One of the greatest Onion articles ever written is headlined, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” In one sentence it nails the “our hands are tied” helplessness of a country where politicians scramble to appease overreaching lobbyists, religious groups, and the mega-rich at the expense of the general population. This is easily evidenced by the fact that the people of the United States want stricter gun laws (and to see current laws enforced), and yet we remain gridlocked on the federal level, at the absolute mercy of the NRA.
In this wealthy, industrialized nation, the epicenter of global technological advancement, the first nation to put a man on the moon, we routinely deal with large-scale cataclysm (often issued forth from the white-hot barrel of a semi-automatic rifle). Other times, less regularly, the tragedies befall our similarly developed allies. Nations in which we see something of ourselves. And when tragedy hit New Zealand last Sunday — in the form of a white supremacist attack on two mosques, killing 50 — the United States was in the position of watching another nation respond to the sort of catastrophe that we are so thoroughly versed in.
What would those ever-polite Kiwis do? Surely, while grieving and reeling at the same time, their quiet, reticent natures would beget pragmatism. They would realize it’s still “too soon” after the tragedy to try to fix the problem that caused it. Naturally, they would go meek and wait months to draw conclusions.
Nope. They flew into action. They were decisive. They were clear-eyed and fearless. They were, in short, everything that Americans like to tell ourselves we are (though we have fewer and fewer metrics by which to back up this claim). Since the attack, New Zealand and its leaders have put on a masterclass in how to take a strong stand in the face of tragedy and respond in a way that spurs on societal progress and an increased sense of national connectedness. It’s high time we pay attention to them.
We cannot, for instance, just simply allow some of the challenges that we face with social media to be dealt with on a case by case basis. There is an argument here to be made for us to take a united front on what is a global issue.
That quote comes from Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand and the youngest head of state in the world, in an interview with Time Magazine. After a video of the murders was circulated via social media and streamed on Facebook, she was quick to condemn the killer’s quest for notoriety, promising to never speak his name.
She also said of sites like Facebook and Twitter, “They are the publisher, not just the postman. It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.” Her stance has been clear since day one — we must rein in the power of social media to spread hate, give refuge to extremists, and instigate violence. Already, the country has begun blocking sites that hosted the viral video of the attack like 4Chan, 8Chan, and LiveLeak. This stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where Russian meddling in our election via social media — completely proven by various independent groups, published in a report by Congress, and clearly meant to embolden bigots — is generally ignored, and tech CEOs try to back out of accountability conversations (presumably) over fears that doing so will hurt the value of their stock.
In her initial response to the tragedy, Ardern also went right for guns.
“While work is being done as to the chain of events that lead to both the holding of this gun license and the possession of these weapons, I can tell you one thing right now,” she said, “Our gun laws will change.”
That change came first thing Thursday, with Ardern announcing a ban of military-style assault rifles, open-platform AR-style semi-automatics, and high capacity magazines. The ban is effective immediately with legislation to follow. Clearly, the country is approaching the matter from a standpoint of public health rather than allowing themselves to get caught in the “right to bear arms” quagmire. In this scenario, everyone’s rights come second to the greater need to prevent the cataclysm of a mass shooting, no matter what it takes. (To phrase it a different way, the right to avoid getting slaughtered at the mosque precludes the right to own an AR-15.)
Compare that to our country, where shootings of this scale are far more common — Pulse, Las Vegas, Parkland, San Bernadino — and federal gun legislation feels absolutely futile. Look at how our leaders tweet “thoughts and prayers” after each shooting, most having received campaign funds from the NRA.
Recognizing immediately that the attack on the two Christchurch places of worship was an act of white supremacist terrorism, Ardern told Time that the responsibility of fighting white nationalism and extremism lies “domestically with each of us.” She added, “I have to acknowledge though there are some things that we do need to confront collectively, as leaders internationally.” The interviewer followed up by asking Ardern how she feels about President Trump — who has stoked white nationalist rhetoric in what he says and refuses to say, and has a history of amplifying accounts like “@WhiteGenocideTM” — but the PM declined to go there.
Perhaps what is most striking about how New Zealand in general and Ardern in specific has responded to the Christchurch Mosque shootings is that it’s been marked by an ever-present layer of compassion and a steady reminder of the nation’s identity. In their grief, we have gained insight into how New Zealanders view themselves. The Prime Minister has appeared with a headscarf and told Muslim mourners in no uncertain terms, “you are us.”
“…We represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack,” she said. Addressing the Australian terrorist who carried out the attacks, she said, “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
This is perhaps the greatest lesson at stake. The nation of New Zealand and its leadership have responded to this horrifying act of mass murder not by politicizing it or using it to move forward party-based agenda points, but by making it a jumping off point for more acceptance, less discrimination, and a greater sense of connectivity between citizens. They’ve taken something horrible and they’re using it to build a better country. They’re calling out intolerance and asking our president to do the same. They’re standing together, a people united in the face of extremism. The significance of that act can’t be overstated.
The contrast with our country is striking. New Zealand is taking immediate, decisive action to address a terrible problem, while America continues to gaze toward the heavens, bury its head in the sand, and hope for the best.