A letter from David Cumin

23 March, 2019

 

The overwhelming response to the Christchurch terror attack has been, generally, remarkably positive and uplifting and it makes me proud to be a Kiwi.

 

The hundreds of flowers piled high outside mosques, the tens of thousands of people attending vigils, the millions of dollars raised, and the countless tears shed privately and in public attest to not only the deep impact of the horrific attack but also the depth of sympathy and generosity around the country.

 

Kia kaha, Aotearoa.

 

There have also been remarkable acts of kindness that have surfaced in the news and online: from the bystanders who attended to wounded and dying victims, to a truly incredible survivor forgiving and praying for his wife’s murderer only days after becoming a widower. Truly humbling.

 

The whole country rallied together, it seemed, and this was in no small part because of the compassionate and strong leadership shown by our Prime Minister. Ms Ardern didn’t allow herself to be drawn into partisan politics or divisive speeches; but rather held victims close, pledged sensible actions on gun control and an investigation into how our security services could do better. The way Rt Hon Ms Ardern handled the immediate aftermath of the most horrific attack on New Zealand soil only increased my pride in our small nation.

 

In the immediate hours and days following the heinous attack, it seemed as if the whole country was holding up as best as one can. Especially considering many of us didn’t think such an act could or would be committed in Aotearoa. And special thanks must be given to the emergency services, particularly Police who deployed to sensitive sites to keep us all safe from copycat or revenge attacks and the many officers who put in the hours to be visible deterrents and beacons of comfort.

 

The support from overseas is also noteworthy - generous donations from all over the globe poured in and world leaders from allied nations expressed condolences in our hours of pain. The intangible “thoughts and prayers” go much further than some would think. New gun laws will go further to prevent another mass murder and the bipartisan approach in New Zealand’s parliament on this front has been another ray of light in the gloom.

 

Unfortunately, it did not take long for the fringe activists to capitalise on the tragedy and for there to be some extremely concerning actions that play right into the terrorist’s hands.

 

In his manifesto, the terrorist was clear that he wanted to foment division, spark a “backlash”, and pit other extremists against each other.

 

Social media users were quick to oblige. The vilest posts, of course, were far right keyboard warriors who expressed support for the murder and tried to incite more violence. Thankfully, arrests have been made for such incitement. Thanks once more to our Police and security agencies.

 

Following closely behind support for the cold-blooded slaughter of 50 people were the explicit and implicit calls for exactly the backlash hoped for by the terrorist. Leading this charge was Islamic State, issuing a message for followers to act on; and not far behind was Turkey’s President Erdogen, who whipped up hatred with images from the terrorist’s live-stream of his coldblooded mass murder as Turkish representatives landed in New Zealand.

 

Beyond the copycat and revenge attacks, however, there was a disturbing trend among other social media users. While bodies of the murdered had not yet cooled, there were hotheaded comments that suggested there be wholesale censorship of anything considered “far right”. Some social justice warriors even started creating lists of political opponents they believed to be complicit in the mass murder. It was a vile display of spreading the blame and a gruesome form of modern-day McCarthyism. There were even some who supported violence against an Australian senator who expressed unpalatable views and blamed the victims. Assault should never be OK.

 

I am willing to excuse some of that as hot-headed, kneejerk, grief-led outbursts. However, it is not so easily excusable from the media, elected leaders, and respected companies.

 

While journalists simultaneously called for restraint in comment, there were headlines that focussed on the terrorists visit to Israel in his multi-country travels that included Serbia and North Korea, for example. Or the sensationalist reporting of ISIS threats and the apparent attempts to hide previous stories that suggested the Christchurch mosques had links to international terror groups.

 

Some politicians launched into speeches that seemed to blame the attack on all White people and, for some bizzare reason, separated indigenous people from others - just as the terrorist’s manifesto spoke of “invaders”. Some politicians took swipes at political opponents and encouraged the diversion of anger and grief away from the terrorist and onto political opponents; encouraging exactly the division that the terrorist hoped.

 

Meanwhile, internet service providers (ISPs) suddenly decided to be the guardians of morality and censored wholesale websites without consultation and one national bookseller decided to remove copies of Jordan Peterson’s tome (while continuing to sell Mein Kampf, it must be said). Some elected officials of New Zealand gleefully praised these acts and urged followers to report “hate speech” so that the Police might act on people who express ideas contrary to their own; and the Chief Censor has deemed the terrorist’s manifesto is ‘objectionable’ so that anyone owning it or sharing it or quoting it is liable for a fine or jail.

 

The absurdity and danger of these steps cannot be overstated.

 

First, it is virtually impossible - just ask Chinese people living under a totalitarian regime - to completely censor online material. And I would imagine that the majority of the users of the blocked sites are IT-savvy enough to bypass the ISP measures and let others know how to.

 

And whatever means are used to keep the conversations going and connect like-minded individuals are likely to not only be more difficult for our authorities to monitor, but are likely to become more extreme as they are fuelled by conspiracy theories and resentment at being driven “underground”.

 

Most importantly, however, is the effect that these actions have on our democracy. The message sent by banning a book that has sold millions of copies and helped almost as many people (by all accounts) is that the extremists are representative of the mainstream. If "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world" is verboten, but "By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work" is OK, we are in serious trouble.

 

The undeniable message that is also being sent is that anyone who expresses any sentiment that is in any way contrary to the prevailing mob mentality, then you are worthy of censorship and elimination.

 

The danger and hypocrisy of such thinking can best be illustrated by considering the para-factual. Exactly the same widespread blaming and calls for mass censorship were coming from the far right after previous Islamist terror attacks.

 

The extreme-left and Islamists today are acting entirely congruent with the far-right of yesterday.

 

Cooler heads must prevail. This tragedy must not lead to the measures those who are exploiting the murder are calling for. We must maintain our freedoms.

 

Now that families have buried their loved ones, now that the immediate threat of copycat or revenge attacks are over, now that we have all had a little time to digest the events of 15 March, 2019, let us take a breath.

 

New Zealand has changed forever. Our innocence has been taken. But we must remain a liberal democracy. We must fight for the right of abhorrent views to be expressed as long as they do not incite violence. The alternative is much, much, worse because not only will the extremists on all sides become emboldened, but we will all lose important freedoms.

 

We must struggle with ideas - especially when they are distasteful. We must counter the hate with love and better ideas. We must challenge ourselves and others. We must not submit to those who think they know better or those who threaten us with violence.

 

Kia kaha, Aotearoa.

David Cumin