Love will triumph over hate. Well-meaning aspirational epithets to make us feel better. But these plasters won’t heal. Let’s be honest. Lots of flowers and an awkward group hug won’t stop this from happening again. 

By all means change the gun laws and clamp down on social media conglomerates which allowed live-streaming of this atrocity to proliferate across the world. These are important things.

But the real long term work is changing the fabric of our communities. By forging genuine connections with those who don’t look like us, don’t sound like us, don’t act like us.

We are not them and neither are they us. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be. We are a diverse society and must continue being so with a reborn curiosity and understanding about the way other people live. We, the majority, must get to know our minority communities. We must grow together. What we mustn’t do is pretend. Pretend to understand, to care. Pretend that it’s OK. ‘Cause it’s not.

Yes, New Zealand has changed forever. Doubtless broadcasters will remind us of this over and over. If there is a positive note to sound then perhaps it’s about not mourning the old New Zealand. That is the place which allowed this to happen. Let’s not go back.

To genuinely heal we need to challenge racism everywhere we see it, everywhere we read it, everywhere we hear it. We must only put down these heavy rocks when we have the foundations marked out for a different, more tolerant and all-embracing country.