UPDATE: Since this story went to press, an explosive device was found in Christchurch, which caused no injuries but resulted in the arrest of a 33-year-old Christchurch man. In addition, the death toll from the Sri Lanka bombings was lowered to over 250 people.
When we initially approached the Embassy of New Zealand for an interview several months ago, the goal was to highlight an island nation that many Americans only know of as the fantastical backdrop for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. As managing editor, I try to switch up covers between timely profiles driven by the crisis of the day (such as Venezuela in the April issue) with profiles of lesser-known countries that enjoy relative stability and therefore tend to fly under the radar.
But then, tragedy struck, catapulting New Zealand into the news and shattering its sense of security.
On March 15, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old white supremacist from Australia, went on a shooting rampage that killed 50 Muslim worshippers in two mosques in the tranquil city of Christchurch. The dead ranged in age from 3 to 77 and hailed from all walks of life. Among them was a beloved heart doctor, a high school student with dreams of becoming a footballer and a Syrian refugee who came to the country to escape the violence in his own. Many victims had spent decades making a home for themselves in New Zealand after emigrating from places as diverse as Afghanistan, Egypt, Somalia, India and the UAE.
The grisly murders played out in real time on social media thanks to a camera mounted atop the shooter’s helmet to maximize the bloodshed. The video — in which Tarrant pumps himself up with a mix tape to “get this party started” — went viral before social networks could stamp it out. He also posted a 74-page manifesto ranting about everything from white genocide to sarcastic memes.
The massacre shook the 4.7 million people of New Zealand, which is home to a small, unassuming population of 50,000 Muslims, including 3,000 in Christchurch. But it also reverberated around the world, exposing the scourge of xenophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry and the cesspool of extremism incubated by the internet.
While the attack revealed that terrorism is not specific to one religion, it demonstrated the enduring power of religious hatred to fuel radicalism and violence. On Easter Sunday in April, a coordinated series of explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed over 320 people. As of press time, authorities speculated that the bombings were carried out by a local Islamist militant group — whose “fighters” the Islamic State claimed as their own — in retaliation for the Christchurch mosque shootings. If true, the carnage in Sri Lanka and New Zealand serve as a sad reminder of the deep-seated religious and ethnic tensions that can erupt at any time in any part of the world.
Nearly a month after the Christchurch attack, we spoke to New Zealand’s ambassador to the U.S., Rosemary Banks, who said her countrymen are still trying to process their sadness and shock.
“I think the mood is still quite subdued,” she told us in an interview at her residence. “I think we’re still coming to terms with what’s happened, and that’s going to take a while.”
A 40-year veteran of New Zealand’s foreign service, Banks has served as ambassador to France and Portugal. She was also her country’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York and to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
While the ambassador, who speaks softly in calm, measured tones, has not served in dangerous hotspots, she is no stranger to crisis. Banks coordinated the emergency responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bali bombings and the South Asian tsunami, developing a new emergency response system and guidance manual for New Zealand.
But the carnage in Christchurch — at the hands of man, not Mother Nature — hit close to home for the New Zealand native and her colleagues. “It’s been a hard time at the embassy,” she told us.
Banks said she was particularly moved by the stories of people who put their lives at risk to stop the shooter, including Naeem Rashid, a 50-year-old Pakistani-born teacher who tried to tackle the gunman before being shot and killed (his son was also killed). The Pakistani government announced it would give Rashid a posthumous national award for his bravery.
What also resonated with her and her fellow Kiwis, Banks said, is the leadership their prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown in the wake of the crisis. Banks said she has been “both reassuring the nation but at the same time reaffirming the values that we must defend — that we must not feel that this dreadful event, horrific as it was, can somehow change us.”
The killings thrust the 38-year-old prime minister into the unfamiliar glare of the global spotlight. Previously known for being the world’s youngest head of state and only the second to give birth while in office, Ardern was occasionally referred to as the anti-Trump for her progressive, collaborative approach to politics that focused on kindness, not combativeness.
But she quickly earned worldwide respect for her empathetic yet defiant and decisive response to the shootings. She never once hesitated to label them an act of terrorism, unlike the prevaricating that so often happens when the perpetrator is white and not Muslim. She refused to say the shooter’s name to deprive him of the notoriety he so desperately craved. And she donned a black headscarf as a sign of respect when she visited members of the Muslim community.
In fact, photos of Ardern embracing grief-stricken family members and listening to their concerns — a panged expression on her face — went viral, serving as a stark counterpoint to the video of Tarrant methodically slaughtering as many people as his magazine rounds would allow.
“Everybody has felt that she handled it with a wonderful combination of professional calm and a degree of personal emotion and empathy,” Banks said, noting that many Muslim governments have commended Ardern’s actions.
