Many words have already been spoken and written about last week’s massacre of Muslim people in Christchurch. Words that, in their own way, came from the same place of pain — political announcements, opinions in mainstream and social media, and, most movingly, the public outpourings of sympathy and aroha for the relatives of the victims and the Muslim community as a whole.
The words have been well-meaning, even if they might have been of only passing solace in a time of seemingly inconsolable sadness.
Yet, in many ways, they are at least a reassurance that those who grieve most do not grieve alone, and that the tragedy they have endured must never happen again. For the silent vigils and the quiet laying of flowers, the defiant haka and the chalked messages on walls and footpaths, have not just been heartfelt statements of support, but struggles to understand and chart a better way forward.
They have also perhaps been an attempt to combat the sad realisation that tragedy can sometimes make the end of sorrow seem too distant to be real. A violent tragedy can too often make the longing for something better seem little more than a forlorn impossibility. Yet tragedy is always followed by an eventual calm, where rest makes memory bearable and time allows change to occur.
When the tragedy is caused by something unspeakable, then naming and challenging what has been done is part of the release, and part of the hope for change. Hone Tuwhare found words to describe that reality, as poets often do.
On bloody acts
that make less human
mankind’s brighter sun
let revulsion rise.
the moon’s black evil:
so that innocence
and the child shall reign
so that we may dream
good dreams again.
The promise of “good dreams” is a worthy and inspiring one. In the aftermath of the terror and killing, it is a goal worth pursuing because it may help frame the tragedy, if not in poetry then at least in a proper recognition of why and how such brutality could fester and erupt in this land. If that can be achieved, then out of the suffering will come the certain hope of change.
The always contested nature of change in a violent and intolerant world will, of course, make it difficult to sustain such a promise. Ancient grudges still fester, and human imperfectability can still mar the best intentions of any faith or ideal. The most desperate longing can still be thwarted by bigotry, and even the most pressing challenges, such as climate change, can still go unheeded in the comfort of self-interest and greed.
At the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, Martin Luther King often spoke of the need for change in what he called “the fierce urgency of now.” In pursuit of that change, he constantly referred to the power of love and the aphorism that has been quoted many times in Christchurch: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
However, in preaching what might now be termed a politics of love, he also stated just as often that, while love might prompt a desire for change, the change itself could not occur without the practical exertion “of weary feet and sharp minds.” It involved active toil and an honest analysis of historic cause and consequence, as well as the willingness to dream different dreams.
The fierce urgency of this country’s “now” requires a similar response.
Indeed, the challenge ahead is how the many genuine expressions of love and solidarity of the last few days can be translated into the meaningful changes that will make this country a place where all people can feel truly safe and at home. It will require a certain compassionate empathy, but also a willingness to question not just the present circumstance but how it came to be.
Iwi and hapū have long known that, just as the “brighter sun” of te ao mārama only appeared after long struggles and desperate nights of uncertainty, so the past stays with us, with all of its darkest fears and most vibrant hopes. It’s not always known or acknowledged, but it is part of the now time as surely as whakapapa shows us that mokopuna carry their tīpuna with them into the future.
It’s particularly important to acknowledge the links between the past and present in this perplexing time because the massacres in Christchurch and the ideologies of racism and white supremacy which underpinned them did not come about in some non-contextual vacuum. They are instead a manifestation of the particular history of colonisation and its founding presumption that the so-called white people in Europe were inherently superior to everyone else.
Some of Europe’s greatest thinkers contributed to the development of this presumption, and it eventually encompassed everything from the superiority of their form of government to the greater reason of their minds and even the beauty of their bodies.
They were merely warped fantasies posing as fact, but they were eventually learned as the “truths” that enabled Europeans to assert that they had the right to take over the lands, lives, and power of those they had decided were the “lesser breeds.”
The consequent dispossession of indigenous peoples was a race-based process that led to the genocide and deaths of millions of innocent men, women and children around the world. If the years since 9/11 have been marked by a “war on terror”, they are merely a minuscule and perverse reflection of the fact that colonisation has, for centuries, been a violent and unrelenting global war of terror.
The man who committed the Christchurch atrocities should rightly stay nameless. But he, too, is not merely some isolate from Australia who has lived in a uniquely contemporary nightmare fuelled by his own inadequacies.
