Ardern is wrong — the attacker is ‘us’

We are all heartbroken. Yesterday’s terrorist attack in Christchurch, which took our nation by surprise, has inspired an outpouring of love for our Muslim sisters and brothers. We must ensure that our response remains loving — and that we do not give in to hatred, or to fear.

In her first public announcement following the attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that many of the victims were likely to be migrants who had chosen to make New Zealand home, and that some may even be refugees. Her message was clear: this is their home. ‘They are us.’

Unfortunately, her message didn’t end there. ‘The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not,’ she went on. ‘They have no place in New Zealand.’ But she is wrong: the attacker is ‘us’, whether he is a New Zealander or not. Insisting that he isn’t serves to further obscure the racism that pervades our nation, ultimately making it much more difficult for our society, and societies like ours, to overcome the hatred that motivates attacks like these.

As I write this, it is not yet clear how many attackers there were, and we do not know all of their nationalities. Initial reports suggested that the main perpetrator was Australian, and later clarification confirmed that he was ‘Australian-born’. But to focus on the attackers’ nationalities, wherever they are from, is to focus on the wrong thing. We should focus on racism.

Ardern has framed the attacks as an outside threat. In her statement last night, she said that Aotearoa New Zealand was chosen because we represent diversity: ‘We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we’re an enclave for extremism; we were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things, because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those that share our values, a refuge for those who need it.’

The claim that we were ‘chosen’ suggests that New Zealanders did not play any part in these attacks — which seems unlikely, and anyway is still unclear — and it ignores the fact that racism exists here, too. The boundary between our nation and the global community is largely illusory. We are influenced by other societies, and we affect them in turn. Their racism is our racism.

Many of us here in Aotearoa New Zealand are blind to the racism that assaults our nation. We fail to face up to the fact that our brown cousins are pushed to the margins of society, by — to use bell hooks’ phrase — white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Love, and the Politics of Love, is opposed to domination in all its forms, and each of us has a responsibility to resist racism.

To call what happened yesterday an ‘unprecedented act of violence’, as Ardern did, is to promote the cultural amnesia that prevents us from discussing racism. Māori remember that violence has already be perpetrated here, even if our prime minister has forgotten.

As I have written before, terrorists hijack our emotions. Inspiring fear is one of terrorism’s primary aims. We must not allow this strategy to succeed. It is important that we remain vigilant — not because we are in physical danger, but because in the wake of terrorist attacks, our manipulated emotions risk leading us away from love, toward hatred.

Ardern may feel that she is providing leadership, but her rhetoric is not loving. ‘You may have chosen us,’ she told the attackers, ‘but we utterly reject and condemn you.’

We must resist such ‘us versus them’ logic; it is the same thinking that inspires terrorism, and it underpins racism, too. Ardern’s words came dangerously close to suggesting that those who commit crimes should be deprived of their nationality — which is exactly what is happening to Shamima Begum, the British teenager who joined ISIS in Syria and is now being stripped of her citizenship.

The Politics of Love recognises that, as individuals, we are communally constituted: just as our societies are made up of individuals, as individuals we are shaped by our societies. As such, loving politics places rehabilitation and inclusion over condemnation and exclusion. Love strives to understand, so that we can do the difficult work of addressing the causes of harm.

As we move forward, let us do so in love. To our Muslim brothers and sisters: in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, you will be able to depend on our love. As New Zealanders, and as citizens of the world, let us all stand together in solidarity — and love.