christchurch, march 15th

I feel sick. I can’t stop thinking about the horrific event that has struck my country. This kind of thing never happens in New Zealand, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Yesterday I kept on bursting into random bouts of tears, probably because of the sheer shock of how horrible it is. Even when we had the London Bridge or Finsbury Park terrorist attacks just down the road from me I wasn’t affected this much.

Sure, we’ve had natural disasters. Christchurch itself was heavily affected by brutal earthquakes less than a decade ago, and I still remember watching the news for hours, staring in disbelief at the rubble. But somehow this small act is far scarier. Because an earthquake is just the earth at work, and growing up in New Zealand, earthquake drills are just part of the package. New Zealand has not had a mass shooting for nearly 30 years, and after that one, they strengthened gun control laws to the point that no one thought it could happen again. The last time we had a massacre on this scale was during a prison camp riot in WW2.

And the worst part is now that the initial shock has passed, we can now see that it wasn’t as out of the blue as everyone initially thought.

“But at least we aren’t as bad as the rest of the world.”

For probably several years now, I’ve been complaining about our media, and how our papers tend to take sensationalist quotes out of context (NZ Herald and Stuff.co.nz are notable examples), fuelling the flame of ignorance. But what did I do about that? I just switched to reading smaller Radio NZ and the Spinoff instead, telling myself that “at least not all of our papers are like that”. Many people I know did the same as me and boycotted the bigger papers, but we never did anything more than complain to each other.

The comment sections on these media sites are vile, and racism and sexism runs rife, even directed towards our own native Māori culture, despite the fact that at least 15% of our population identify as Māori. Usually I try to avoid reading the comments, but sometimes I find myself idly scrolling. When I find the token single comment that isn’t horrible, I mentally pat myself on the back, and think to myself “at least everyone isn’t like that”. Māori were relatively well off compared to other parts of the British empire, and although casual racism still runs rampant, it’s getting better. My grandparent’s generation were beaten at school for speaking Te Reo, but now there are waiting lists for every language learning class across the country. Although our battles are still important and need to be fought, “at least we aren’t racist like America”.

Less than a day before the terrorist attack, there was news that a government MP of the Green Party was assaulted unprovoked on the streets, for no discernible reason. The man in question was thankfully alright, save for some bruising, but it was still horrible to hear that even New Zealand politics had become so decisive as to inspire violent action. “But at least the local politics aren’t as bad as the situation overseas”.

I’m undeniably affected and concerned by UK and US politics at the moment, but I could always rely on New Zealand politics to be relatively balanced and egalitarian. Even when we had the National party in power for nearly a decade, although I disliked many of their somewhat right-wing policies, on a global scale they were still quite centrist. I grew up in the wake of the financial crisis, so even the negatives of that government like high GP fees and expensive groceries seemed normal to me. But that was small fish, compared to what was going on with the UK and US.

Whenever I’ve heard about a mass shooting in the past, while my initial thought has always been sympathy for the victims, my second is “thank god that wouldn’t happen in New Zealand, our gun laws are too strict”. It was something I, and I think most of the country, took for granted.

Yesterday I found out that our gun laws weren’t as thorough as I thought they were. Yes, you need to go through strict mental and criminal checks before gaining a gun license. But you don’t need to register each individual weapon that you own, which is a concerning loophole. You can’t own a semi-automatic or automatic without extra checks, but although the man who committed these attacks wasn’t technically allowed to have a semi-automatic, he simply bought a regular gun legally, and modified it afterwards.

Growing up in a small town, I knew countless people who came from families who hunted, or were farmers, and who had a gun or two in their house. I heard occasional mentions of the licensing process they had to go through, which I understood to be rigorous. It seemed safe enough, and it’s not like anyone ever had to worry about mass shootings before. I’d say that level of knowledge was pretty common. I mean, no one ever had a reason to think about them until now.

I’m proud that less than 24 hours after, our prime minister pledged to change our laws, and ban semi-automatic guns entirely. That kind of decisive action is what makes me proud to have Jacinda as our prime minister. But this time, I know that I can’t just focus on the positives of this ruling. This terrorist had not been on any terror watchlists prior to committing this crime, which is extremely concerning. Will that change with the new laws?

And even so soon after the attack, people in the comments of these articles are complaining that the government is taking more rights from them, and what about needing firearms for protection? Protection from who? It’s disgusting, and I thought this kind of discourse was just limited to redneck Americans. I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist in Aotearoa anymore.

This morning I read an article that was an interview with a man who was praying in the mosque where it happened. He lost childhood friends in the crossfire, and my heart breaks for normal people like him. Some of the victims in the crossfire weren’t even old enough to read. One victim tried to wrestle a gun from the attacker, but he and his son were killed anyway. One woman could have escaped, but she was shot as she tried to look for her husband inside. People who had moved to New Zealand hoping for a better future.

Friday, the 15th of March 2019 has become one of the darkest days in the history of New Zealand. I’m too young to remember 9/11, but I think I know how people felt now. Maybe we can learn from this. I’m certainly starting to see New Zealand for what it is, which is a country that may be friendly, quirky and small, but also tarnished with racism, one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and a dangerous ‘she’ll be right’ culture that leads us to turn a blind eye to any threats, just because it hasn’t happened in our country before.

Friday also proved to be a pivotal day in the fight to save our climate, with tens of thousands of young people striking in cities all over the world. And it yielded results too, even if they were overshadowed by tragedy. The leader of the UN has announced that they’re calling a UN Summit on the climate, inspired by the passionate actions of the strikers on that day.

This is a strange time to be coming of age in. There’s so much happening in the world right now, and I sometimes feel like it’s all hopeless. But we have to believe that we can make a change, because what’s the point otherwise? Kia kaha, Aotearoa.

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