Horror replaces hope in Christchurch shootings

The Press, Christchurch, N.Z.: It was a day of unimaginably dramatic contrasts in central Christchurch. The morning’s rain cleared in time for a large congregation of high school students who had come to Cathedral Square from all over the city, full of hope that their voices and their well-crafted and clever signs might persuade the adults watching to do something meaningful about climate change.

As a local manifestation of a global movement, the climate strike felt optimistic, positive and even innocent. The kids who made it into the Square were those who had convinced their parents that not only could they make some kind of difference to both the present and the future, but that they would also be safe. Parents always worry, even about kids as smart and motivated as these were.

For an hour or two, those who witnessed the climate strike in person, in Christchurch or in other cities around New Zealand, or even just followed it online and through media, basked in the glow. Maybe the future will be alright after all, they told themselves.

But that feeling was short-lived. Just after 2 p.m., reports came through of a shooting at the Masjid Al Noor‚ã mosque on Deans Avenue. There was a gunman and there were multiple deaths and injuries. The city’s schools went into lockdown and reports emerged that shots had been fired at a second mosque in Linwood. Children and adults who seemed hopeful two hours ago felt sick, nervous and deeply afraid.

Worst fears

As soon as people heard about a mosque, they feared the worst. Those fears were confirmed when what seemed to be a shooter’s manifesto began to circulate online, along with images of weapons and what appeared to be video of the incident filmed by a gunman himself.

The world came to Christchurch on March 15, 2019. We saw the best and the worst of politics and of humanity. We saw hope and optimism, and we also saw mindless destruction.

Only one day before, Green Party co-leader James Shaw had been attacked on his morning walk to Parliament. Reports say that his attacker shouted slogans about the United Nations. Observers of conspiracy theories quickly assumed that the attack had been motivated by growing opposition to the United Nations Migration Pact fed by the racist right-wing extremes of politics.

But Shaw was back at work on Friday morning, gamely sporting a black eye and joining in the climate strike. What happened in Christchurch was much, much worse than that. The manifesto suggested that a shooter had been radicalised by international, anti-Islamic terror movements and saw himself in a growing tradition of white supremacy.

But why here and why now? Our hearts break for the Muslim community of Christchurch who were targeted when they were at prayer. There were around 300 people in the mosque, in the middle of afternoon worship. They had every reason to believe that they could assemble in peace in a country that had welcomed them, and where they should have expected they were a long way from the world’s horrors, the same horrors that some are likely to have fled as refugees.

Instead, the horrors of the world came to them, on an otherwise quiet afternoon in a sleepy city in autumn. This too was a local manifestation of a global movement, but where one had been full of youthful promise, the other was nihilistic and destructive.

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