By Chris Trotter*
It would be interesting to know how most New Zealanders responded to the “They Are Us” movie project. The prospect of a movie recounting their country’s response to the Christchurch mosque attacks of 15 March 2019 would undoubtedly have evoked feelings of pride in a very large number of New Zealanders. That the central character of this historical drama was to be their own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, would likewise have thrilled a lot of Kiwis. Of equal interest, and perhaps more importance, however, would be some measure of New Zealanders’ reaction to the extraordinary hostility the “They Are Us” project has generated.
Over the space of just a few days, upwards of 40,000 signatures were gathered on-line for a petition opposing the film’s production. Within 48-hours of the project’s announcement, the Office of the Prime Minister felt obliged to issue a statement distancing Ardern from the production and making it clear that she’d had no warning of the film-makers’ intentions. The Mayor of Christchurch, Leanne Dalziel, publicly pilloried the project and curtly informed its promoters that they and their production crew would not be welcome in her city.
What motivated this astonishing outpouring of negativity and resistance? After all, the film’s promoters had made it clear from the get-go that the movie they hoped to make was not about the terrorist attack itself, or its victims, but about how a nation responded an act of unprecedented savagery. Necessarily, the leader of that nation would be at the centre of the narrative because the New Zealand Prime Minister’s handling of the tragedy was a critical factor in shaping the overall response of her people.
It is important to pause here and acknowledge that Ardern’s reaction to the Christchurch shootings was as close to perfect as human-beings get. The world was by turns astonished and uplifted by her words and gestures. Ardern allowed humanity to rise above the evil of the terrorist’s actions. Few politicians are blessed with the skills to make such a contribution. So, why is it that so many have moved with such speed, and so much venom, to prevent this extraordinary story from being translated to the screen – and told again?
Superficially, the explanation is to be found in the film’s critics’ belief that the story of the Christchurch shootings belongs exclusively to its victims. That any work of art that fails to locate the terrorist’s, Brenton Tarrant’s, victims at its heart is not worth making. It is their story: not Jacinda Ardern’s story; not New Zealand’s story; not the World’s story; and no one has the right to make it anything else. As conceived, runs this argument, “They Are Us” reduces the attacks’ Muslim casualties to bit-players in their own tragedy. Tarrant treated them as objects to be used, and now the film’s promoters seem determined to do the same.
In one sense, those who make this argument are quite correct. Without the victims there is not only no story, but also no terror. Tarrant’s act has no meaning without the 51 defenceless Muslim worshippers who fell beneath his bullets. Likewise, without witnesses there can be no horror. Without families and friends left to grieve the dead, no pain. That’s how terrorism works. That’s why terrorism works.
Terrorism cannot be overcome, however, by fetishizing the horror and pain it causes and walling them in with its survivors. The act of terrorism is, by definition, a political act, and its intention is not only to shock, but to numb. The terrorist seeks to engender feelings of helplessness and, like all torturers, is hoping to extinguish hope itself. The evil of terrorism does not stop there, however, because the terrorist is also hoping to incite acts of political vengeance that will, in the long run, advance his cause.
When the followers of Osama Bin Laden flew jet airliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, they all knew that the resulting destruction of life and property would not materially weaken the United States. But, that was never the point. The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to drive America mad: to set her on a course towards disaster and decline; to create a frenzied giant that would end up demolishing its own house. And, if we’re being truthful, they succeeded – beyond their wildest dreams.
Intentionally or inadvertently (it matters little) Tarrant’s terrorism has also successfully distorted the targeted country’s politics. Long before the Christchurch shooter pulled the trigger of his MSSA, there were individuals and groups on the left of New Zealand politics who characterised their country as a deeply immoral colonial state, founded upon and maintained by the principle of white supremacy. Its mostly European citizens, they alleged, were incurably racist, and their primary victims were the indigenous Maori. This systemic racism was not, however, confined to Maori. Xenophobia and Islamophobia were deeply ingrained in the White New Zealand population.
Tarrant’s crime offered those who subscribed to these ideas an extraordinary opportunity to inject them into the bloodstream of the political mainstream. Almost immediately, the Christchurch shootings were represented as the inevitable outcome of New Zealand’s white supremacist culture. A political agenda began to be advanced, which, if implemented in full, will result in the criminalisation of all thought and speech deemed inimical to their extreme anti-racist ideology. Depressingly, a great deal of this extremist agenda ended up in the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry Into The Christchurch Mosque Shootings.
Over the past two years, much energy has been expended on the Left to mask the central fact of the Christchurch tragedy: that it was conceived and executed by a Australian who had been radicalised online and overseas and who chose New Zealand to carry out his attack precisely because it was the least likely location for an act of white supremacist terrorism to be contemplated.
The truth of the latter proposition was demonstrated immediately following the Christchurch attacks by the statements and gestures of Jacinda Ardern, and by the answering outpouring of love and solidarity from the tens-of-thousands of Kiwis who gathered in all the main centres to express their determination to prevent Tarrant’s evil act from defiling and defining their nation. The last thing New Zealand’s anti-racist extremists need now is a feature film which re-tells and re-animates those feelings of love and solidarity.
Those demanding the abandonment of the “They Are Us” project have accused its promoters of using the victims of the tragedy as props in an outrageous attempt to further entrench the white privilege of Prime Minister Ardern, and to marginalise still further the 1.2% of New Zealanders who are Muslims. It is, however, possible to turn that attack on its head by observing that these anti-racist extremists could just as easily be accused of using the victims of the Christchurch shootings as a means of shutting down a cultural project that would show the world just how decent a society New Zealand’s truly is.
It is, quite simply, wrong to insist that the tragic events of 15 March 2019 belong to anything, or anyone, but History itself. Nor should it be forgotten that History lives only in its re-telling. The truth of the events that shape a nation emerges from many voices, many perspectives. The tragedy that unfolded at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques no more belongs to its victims than it does to its perpetrator. It belongs to the whole world. It is us.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.