Even as the country was grieving with its Muslim community, a quiet process of revision began. First, a petition by the main opposition party against the UN migration compact disappeared from the web. Then an article by a Christchurch broadcaster questioning whether Muslim women belong in public pools slipped into oblivion. A supremacist website posted a bungling message of sympathy before shuttering itself. All the way in California, the promoters of Jordan Peterson’s tours scrambled to delete a photo taken during a recent visit to Auckland in which he posed with a VIP guest wearing a garishly Islamophobic t-shirt – but not before the page had been saved on the Internet Archive.
Far from passing unnoticed, all of these acts of erasure achieved was to call attention to themselves. At the same time, some of us learned – while for others it was merely a reminder – of the far more serious erasures that occurred in the months and years leading up to the attacks, paving their way: namely, the repeated refusal by agencies and authorities to keep a separate tally of crimes motivated by racism – including recording vandalism against mosques as mere ‘property damage’ – or to take the white supremacist threat seriously, choosing instead to concentrate on classic targets such as Māori radicals (however dubiously defined), environmentalists and assorted leftists, or novel attempts to pay Muslims to spy on their neighbours at prayer.
These are the mundane realities of a country that strives to keep its public racism at the level of a whisper – a country founded on colonial dispossession which thinks of itself far more highly than that, to the point of having to be told that this wasn’t the first act of supremacist mass murder in its history. It was just the first one without the direct backing of the state.
Very much complicit in perpetuating this condition of permanent amnesia is what Auckland University academic David Hall has called over the weekend ‘the abysmally thin liberalism that is enabling hate, especially through its careless commitment to free speech absolutism.’ Most recently – on the occasion of the visit by travelling fascists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern late last year and the clumsy deplatforming of Treaty of Waitangi denier Don Brash by one of our universities – this has taken the form of white intellectual figures insisting we give an audience to racism and the critique of ‘minority privilege’, instead of striving to redress the critical under-representation of Māori and people of colour in public life – which surely constitutes a far greater threat to free expression. As decency is briefly restored and an event featuring Southern and Molyneux gets cancelled on the other side of the world, these figures stand now exposed as integral to the problem, along with the industry that profits from their impoverished notion of free speech.
There is, I think, another factor that contributes to the thin veneer of civility of our public discourse, fuelling the belief that ‘this is not us’: our proximity to Australia. It is not just that we are often guilty of taking perverse comfort in the far more overt, brash racism of its leading political figures, or in the ghoulish comparison of the respective colonial histories. Australia is also the policeman at our border, allowing us to project the image of a diverse, tolerant nation in spite of our very small refugee quota (even accounting for a recent two-fold increase), a strict points-based immigration system analogous to the one that Donald Trump wants to introduce in the United States, and a recent record of actively reducing the intake of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. In 2001, when New Zealand offered asylum to 150 refugees from the Norwegian vessel Tampa kept hostage by the Howard government, it did so within its regular intake of 750 refugees per year: it was an act of generosity that came at no cost. In more recent years, our tacit approval of Australia’s border policies has been repeatedly bought off against the latent threat of boats carrying asylum-seekers which the Australian navy might consider ‘shepherding our way’. Were any of these boats – which may not even exist – ever to come within sight of these shores, I fear that our political and civil institutions would have no answer to the sudden prospect of the first unregulated arrivals since colonisation other than to pattern themselves on the familiar grooves of the Australian ‘immigration debate’. All of the requisite tropes are already in wide circulation. It will just be a matter of turning up the volume.
Other Overland writers will offer their thoughts this week on what true accountability might look like. For now, I just want to echo the call of Faisal Al-Asaad: tomorrow – which by now is today – we organise. And we organise because we know from ample historical precedent that the suspension of the racism industry – the deleted articles, the shuttered websites, the cancelled events – will be an all-too-temporary lull, and that the civilising effects of collective grief won’t last long either. Regular business is about to resume, and so must the struggle for safety and justice.
Image: The Christchurch vigil in Melbourne / photograph by Julian Meehan