A Stop/Go moment

Flowers left by Rotorua residents at the home of a local Muslim

On This Day – we can call it that now because of its notoriety – we drove through Mt Roskill and paused for the stop-go road worker. We sighed and complied – just another Auckland roading improvement. On the footpath beside us, a Muslim in traditional dress tugged at his reluctant son’s hand and dragged him home as he strode past, looking grim. 

It was just after three o’clock. School was out. And he clearly knew, though we did not, that his people were being massacred in Christchurch. It was, as the country realised in horror, a massacre of innocents in prayer – and the wounding of our prized innocence. The details – 50 dead and 30 more  injured, the lucky escapes, the often heart-wrenching eye-witness accounts are now well known.

So who were the perpetrators?  First an ideology based on white supremacy and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Next, social media and big tech which failed to stop the boastful, well-planned dissemination of the slaughter for the appreciation of like-minded Islamophobes around the world. And finally the relative ease of access to firearms. Ironically weapons are now prime targets.

The Christchurch massacre left us feeling bereft, as if this was not only an attack on the faithful at the two local mosques, but on us. Those who died were Muslims but they were also Kiwis. Yet the focus of our intelligence services seemed to be on Islamic extremism, when similar incidents here and overseas  indicated a  chilling growth in White Supremacist beliefs.

Massey  University Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Paul Spoonley has documented the  rise of the Right for decades and  recently wrote for The Conversation:

‘I completed research in the UK on the National Front and British National Party in the late 1970s. When I returned to New Zealand, I was told explicitly, including by authorities that were charged with monitoring extremism, that we did not have similar groups here. But it did not take me long to discover quite the opposite.

‘Through the 1980s, I looked at more than 70 local groups that met the definition of being extreme right wing. The city that hosted many of these groups was Christchurch. They were a mixture of skinhead, neo-Nazi and extreme nationalist groups. Some were traditional in their ideology, with a strong underpinning of anti-Semitism and a belief in the supremacy of the “British race…”’

In the United States this February, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a respected civil rights organisation that tracks hate groups, reported that for the fourth year in a row, hate and domestic extremism were rising in an ‘unabated trend’.

‘The center found a 30 percent increase in U.S. hate groups over the past four years and a 7 percent increase in hate groups in 2018 alone, according to the center’s annual Year in Hate and Extremism report. The group designated 1,020 organizations as hate groups in 2018, a high of at least 20 years’.

The watchdog group blames President Trump, his administration, right-wing media outlets and the ease of spreading hate on social media platforms for the alarming increase. The growth, it says, is largely driven by ‘hysteria over losing a white-majority nation to demographic change.’

Listed below are some of the mass shooting incidents of the ‘other’– Jews, Muslims, and African Americans. Each of them is a portrait in cowardice, with the killers weaponising their hate when people felt they were safe in the spiritual refuge of prayer.

March 15, 2019, Christchurch: A 28-year-old Australian and two others are arrested for the deaths of 49 Muslims in two mosques on a day Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as ‘one of the darkest’ in New Zealand history. The attack was carefully planned, beginning during Friday prayers. The accused are facing murder and terrorism charges in the wake of an attack that stunned the nation and left Kiwis feeling as if their peaceful and tolerant society had been violated.

Oct. 27, 2018 Pittsburgh: A gunman believed to have spewed anti-Semitic slurs and rhetoric on social media entered Tree of Life Congregation synagogue and opened fire, killing 11 and wounding six, including four police officers, while Shabbat morning services were being held. Eleven people were killed and seven were injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. Prosecutors are reportedly seeking the death penalty for the sole suspect, Robert Bowers.

January 29, 2017, Quebec, Canada: According to witnesses at the scene, the terrorist entered the mosque shortly after the scheduled 7:30 pm prayers began, wearing either a hood or a ski mask. At about 7:55 pm, when the first calls to the police were made, he began shooting at worshippers lingering in the mosque after the prayer. Six people were killed and nineteen were injured in the attack. A witness said the attacker walked into the mosque after the evening prayer and started shooting anything that moved and left after emptying his weapon. People who knew him said he had far right, and anti-Muslim views.

June 17, 2015, Charleston:  Nine black worshippers including a pastor were killed by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old White Supremacist, after he prayed with them for nearly an hour, according to Associated Press. The shooting happened at historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Roof was convicted of federal hate-crime and obstruction-of-religion charges and sentenced to death.

Kiwis are stronger than a terrorist driven by concepts of white supremacy. Yes, we have from time to time paused for a metaphorical stop/go moment on our journey to truly celebrating our diversity. Friday’s slaughter won’t stop us. In fact it seems to have created a greater sense of togetherness.  Just as significant, That Day led – at terrible cost – to a worldwide awakening of the threat posed by the rise of  White Supremacists and their ideologies.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.