‘There is no community’: slow violence and militant care one year after Christchurch

On the first of January, I woke up to a sky shrouded in a hazy, orange glow. The ominous cloud of smog heralding the new year grew lighter in color over the course of the day, but thicker in that smokey, acrid scent of oblivion, wind-carried thousands of miles from its source. In Ōtepoti/Dunedin, where I was staying, the miasma sent up by the Australian bushfires had finally reached us.

Watching the devastation in real time was horrifying in and of itself, but there’s something profoundly disturbing about the realisation, when it hits and sinks in, of the criminally disproportionate tenses of creation and destruction. To contemplate how myriad ecosystems and ways of life, cultivated and conditioned over millenia, can go up in smoke over the course of weeks is to be faced with capital’s boundless potential for havoc.

This criminality, and that of the ghouls elected by capital as its custodians, becomes all the more repugnant when considering the things it obliterates: the beautiful treasures that unravel and come undone in its wake. In his book, Flight Ways, the Australian philosopher Thom van Dooren reminds us that

… species do not just happen, but must be achieved in each new generation, held in the world through the labor, skill, and determination of individual organisms in real relationships of procreation, nourishment, and care.

Relations of labour, care, and nourishment that come together and gather over an infinity – infinite because relations are unquantifiable, but also because the heirs of a lineage are also bestowed with indeterminate potential. This is the transformative magic lost in what we call ‘extinction’, in all its manifestations:

… a species is always becoming different from, other than, itself. And so what is lost in extinction is not “just” the current manifestation of a flight way – a fixed population of organisms – but all that this species has been, as well as all that its past and present might have enabled it to one day become.

What comes undone and unraveled is a pact embodied by ‘organisms’: a tangle of possibilities held in the world as a promise and an offering from its past of what it could yet be.  

From where I stood near the stern of Te Waka a Māui, the South Island of New Zealand, it was impossible to comprehend this undoing without its mediation through spectacle, whether televised or in the awe of a fiery horizon. Indeed, seldom does the unraveling of our world appear as spectacle, persisting instead in relatively slow decay, unseen and unremarkable. This is what van Dooren calls the ‘dull edge’ of extinction, which is never as sharp or as event-like and spectacular as we might imagine, not least when faced with an inferno. All things, including people, become undone long before the last remaining thread is untangled, and their undoing ripples on in the making and unmaking of other entanglements.

Watching the bright orange fade into a sickly yellow and then a miserable grey, and inhaling the dispersed remainders of things which once held, and held fast, in the world, it was also impossible not to think of Christchurch. I guess that’s one of those things we often group under the name of ‘trauma’, which also stick without letting up, but also without making much in the way of promises or offerings. It’s not a tangle but a void of possibilities, and one that pulls those affected into an orbit of repetition-compulsion. As the anniversary of the attacks draws closer, this slow orbit sends one into a spiral of well-worn questions: what came undone a year ago? And how does it continue to make and unmake us in the slow violence of its unravelling?

On a recent visit to Ōtautahi/Christchurch, I spent time with some of the survivors and the families of victims. I was part of a motley crew of community advocates who were there to hear the stories of those directly affected by the attacks, with the intention of reporting these back in a submission to the Royal Commission Inquiry (RCI). This too was a process with little spectacle, but not without some theatrics, and certainly not without some violence.

Amongst those who invited us into their homes were people who lost their father to the attacks. One of the many elders killed on the day left behind his children – all adults – and their mother, who was in retirement age. As is commonly the case with those affected, however, neither retirement or reprieve was to be had, with many survivors living in varying states of precarity. Whether calculated or not, one of the many consequences of the attacks, and their peculiar circumstances, was the martyrdom and incapacitation of so many breadwinners and carers in the community.   

All the same, retirement plans had been made, and long-deferred dreams of rest and leisure were also among the precious things to survive and mourn the passing of their keeper. These would have formed slowly and painstakingly, over long years spent labouring in precarious and low-paid work. The widow recounted how, in the time leading up to the attacks, she barely had the chance to see her husband: one worked night shifts, the other worked during the day. Dreams nurtured during solitude and stolen moments were now left to wither not in deferral but in impossibility.

‘Sometimes I worry about the old lady: who looks after her now?’, chimed in the son. He was not referring to his mother, but to a neighbour who had become part of their lives. The father, it seems, had become the de facto caretaker of the local community, purely out of his knack for connecting with people and a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others. In the process, he had taken to caring for an elderly woman who, from what I gathered, was left in a state of neglect due to so many of the circumstances one is likely to find in a traditionally working class suburb.

