It’s three o’clock on a normal Friday afternoon. In between my children’s giggles, I look at my phone and there’s a message from my stepdaughter’s school saying they were in lockdown following police orders due to a shooting in the city.
When I read it I thought maybe it was a burglary gone wrong or something similar, and that the police were simply following protocol and taking precautionary measures. Because in my 10 years of residency in Christchurch (and in the county), there had never been a situation that put the lives of residents at risk (with the exception of the 2011 earthquakes, of course).
I spoke on the phone with my stepdaughter and she told me she had gone home early so I carried on as usual. My daughters had asked me to go to the local library to get the books we had on hold and I didn’t think twice.
When we arrived at the library, I started getting nervous. There was hardly anyone on the street and when we got to the doors, they were shut. My daughters saw people inside and they asked me why we couldn’t get in. The staff pointed to the signs that said the city was in lockdown and I didn’t know what to say.
Meanwhile, I started getting messages from friends and family asking if I we were ok and that’s when I started realising the scale of what had happened. Friends with their children at school not knowing when they were going to be able to pick them up, friends locked in their offices, in restaurants, stores… An Orwellian scene that has no place in Christchurch. Until last Friday…
Normally I’m not online when I’m with my children so I can be 100% present with them, but my nerves got the best of me. I couldn’t believe it when I read the news that a white supremacist had killed (what we now know) 50 people in two mosques in the city. And what’s worse, that he had broadcasted the first 17 minutes of his attack on social media, after sharing his fascist manifesto.
An attack of this nature, with this level of violence and based on this type of ideology makes little sense in few places of the world, but even less so in New Zealand.
New Zealanders are a welcoming, tolerant people and life here is peaceful, safe and calm. There aren’t any areas in the city I’d consider avoiding, which is rare in any place in the world.
Racism is present in every culture, New Zealand included, but nothing that would indicate that we gathered the right conditions for an atrocity of this kind.
I want to make it clear that this horrid act does not represent this country and its people. But it does demonstrate the vulnerable world we’re creating, that gives a voice, a platform and power to the small percentage of followers of inhumane, retrograde ideologies, based on prejudice, fear and separatism. Unfortunately, not even this piece of paradise is immune to it.
Perhaps what shocks me more than the crime itself are the comments on social media where people from all over the world (including Portugal) justify and normalise this as a legitimate reaction to the attacks perpetrated by ISIS, suggesting that the muslim community asked for it. The ignorance, hatred and prejudice behind these comments make me sick to my stomach and have kept me awake at night.
These comments are racist and xenophobic. Period. If the perpetrator were muslim, the same commentators wouldn’t have hesitated to condemn it and offer solidarity to the victims. But the white colour of his skin still warrants a pass and an excuse in the most unsettled, intolerant minds of the world.
The comments we make and the content we consume online have real consequences; they either give power to extremists or they don’t. They either contribute towards hatred or towards tolerance. We are personally responsible for the ideas and values that get shared in the virtual world, good and bad. And it is time we take this responsibility seriously.
It is also time we demand that social media play their role and take responsibility for the content that gets shared on their platforms (although this is a meaty subject that deserves its own article).
The other responsibility we have, which we seem to excuse ourselves from, is the way in which we vote and the political system we tolerate. We vote for politicians with divisive discourse. And we tolerate the media happily exploiting this type of speech, which we consume without questioning its validity, allowing it to contaminate our minds on a daily basis.
But here’s our main responsibility; to distinguish the real world from the virtual world. To understand the impact and the irony of an Australian immigrant committing a nationalist crime against immigrants like him, in a country that isn’t his.
We need to understand the extent to which our conversations and daily actions contribute to the dehumanisation of entire groups of human beings, even when our real lives show us the truth; that the vast majority of people who surround us are decent, regardless of their colour, faith or nationality.
Each prejudice we personally carry, as little as it is, feeds separatism, lack of trust and the ignorance present in our lives globally today. There’s no such thing as neutrality.
May we remember this unquestionable truth: that the percentage of human beings up to no good is minimal and that the vast majority of human beings in the world do good. The difference lies in the airtime each group is given. And the passiveness of which we’re all guilty of.
Extremism isn’t born in a vacuum. It is born with our daily permission.
One of my best friends said the following: “there are more people in the world who love than the ones who hate, except the people who hate do it with conviction.” I add that it’s time to make more clear which side of the fence we stand on.
And, if we’re part of the white majority, then it’s time to check for ourselves how far we’re willing to sacrifice unity and the true inclusion of each human being that makes up the population of the places where we live, in exchange for the privileges that the current culture warrants us.
The antidote to these cancers that plague human condition is love in action. Let’s love with conviction every day, with small gestures. Starting with our communities, both physical and virtual. Especially with the conversations and attitudes we tolerate. Important note: THERE ARE NO innocent racist jokes.
The muslim community in Christchurch and New Zealand sought refuge in this country from the extremism they’re target of in their own home countries. Over here, the only thing we’ll show them is love, compassion and solidarity. Because that’s what New Zealand people are truly made of. Followed by very difficult conversations, led with love by our brilliant Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. May the rest of the world follow. #teamhuman all the way.
This article was written in Portuguese originally as my monthly contribution to the column “Nós Lá Fora”, for Visão, the most read magazine in Portugal. I personally translated it into english so my fellow kiwi friends could read it as we process this tragedy collectively.
The image credit goes to my friend Chris Tacon, who took his pictures today in the city.