Many like-minded people revel in the vicious and very modern shadows of the internet, but they are all driven by a racist and white supremacist fervour that was spawned in colonisation long ago. When they despise the “other” and move to eliminate them if they are seen to pose a threat to their self-idealised supremacy, they are not doing anything new.
There is no profit in some abstract or determinative view of history, but there is an undeniable if perverse symmetry that links the violence so often perpetrated by today’s white supremacists to that which has always characterised colonisation.
There is no great distance in act and consequence between someone who today might kill Jews in an American synagogue, or Muslims in a New Zealand mosque, and the earlier colonisers who killed and oppressed indigenous peoples who threatened their assumed right to rule.
The “abo hunts” that killed dozens of Aboriginal peoples in Tasmania in the 19th century were carried out as effortlessly as the bush was cleared — and both tasks were done with a dismissive confidence in the need to make the land safe for those with a more civilised right to it. Some of the colonisers may have hated the aborigines, but they loved the idea of their untrammelled supremacy even more.
The wars declared against Māori after 1840 were part of the same imperative.
Indeed, the comment of the soldier-politician A.S. Atkinson that “I find one lies in wait to shoot Maoris without any approach to an angry feeling — it is a sort of scientific duty” was merely the most overt admission of colonisation’s intention. The need to establish the supremacy of their power, by force if necessary, was simply what colonisers did.
In many ways, today’s white supremacists are the most recent and most extreme colonisers. The Christchurch terrorist was therefore not some “lone wolf” psychopath. He may have acted alone, but he drew upon the shared ideas and history that still lurk in the shadows of every country that has been colonised.
The term is also inaccurate and inappropriate in a quite specific sense because it’s only ever applied to a white person who commits an act of mass killing, such as the supremacist who murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church in 2015. It is an exclusionary term that seeks to deny any collective culpability.
It is never applied to Muslims or persons of colour who might be guilty of a similar crime. They are simply seen, explicitly or implicitly, as representatives of their inherently violent and thuggish communities.
It is a slur posing as commentary which ignores the fact that racism and white supremacy are the seminal papa, or foundation, of colonisation. Economic and political interests were key motivations behind the first decisions to “annex” New Zealand, but the colonisers’ presumption that they could assert their power in a land where they had never had jurisdiction before was race-based.
Many people still struggle with the truth of that history and cling to the belief that colonisation was somehow “better” here than anywhere else. They might acknowledge certain discrete injustices done to Māori but not the overarching injustice of colonisation itself.
They therefore accept the current constitutional, political and economic structures as unchangeable facts of life rather than colonising artefacts that should be the subject of the ongoing debate about the Treaty of Waitangi.
In today’s changing social environment, they may even recognise and reject individual acts of racist behaviour but fail to acknowledge the totalising racism that has always made colonisation possible. They therefore rightly challenge those who still malign Māori and others, but ignore or are unaware that the wealth and power which they might take for granted actually perpetuate a much deeper and systemic racism.
In a very real sense, they are caught up in what may be called the “mythtakes” of history. In every society, there can be a kind of social amnesia where people may innocently forget what might have happened in the past.
But, in this country, there has been a deliberate misremembering of history that has obscured the reality of what colonisation really was and is. It has replaced the harsh reality of its racist violence and its illegitimate usurpation of power with a feelgood rhetoric of Treaty-based good faith and Crown honour.
As a result, the statements made so often after the terror attacks that “this is not us” were not so much an accurate recollection of this country’s actual history but the telling of a past that has been misremembered.
They were obviously sincere reactions to what may have been the shock of a new and different violence, but they were expressions of the “us” that ought to be, rather than the reality that the legacy of colonisation has left.
If the Christchurch tragedy is to be properly understood, and the risk of further pain diminished, the healing must be based on a recognition that the dark day of March 15, 2019 was, sadly, only one of many dark days in this country’s history. A failure to recognise that fact is not just to misremember history but to erase and silence it.
The courage and resilience shown by the Muslim community and the compassion shown by so many others will not be properly acknowledged unless the hopes for a better future are based on a similar honest reckoning of everyone’s past.
The Treaty envisaged that better “us”, and Hone Tuwhare knew that, even in the most drear and dreamless time, a torn and ravaged tree may
strike fresh roots again
Give soothing shade to a hurt and
There is much to be done, from the reforms of the gun laws and the security intelligence services, to finding the will to confront intolerance and racism at a personal and systemic level.
But clinging to that hope would be a most fitting commemoration and a sure way to “dream good dreams again.”
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