Communities don’t just happen, they are achieved every day, held in the world through the labour, skill, and determination of individuals in real relationships of care, nourishment, and solidarity. This story is not an uncommon one, and we heard different iterations of it in every household we visited: of people working hard to care for one another and to stick together, persisting despite the malevolent spirits of late capitalism. Built slowly and lovingly over time, this underground infrastructure of persistence and survival is a work of constant and careful maintenance, almost always taking its due from what could be given elsewhere, perhaps to those dreams of survival’s beyond. Or maybe it’s a necessary relationship of non-reciprocity between the concrete, quotidian work of persistence and those more ineffable yet more wonderous notions of a gentle, cruisy existence – the one living the other’s death, and dying the other’s life.

A community is always becoming different from, other than itself, and relations of care are always imbued with the promise of being care-free. This is the odd tangle that started unravelling on March 15 and continues to do so now. At a recent gathering of those working in advocacy and support roles, a community mental health worker remarked that things will only get harder over the course of the year. It was a simple yet striking observation which was met by some surprise, but only from those working outside of Christchurch. The cultivation of care and community may have continued unabated, but it’s the promise of its fruition that remains uncertain.

This is the slow, dull edge of violence at work. In countless, unspectacular ways, the devastation wrought on that day has been enabled and allowed to unfold, only without mediatisation or discursive recourse to an individual perpetrator. From neglect by state agencies entrusted with the community’s care and wellbeing, to the institutional incompetence of the RCI itself, to the structural inability of Muslim organisations to advocate and organise, there has been no shortage of forces actively working to erode relations of care, trust and solidarity.

Asked about the support he received from the community, one survivor, who was severely injured in the attacks, responded immediately and with a little impatience and incredulity: ‘there is no community’. His was not the only story that conveyed this sentiment.

There is no community. I don’t get the sense that we often enough take such observations seriously, despite the clamour about amplifying and centering the voices and stories of those directly affected. There seems to be an unspoken accord, fuelled not least by a collective ableism, that such remarks can only be the abdications of people debilitated by injury, trauma, and despair. But what if we took ‘there is no community’ seriously as a challenge to reconsider our received wisdom about community and care? What if accepted it as an invitation into a different tense and temporality, one which accounts for the pacing of violence as it slowly and invisibly makes and unmakes our worlds?

In his exceptional work on ‘slow violence’, Rob Nixon suggests that one of its key characteristics

… derives largely from the unequal power of spectacular and unspectacular time. In an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow violence is deficient in the recognizable special effects that fill movie seats and flat-screen TVs with the pyrotechnics of Shock and Awe. Instead, chemical and radiological slow violence is driven inward, somatized into cellular dramas of mutation, into unobserved special effects.

Van Dooren takes this as a cue to explore the slow and unspectacular violence of plastic as a ‘hyperobject’ of ecocide: a material that is both more widely distributed across time and space than those forms of life it affects – often fatally – and endowed with a durability and longevity likely to outlast the very eco-systems in which it circulates. If we follow the slow violence of March 15 a little further, we might find our way out of the hall of mirrors, with its revolving routines of media sensationalism and courtroom hearings, and into those ‘cellular dramas’ where the interiors of raced bodies become a medium for the hyperobjects of genocide.

Like many survivors of mass shootings across the world, some of those injured on March 15 become haunted in the most visceral of ways. A foreign, invasive presence makes its home within the body of its victim, as bullet fragments and shrapnel are lodged therein. Often left intact by surgeons for fear of causing harm upon removal, these fragments persist as re-traumatising rem(a)inders of the day of violence. However, it has also become clear that the objects become active agents in the continued breakdown of bodily and physiological integrity. Since the material most commonly used in the manufacture of ammunition is lead, bullet fragments often break down and make their way into the bloodstream as an active and potentially fatal toxin, freely circulating within the body and poisoning survivors over extended durations of time, sometimes only manifesting notable symptoms after the lapse of several years. These symptoms, moreover, are barely distinguishable from those of common illnesses, and thus fatigue, headaches, and nausea sometimes go undiagnosed and untreated.

Survivors therefore experience slow violence driven inwards, into unobserved and undetected effects of gradual unraveling. Nixon goes further in his understanding of the process, considering another of its temporal implications:

From a narrative perspective, such invisible, mutagenic theater is slow-paced but open-ended, eluding the tidy closure, the narrative containment, imposed by the visual orthodoxies of victory and defeat.

Like plastic, lead itself is a hyperobject that may dissolve or disperse without actually disappearing. For those in whose bodies it resides, this effectively obfuscates any guarantees of when, if ever, full recovery can be had. One would therefore be hard put to find any correspondence between the temporal experiences of survivors and those of spectators. As one person put it, reflecting on his injury: ‘I’m alive but I’m also killed’. There is no easy parsing between the tenses of life and death here.

