[A column published on E-Tangata on Sunday 17 March, 2 days after the attack on our Muslim whānau in Christchurch]
Haere e ngā mate kua hinga i te toki o Aituā, haere, haere haere atu ki te wā kainga, te kainga tūturu. Rātou ki a rātou, tātou ki a tātou, Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.
The day. In the depths of darkness and fear, it was hard to write. It seemed arrogant somehow, as if death and horror had swallowed our words whole, permitting us only to reach for cliches and empty phrases. So many rocks continue to lie on our hands as we try to type, or in our mouths as we try to speak; to say something that truly means anything.
In the depths of that darkness and fear, it was hard to comprehend that normal life goes on for those of us outside the cordon of atrocity. People still laughed in the staffroom that afternoon. I made three batches of fudge. The kids still played Last Card and fought over the Playstation. It was fish and chip Friday. We ate fish and chips. Did the kids not know what death is, yet? They seemed undisturbed. Did they not give a damn? How could they? But how could they not? How did I laugh? Would sleep ever come? It came.
I was afraid to know any more. I was afraid of the leaping, lurching numbers. My eyes felt hot and tired. I wept many times, in between the “have a nice day” moments with kind strangers, my face a rictus of sorrow at traffic lights. I started to ring home at one point to check on the kids, and dialled my dead mother’s number instead. I hung up.
When I did begin to read, and watch, and listen, in those first few hours, my mind skittered from fact to fact; never settling, never quite believing. I know those streets where people ran for their lives, metres from my old high school, but my mind still skittered away from imagining those people’s faces. I could not.
I saw the lady on the news, the one who looks like my friend’s mum, a woman with flyaway white hair and her story of men shot on each side of her car as they fled; one who lived, one who died. The man who lived tried to call his wife. The woman took the phone and told his wife to go to the hospital and wait. Is she waiting still? Is the floor slick with blood? My mind must skitter again, away from that image; forbid it to dig in and wait behind my eyelids.
The next day. Whenever my skittering mind stills for long enough, I grieve for those I do not know. Those individuals, those families, those children, those mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, those simply living their lives, those who love and were loved in return, victims, survivors, whānau pani. Auē, auē.
My husband and I fight even before we get out of bed, an ugly screaming of invective at each other based on nothing but horror. Then we realised what we were doing. And we stopped. We cannot afford to be infected by another man’s hate.
The hangi are prepared at our local marae. Our church fair carries on. Some of us worry if the fair should have been cancelled like so many other events had been in Wellington. Yet somehow, carrying on and being kind to each other seems a sane response to an insane time.
I don’t know enough of what really happened to describe it or understand it. I get that white supremacy is at the base of it. At some point during the day, I let out a harsh bark of unsmiling laughter. After all, surely this is the very terrorism for which the Terrorism Suppression Act was envisaged, not whatever the powers-that-be thought those Māori mā, Pākehā mā, who were subjected to the Operation Eight raids,were doing back in 2007.
The comparison, of course, is both obscene and absurd, as was the extent to which our police and government then failed to understand our own communities.
We are all failing now, too. My own preferred version is that a marginalised malcontent attacked this country and murdered our people while they prayed. Our people. It suits me best to think of this terrible massacre as something akin to an act of war by a foreign aggressor. I am afraid of learning that such a person could ever have been grown here. In truth, of course, they could, and I fool myself.
We haven’t “lost our innocence”, as so many have said. We never had any.
New Zealanders commit banal evil on a much smaller scale every single day. We know this to be true. Smaller evils don’t inoculate us against larger, grander ones.
We are not immune from atrocity, and our own history tells us this. Even if our national ethos is generally good and peaceful, it doesn’t save us. We are not special.
Victor Frankl, as he reflected on his time in concentration camps during World War II, understood that not one of us is immune from evil, no matter the label we bear or group we belong to.
… decent and indecent people are found everywhere, they penetrate into all groups of society … mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing … we must not try to simplify matters by saying these men were angels and those were devils.
There is no nationality, status, gender, ethnicity, or income bracket that is essentially good or bad, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that there may be — such is the quality of our online discourse as it once more, after a bipartisan blip, settles into its comfortable camps of mutual loathing.
Ah well. There is no point in flagellation, either of the self or of others. We can draw all the conclusions we like from our discourse and subcultures and so-called national characteristics, and still not understand the massacre any more than we do already. Is there any point, I wonder.
As a collection of peoples, we are good, we are bad, we are racist, we are tolerant, we are bigoted, we are peaceful, we are extraordinarily punitive, we are progressive, we are narrow-minded and parochial. All of these statements about us are true. We contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes. (Apologies to Walt Whitman.)
The days after that. In our broken world — and what more evidence do we need that it is so — the only logical and deliberate response to evil, no matter where or how it was grown, has to be love, if we are not to succumb to it. Not a feel good, convenient, heart-emoji-on-Facebook. Instead, reach for a love that requires us to act kind and be kind, even when we sure as hell don’t want to be. Even when all we want to do is retreat.
And for those of us with faith, and in the season of Lent, as we lay open who we really are, these words can matter:
E te Ariki, meinga ahau hei kaihohou i tōu rongo;
tukua, kia whakatōkia e ahau i roto i te ngākau o te hunga mauāhara
he purapura nō te aroha;
i roto i te hunga i whara, he whakaoranga;
i roto i te ngākau āwangawanga, he whakapono
i roto i te ngākau taimaha, he tūmanako;
i roto i te hunga noho i te pōuri, he māramatanga;
i roto i te hunga tangi, he mārie, he hari.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.