Led by an awesome leader, New Zealanders have shown the best of the human race in the face of an unspeakable, heart wrenching, diabolical crime. The citizens of the land of the long white cloud have met cowardly terrorism with courage, stared down hatred in the face, and have chosen to embrace goodness rather than be baited by evil.
They have disarmed fear, and have joined arms in solidarity with those who were targeted by the cowards who mowed down even children.
Make no mistake, it was a crime of such deep loathing for another, of such intense revulsion, that it could not but shake our very belief in who we are. It makes us question if we can rise above such a profound act of contempt for fellow human beings, and not react in kind.
The answer is yes, we can. But more importantly, we have to, even as we seek to meet the act of destruction with an equal force of punishment for the perpetrator and his conspirators.
And New Zealanders – from young students to bikers – have shown us how to do this, even as they mourn those who did nothing but live their lives the best they could in a land which was and is their home.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, first among equals, epitomised the very best of us as humans, from the very first moments when news of the attack on the mosque in Christchurch broke. It was an incident no one, especially in New Zealand, expected to happen. Yet, calm in her shock and dignified and firm in her reaction, Ms Ardern led.
Her people needed her, and she was there. She wore a black headscarf as a simple show of respect as she visited the loved ones of the 50 victims, holding the grieving in her arms, embracing them as a friend, sharing their sorrow, offering words of comfort to mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, of those whose lives were snuffed out within the sacred walls of the mosque on the Muslim day of prayer.
“To the families, we cannot know your grief but we can walk with you at every stage,” she said in Parliament after the shooting. “We can and we will surround you with aroha, love, manaakitanga, kindness and all that makes us us.”
Later at another event, she said:
“You will have heard me say in the media that, yes, this is an event that has happened in Christchurch, that this has happened to our Muslim community. But you are us. So we feel deeply in our hearts what has happened to you. We feel grief. We feel injustice. We feel anger. And we share that with you.”
Ms Ardern described the act in a way that other leaders around the world would not, when the perpetrator is a white person, as it is in this case.
“It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” she said at a press conference.
As for the terrorist who carried out the murders, she said:
“You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
And swiftly, she promised that New Zealand would change its gun laws “within 10 days”. Indeed, just 6 days later, Ms Ardern announced that all assault and semi-automatic weapons were banned with immediate effect.
And in Parliament, she opened her remarks with the Islamic greeting “Al-Salaam Alaikum”. It was a remarkable hand-to-heart to her Muslim community, a subtle message that they remained in her thoughts as they prepared for the burials of the dead.
“Peace be upon you, and may peace be upon all of us,” she said.
Yet, she is but one person, a fact which she is all too aware.
Speaking to students of the Cashmere High School a few days after the incident, she urged students to be involved in making the online space one where racism does not hide in. “I cannot do this by myself,” she said.
Her message should resound all over the world, as we grapple with the hate-filled rhetoric of some, such as the president of the United States, Donald Trump. Too often, their words and actions are given broad publicity, which then leads to small groups of people and individuals taking note and acting on them.
The New Zealand shooter, who himself is from Australia, had mentioned Donald Trump as some sort of apparent inspiration for his hatred.
Here in Singapore, one of the things which we are thankful for is the relative harmony of the different races and religious groups living together, side-by-side, and long may that be so.
But we also have to be aware that among us, there are those who would think like this terrorist in Christchurch thought. There are those who see Donald Trump as some kind of genuine leader whom they should adore, or worship.
What can, should, we do?
The best way to ensure that racist or religious hatred are not allowed to fester is to open communication and dialogue with those around us. And to be alert to false rumours and propaganda (especially online) from those (here and abroad) who would like nothing than to see societies torn apart by their seeding of fear and distrust.
The 7 billion in the world are peace-loving, peace-seeking people who want to live together as a global community. We will always have our differences, but these must not lead us to have such deep and intense hatred for our fellow men and women that we would resort to such violence to have our way.
We must also be aware that those who would act with such violence are the minority, and not allow them to dictate who we are, or that we should accept their misguided and dangerous ideas.
Instead, we must follow the example of Ms Ardern and many like her, and do the opposite of what racists like Donald Trump and cowards like this shooter want us to do – and show that there is a better way ahead, for us to live in peace with one another, in brother- and sisterhood, with understanding, honest communication, and extended hands of friendship, no matter what our race or culture, religion or belief system.
Ms Ardern has shown what hate-mongers like Trump are simply unable to show – leadership which unites.
Let us learn from the New Zealand Prime Minister, and not be discouraged by those who sow hate. Their deeds may temporarily stun us, but they can also make us stronger.