Beyond the rhetorical show of support, however, Ardern has delivered concrete results. Just six days after the shooting spree, she announced a nationwide ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons, assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and related modifying parts. The proposal met little resistance and on April 10, it passed parliament in an overwhelming 119-1 vote. Gun owners will now have until the end of September to hand in their firearms through a buyback program before the amnesty period ends.
“I could not fathom how weapons that could cause such destruction and large-scale death could have been obtained legally in this country,” Ardern, holding back tears, told lawmakers.
In one fell swoop, the prime minister accomplished a feat that would be unimaginable in the United States, where thoughts and prayers have become the token response to the recent spate of mass shooting in Parkland and elsewhere. While those shootings increased calls for gun reforms in the U.S., the National Rifle Association still maintains a powerful grip on lawmakers, resulting in continued inertia.
But Banks cautioned that while New Zealand has an active gun culture — roughly 250,000 New Zealanders own between 1.2 million to 1.5 million firearms — it does not have the equivalent of the NRA.
“We don’t have a gun lobby that has anything like the prominence that the NRA has here,” she said, noting that the country does have sporting organizations that may oppose gun control on hunting grounds. “But we haven’t reported any major resistance.”
Despite the passage of gun reform, hurdles remain. Only a tiny fraction of firearms is registered in New Zealand, meaning it is virtually impossible to track who owns what firearm and whether they’ve turned it in.
The government is now working to put a national registration system in place. Banks also pointed out that New Zealand already had stringent background checks, but she said the Christchurch massacre was the catalyst to enact tougher gun reforms that had stalled for years.
The recent legislation is also unique in that it focuses on capability, not just specific classes of weapons, as Damien Cave and Charlotte Graham-McLay pointed out in a March 20 article for The New York Times in which they wrote that this approach could amount to a new global standard “because it could include weapons and accessories not yet developed.”
The New Zealand massacre could also prove to be a seminal moment in tackling one of the most pressing yet perplexing dilemmas of our time: whether — and how — to control the internet to prevent extremism and violence.
The shooter lived in a fanatical online world where hate ran rampant. He announced his attack on an anonymous messaging board known as 8chan, a cauldron of extremism where users applauded the Christchurch killings and even posted the addresses of other religious centers that should be targeted.
Many experts say sites like 8chan should be treated no differently than the jihadi forums used by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to radicalize and recruit disenfranchised, angry young men. That would entail closely monitoring and possibly shutting down incendiary sites.
After the Christchurch attack, New Zealand and Australia temporarily blocked access to 8chan and other sites that were spreading video of the bloodbath, but experts say this is akin to a game of whack-a-mole because whenever one site is shut down, another one pops up in its place. Not only could this tactic be ineffective, it may be counterproductive because it forces users to go deep underground where law enforcement cannot track them.
Any talk of censoring the internet also invariably brings up the debate over free speech versus public safety.
But Ardern says she hopes the Christchurch massacre galvanizes the international community to come together and curb the spread of radicalism online. “It cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility,” the prime minister said of tech giants, which she doubts are willing to self-regulate at this point.
The ambassador said the issue “is exceptionally complicated” and admitted that she herself does not know enough about it to determine whether tech companies are capable of policing themselves or what form of government regulation is needed. But, she said, the complexity of the debate is no longer an excuse for avoiding it.
“We are an open, democratic society, as you are, so you can’t go too far toward controlling freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” she told us. “But at the same time, as the prime minister has recognized, we see examples of people who have been radicalized in quite a short period by [the internet]. It doesn’t seem acceptable to just keep turning a blind eye to that and say, ‘Oh well, it’s too difficult to do.’”
Banks noted that Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, could serve as a global model for creating a framework for data privacy and internet accountability.
“It’s a challenge that our societies have not confronted before,” Banks conceded. But she said that’s exactly why her prime minister insists that the international community unite to address what is a worldwide problem.
If anyone could be a global advocate — and disruptor — for change, Ardern seems to fit the bill.
After her election as leader of the Labour Party in 2017, winning on a campaign based on “relentless positivity,” a wave of “Jacindamania” swept the country. Ardern even captured international attention not only for giving birth while in office, but for bringing her newborn baby to the U.N. General Assembly last September.
Ardern has also attracted attention for her emphasis on kindness in politics — a sharp contrast to the combative, divisive tactics embraced by right-wing populist parties that have attacked immigrants and minorities.
“In New Zealand, Ardern’s commitment to fighting child poverty and homelessness has come as a relief after years of relentless increases in both,” wrote Helen Clark, Ardern’s predecessor, in a recent essay for Foreign Policy. Among other policies, Clark praised Ardern for passing a family tax package that’s forecast to significantly reduce child poverty by 2021; offering refuge for 150 refugees stranded in Australia-run detention camps; and ending new permits for oil and gas exploration in New Zealand’s waters in an effort to combat climate change.