Where this slow, invisible violence is at work, it may be worth questioning the established space-time coordinates of post-Christchurch politics. Are spaces of hyper-visible and hyper-speed discursive agitation the only sites of political agency or ‘advocacy’? Are linear and even temporalities of foreseeable recovery and ‘tidy closure’ the only, or the ideal, frames for our narratives?

More importantly, what do we lose when we stake our politics on notions of agency as a kind of inflated, fully-fledged, and sovereign ego? I’ve noticed how many of us – both those whose identities are tied to those of survivors, and those immersed in the worlds of organising and advocacy – are swept up and motivated by notions of the able as the advocate, so often out of a sense of responsibility due to ‘having’ power and privilege. Just as often, moreover, out of a sense of responsibility to ‘the community’: that nebulous thing, always elsewhere, always in a different time, and whose phantasmatic presence persists at the expense of those things which actually bring people together in the present. Spectacles of violence enjoin us to imagine ourselves as spectators in one moment, and saviours in the next. In pursuit of such a fantasy, so many of the relations of trust, care, and solidarity that sustain us have come undone over the course of a year.

There is no community. What might it be to accept this for the wisdom that it is, and with it a testimony to the unraveling of so many of our fantasies? What might it be to take this as an opportunity to reconsider what counts as agency and which agencies count in the face of slow violence? What might it be to reimagine the possibilities now placed before us, and which have come together even as so much has been unmade?

Artwork by Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

There is no community, because communities don’t simply exist, they are achieved every day through relationships of care, love, and solidarity. These relationships often persist in unseen and unrewarded ways, between people whose resilience and persistence is not necessarily or only motivated by promises of justice or recovery, let alone the good life, but perhaps and simply the possibility of being and doing things together. In times of extinctions, pandemics, and rampant violence, spectacular and unspectacular, in a moment in which capital’s ultimatum is between fast living and slow death, there is something profound about the work of survival: the slow, painstaking labour of keeping things alive and together without any guarantees of their remaining so, and of caring, resolutely and militantly caring, with few promises of becoming care-free.

As I write, March 15 approaches and with it a host of memorial events and services. I think about this and the words of one survivor immediately come to mind. Asked what he thought about the upcoming memorials, he reflected on the martyrdom of his friends and then replied, quite simply: ‘They both became shaheeds inside the mosque’. What do memorials do if not seek to provide testimony to the memory of the deceased and the grief of their loved ones? Yet for many in our communities this is superfluous, since martyrdom is its own form of testimony: to become a ‘shaheed’ is to quite literally bear witness.

A community is always becoming different from, other than, itself. Is this one of the things that the shuhada, the martyrs, bear witness to? Did they bear witness to things made and unmade? In our faith, we know that our martyrs preside over our lives, making themselves present in it. What do we gain by inviting their presence and honouring their testimonies?

What might it be to quietly, gently, and invisibly bear witness instead of spectating? What might it be for a community to become other than itself by drawing in its dead and enfolding them into its life, with all the possibilities that only the dead can teach us to perceive and pursue? And what might it be to consider that it is survivors who embody this: who are keepers of a sacred pact in which the pasts of our communities are not just the things lost or left behind, but are also the promises of what we could yet be, and perhaps never really were?

I write these lines and I’m aware of something superfluous as well. ‘What might it be’ is a poor representation of the fact that, in all the best and most extraordinary of ways, these promises, possibilities, and testimonies are always already gathering and being held together, and in the safest of hands. With this in mind, an amendment seems appropriate. I wrote earlier that some dreams are left to wither not in deferral but in impossibility. I wanted to rewrite this to more responsibly reflect on the gendered economy of care and hope, but decided instead to leave it there as a trace of something – perhaps the gendered quality of despair.

Regardless, anyone who spends any time with the community of survivors in Christchurch will be awe-struck by the tenacity and resilience of the widows of the martyrs. Few of these women have been allowed to keep their stories as their own: the past year has seen them having to share these on countless occasions, and often to complete strangers. One widow we spoke with recounted the night of the attacks when, having arrived at the hospital to find her husband, she was made to relive the preceding day dozens of times at the repeated requests of medical staff. Eventually, and at the onset of fatigue and panic, she had a heart attack and was hospitalised for two weeks.

This is the work of keeping stories alive: difficult, gruelling labour, testing every fibre of one’s being. It is through the tireless work and generosity of these widows that our communities are bequeathed with the stories and testimonies of the dead, with all the possibilities and promises of care and community that they hold. This is how dreams and hopes don’t wither in impossibility, but continue to be cultivated and nurtured, infinitely.


Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

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