Two things the world can learn from New Zealand

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 25, 2019 10:44 hrs
New Zealand mass shooting

Some things are possible in small countries, some things are possible in large countries, and some things are possible in all countries.

In small ones, assault weapons can be banned overnight. So can they in large countries. So can they in all countries. But that would affect the economy of larger countries than New Zealand, and it would affect the election prospects of lesser leaders than Jacinda Ardern, so let’s rule that out.

In small ones, the head of state can visit the bereaved in the wake of a terrorist attack, wearing clothes that symbolise her solidarity with them. So can he or she in large countries. But this could affect the election prospects of leaders of bigoted countries, so let’s rule that out too.

However, there are two things we can all learn from New Zealand’s reaction to the terror attacks in Christchurch, and no country or leader has an excuse not to follow their lead.

A country which the rest of the world associates mainly with rugby and The Lord of the Rings has stood up to terror and set a precedent that could change how we react to terror.

Of the various reactions from Ardern, the law enforcement, and the citizens, two stand out.

The first is the christening of the attack as an act of terrorism.

Neither Ardern nor the media shied away from the word, which across the world – and particularly in largely Caucasian countries – has been synonymised with “Islamic terror”.

This was a terror attack against Muslims, and the usual substitutes – “white supremacist”, “racist”, “anti-immigration fascist”, “Neo Nazi” – were not slipped into headlines. The attacker was a “terrorist”, the attack was “an act of terror”.

You could describe the attacker in as many phrases as you wished to signify each of his despicable qualities, but the primary label he will bear is “terrorist”.

The second, and perhaps most crucial lesson for the rest of the world, is that the terrorist will bear a label and no name.

Addressing the Parliament on the Tuesday following the shootings, Jacinda Ardern made a rousing speech. These lines stood out:

“He sought many things from his act of terror but one was notoriety. That is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. And to others, I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we, in New Zealand, will give him nothing — not even his name.”

The man had prepared himself for immortality – he had prepared a dossier documenting his beliefs, reserving praise for his predecessors across the world. He had made a video with a message. He hoped videos of the attack would go viral.

Perhaps he hoped that someday, another terrorist would put down his name as one of his inspirations to go on a similar spree.

For too long, people like him have inspired each other. They create a lineage of monsters, each trying to carry it forward, each hoping for wider reach in the media, for greater immortality.

Sadly enough, they get it.

Reporters believe, or pretend to believe, they are “presenting the facts”, even as they and their employers keep track of how many views each piece attracts. Internet portals put up videos that are sure to go viral, knowing that irrespective of the content, irrespective of the message they promote, irrespective of the audience they draw, higher numbers will eventually translate into higher advertising revenue.

To their credit, most media organisations in New Zealand followed Ardern in desisting from naming the terrorist.

Traditionally, the victims are commemorated, their names etched into memorials so that we won’t forget.

The terrorists don’t need memorials because we will remember their names.

In urging people to remember the names of the victims and forget the name of the terrorist, to take away the fame he sought, to snub his call for attention, Ardern has evolved a new paradigm in coming down on terror.

Flowers, tears, and small acts of solidarity are important, but temporary.

Erasure is permanent.

By making the terrorist anonymous, we erase him, we erase his plans.

And by calling him a terrorist, we deprive him of the labels he sought, the labels we may condemn but of which he was proud.

No one can be proud of being a terrorist – particularly because, in earning that label, this man has joined the ranks of other men he would not have yearned for association with in any manner.

We may not be able to ban weapons. We may not be able to fall foul of the bigots and their vote banks.

But we can anonymise. And we can label. That is a start.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

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Abhinandan Varthaman: Hero, yes, but victim first

Tokenism won't stop terror attacks

Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols


The legislative dangers of election year

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The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends

The hooligans in our homes

Why the Ambanis should rule India

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com 

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