Banks said that slashing child poverty — which the prime minister has pledged to cut by half over the next decade — will be one of the main pillars of the budget, along with improving living standards; reducing domestic violence; lifting the economic performance of Māori and Pacifica peoples because they lag behind the national average; and addressing climate change.
On that note, Banks said climate change is a critical issue for New Zealand and the Pacific island region as a whole given its exposure to extreme weather events.
For example, she noted that New Zealand recently experienced severe bush fires in an area where none had ever broken out before. “The pattern of drought and relief from drought is also changing and speeding up — in other words more frequent drought. And all the messages to the farming community are to become more resilient, to look at better ways of water management and pasture management. So there is definitely a built-in assumption that we’re going to have to deal with more of this.”
The island nation is also instituting a raft of other ambitious initiatives. It already relies heavily on renewables and is committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. There’s also a plan to plant 1 billion trees over the next decade to sequester carbon emissions. “So the focus of the government is both trying to suck up some of the carbon that we’re producing while at the same time trying to reduce it,” Banks said.
“We’re also very active in climate change research in agriculture,” she added, noting that New Zealand began a global alliance of around 60 agriculture-producing countries, including the U.S., to tackle the issue. “And we’re looking at different sectors of agriculture that produce greenhouse gases, everything from livestock to rice paddies, and trying to work together and have our scientists well connected to find solutions because agricultural is a big area that’s difficult to address.
“We have been loud proponents of more vigorous, more rapid international action for decades now. So it’s both a concern for ourselves and our near neighbors.”
While most countries are moving forward on their commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Paris climate change agreement, one country is noticeably absent from the effort: America.
Banks said that despite President Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark accord, her government continues to work with the U.S. at the state level to coordinate not only on climate change, but also other issues such as housing and transportation. “Most of your states are bigger than our country,” said Banks, who had just completed a visit to California to visit with that state’s Environmental Protection Agency. “California’s economy is bigger than the U.K. and France, so yes, we do cooperate, we do find useful lessons.”
As for action at the federal level, New Zealand, like so many other countries, hopes that the isolationism under the Trump administration — whether it’s on climate change or free trade — is a temporary phenomenon.
“Since America is such an important ally globally and in any multilateral system, I think we’re all happier when the U.S. is inside the tent rather than outside. We hope that the kind of architecture of international relations and of rules that has been constructed over many decades, that it will remain,” she said.
Banks added that the U.S.-New Zealand relationship is an enduring one “irrespective of administrations. It’s been a great friendship over our entire history, which, in fact, goes back to your first consul, who was to sent to New Zealand in 1839.”
Today, the two counties continue to cooperate on issues such as New Zealand’s burgeoning space industry. Banks also made it a point to mention that the U.S. enjoys a small trade surplus with New Zealand and expressed hope that Trump will eventually remove the tariffs he’s imposed on steel and aluminum imports.
Banks demurred, however, when asked if Trump’s repeated denunciations of immigrants, including Muslims, and his hesitancy to outright condemn white supremacists have contributed to the surge in xenophobia, both in the U.S. and around the world.
“The rise of white supremacists or extremism or any kind of dangerous ideology is clearly a concern, but we’re not getting into trying to pinpoint where that’s coming from or who could help it or not help it,” she replied. “We’ve been quite focused on our own situation and our own responses.”
And part of that response has been to stress that the Christchurch massacre will not threaten New Zealand’s tradition of tolerance and openness. In fact, Banks pointed out that her country is home to some 200 ethnicities and 160 languages, “which is not what people typically think of when they think of New Zealand.”
A key part of the island’s diversity is its indigenous Māori people, whose rights were enshrined in the Waitangi Treaty signed back in 1840.
Banks said New Zealanders have embraced many Māori values. “And there are two particular Māori values that I think have really shown up in the period post-Christchurch.” One is “manaakitanga,” which she said is “the Māori concept of living with each other in tolerance, respect and caring for each other. The other one is about caring for the natural world in the same way, and that’s ‘kaitiakitanga.’ And those two values are really important in our society.”
Asked what she wanted Americans to take away from the Christchurch tragedy once the headlines inevitably fade in today’s 24-7 news cycle, Banks said, “It would be the message that the prime minister has given — that we take this as a reminder to everybody, not just us in New Zealand but around the world, that we need to redouble our efforts at understanding each other, at counteracting extremism and at being open to differences, whether they’re religious or cultural.”
Banks also cited a comment the mayor of Christchurch made at one of the initial remembrance ceremonies: “She said I’d like us to be remembered for our response, not for the fact that these terrorist attacks happened.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.