The first anniversary of the dastardly Christchurch shootings will be upon us this Sunday. That terrible event that killed 51 and injured 49 worshippers at two mosques in the Garden City exactly a year ago is described by many as one that changed New Zealand forever.
How may it have changed New Zealand and New Zealanders?
The country rose as one in extending support at all levels to everyone that was affected in any way by the tragedy in the days, weeks and months following March 15, 2019. The Government’s response led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been largely praised all over the world. While compassionate on the one hand, the government also showed a tough sense of purpose in legislating the banning of assault weapons in just the next few months.
Individual Kiwis, public and private organisations in this country as well as international humanitarian, religious and private bodies gave generously to the reparation and rehabilitation of survivors and the kith and kin of the deceased. The government put in place a number of special programmes for their wellbeing.
In short, Kiwis generally lived up to their reputation of generosity and large heartedness. But can we say this about all Kiwis?
In a country of about five million, there are bound to be differing opinions – and there always have been in New Zealand as well. But the important question is whether this difference of opinion is restricted to a fringe – which should never be a worry – or is there a undercurrent of support than what is apparent or what occasionally comes to the surface.
Extreme rightwing white supremacist groups have always existed around the world but in recent decades have become more vocal and visible, probably in response to violent religious extremism and terrorism especially in the western world. New Zealand and Australia have also had their fair share of adherents but mostly beneath the surface.
Since 15 March last year, though, there seems to have been considerably more activity borne out by the fact that police in both countries have stepped up surveillance in response to increasing extremist ideologies surfacing on social media.
Recent media reports in Australia quote the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) as saying that an extreme right-wing attack is “plausible” in Australia in the next 12-18 months. It is in response to these observations, among other facts that have come to the surface, that agencies in both Australia and New Zealand have stepped up surveillance both online and offline.
In New Zealand, just a week before the Christchurch shootings anniversary, there have been reports of a threat at Christchurch’s Al-Noor mosque which the police are still probing. Disturbingly, Muslim community leaders have said that this wasn’t the first but the third or fourth such threat in the past year. Similar threats have been reported in Auckland as well, in the run up to the anniversary.
Writing in the New Zealand Herald this week, Professor Paul Spoonley says that though there might be some 60-70 white supremacist groups in New Zealand compared to 12,000 to 13,000 such groups in Germany, “proportionate to population size, the numbers are similar for both countries. And it only takes one activist to act out his extremism.” That is exactly what happened in Christchurch on 15 March a year ago.
New Zealand was a soft target for the Australian gunman. And despite the measures the government and the security agencies have taken since that fateful day in Christchurch, it still remains a relatively soft target for anyone who is fiercely committed to the ideology of hate.
Most Kiwis would want to go into the first anniversary in a sombre, commemorative mood to mark one of the darkest days in its history. The panic caused by the Covid-19, now declared a pandemic by the WHO on the eve of the anniversary, makes the mood all the more sombre.
Let us hope that the anniversary is observed with the respect and dedication it deserves and let us hope we won’t be forced to repeat the ‘This is not who we are’ slogan all over again.