Featured image courtesy Time/Virginia-Woods-Jack

Do you love New Zealand, asked the extremely inebriated young white man and his companion as they suddenly blocked my path at the Octagon, a few weeks after I arrived in Dunedin. Of all the people on the sidewalk at the time, I noticed they only followed me for a while. Not knowing quite how to respond, I said affably that I liked what I had seen so far. Entirely uninterested in my answer, coming closer and with their bodies and fingers arching towards me, they said that they were willing to die for New Zealand and that I needed to know this. Recalling a poet from Sri Lanka who in verse noted that it was far better to live for one’s country, I decided just to smile somewhat incredulously. Satisfied that whatever point they had wanted to make had got through to me, they left and lunged into a wine and beer shop.

Claims of New Zealand’s innocence lost after Friday’s attack in Christchurch need to be tempered with stories that abound around how those who are perceived to be different to or somehow not Kiwi are subject to, every day, the language and looks of condescension, incomprehension and suspicion. Not noticing this othering or not being subject to it is the privilege of those who are, and are seen to be Caucasian and Kiwi. New Zealand is isolated by geography but despite popular belief isn’t as exceptional to be immune from ingrained prejudice and latent racism. Especially in the light of the strong political leadership responding to the attack last Friday in Christchurch, endeavouring to define New Zealand as multicultural and diverse, the acknowledgement of any underlying bias amongst society is arguably hard. Some may argue it is an insensitive or inopportune moment to raise systemic issues, when the more urgent need is to respond to an episode of wanton violence. An argument can be made to pursue both, recognising that longer-term policymaking requires the unearthing of deep-seated anxieties.

I came to the University of Otago to study the role, reach and relevance of social media in political communication. My research is primarily based on Sri Lanka, where I come from and call home. Friday’s events have resulted in the frames and foci of my research, directed more to a city, community and country I never expected would be a primary site of study or analysis. This is personally jarring, but not entirely surprising. White supremacism and fascism, when those terms are employed, are frightening concepts and unfathomable to most. But fear of strangers is more common. It is also shared, present both amongst communities in New Zealand and those who are new immigrants. When channels to address this fear aren’t present – through robust dialogue, sustained interaction, education or official policy – alternative vectors of information come into play and take root. Bizarre but compelling conspiracy theories, demonisation and othering thrive online, amplifying our worst fears by mutating legitimate sources of grievance or anxiety into vast communal or civilizational faultlines, perverting over time any appreciation of diversity and demos.

A document uploaded to the Internet by the killer – a self-proclaimed fascist – is instructive reading on this score. First, the language is simple and clear, even if and indeed, particularly because, the logic is so twisted. The entirely subjective and strategically selective are presented as indubitable fact and authoritative history. Existential concerns about the economy, jobs, and particularly important for New Zealand, the environment, are posited as those immigrants and Muslims, in particular, are to blame for. Islam is singled out as a violent religion. Various purported features of the Muslim community are defined as significant threats to a way of life that predates their problematic, polluting entry. Though the document is anchored to right-wing extremism, what’s remarkable is in how much of it resonates with the anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed by extreme Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist monks in Sri Lanka, and their equivalent in Myanmar. The targets of hate are the same. The unborn, women, children and men, brick and mortar structures as well as Islam itself are identified as threats that need to be eliminated – urgently and everywhere – for the greater good and the survival of a more exalted and antecedent culture, congregation or community.

Aside from the physical and kinetic, the process of othering also happens at scale when communities – and especially the young – are divorced from any direct engagement with diversity yet increasingly connected over social media. In the absence of meaningful interaction between diverse groups, faiths, genders or identities, clusters of the like-minded form online, almost immediately putting up high-barriers to inflows of opinion, information and perspectives that contest or question widely held assumptions. Over time, the illusion of diversity based on only the smallest of divergence supplants a more open discussion that embraces radically different ideas. Author Eli Pariser warned us about this many years ago, noting how algorithmically, our social media accounts feed us what we want to see, instead of what we need to engage with. It is online and by careful design that Friday’s fascist found his most receptive audience. As Washington Post journalist Drew Harwell noted, “The New Zealand massacre was live-streamed on Facebook, announced on 8chan, reposted on YouTube, commentated about on Reddit, and mirrored around the world before the tech companies could even react”. Policymakers who may not even recognise some of the platforms here have a steep learning curve ahead. New Zealand authorities must now pivot an existing intelligence apparatus geared to hone in on the projected threat of Islamic radicalisation, to as or more adroitly pick up signals around the very real presence and rapid spread of white supremacist ideology.

Which begs the question – should the response to Friday be primarily one that is anchored to national security? Coming from Sri Lanka, I sincerely hope not. In my country, legislation purportedly drafted to prevent counter-terrorism has resulted in a convenient framework for successive governments that condones extrajudicial torture and the rampant abuse of human rights, for decades. The slow erosion of civic rights begins, invisibly, with the emotional appeals to protect all citizens or certain groups from violence. And the very technologies that help with identifying threats are also turnkey solutions that increase surveillance. The necessary balance between proportional responses to new and increasing threats and the protection of civil liberties has escaped Sri Lanka, where more parochial and communal interests have held sway. New Zealand’s story, in the months and years to come, must not be this.

Flagged and framed in my social media accounts since Friday is the contrast between a moral and political leadership so visibly present here, yet markedly absent in other countries after a cataclysmic event of this nature, including my own. Terrorism of this scale, speed and scope is new here. Many of who come to and seek refuge in New Zealand are no strangers to much worse and for a lot longer. But what is both remarkably different and since Friday, reassuring, is the language employed by and actions of this country’s political leadership. Faced with an unprecedented loss of life, all official responses – without exception – were anchored to denouncing extremism and fringe lunacy, not communities and faiths present in, or part of, New Zealand. Ironically, it may not even be recognized as exceptional by those living here, but it is precisely that for those of us who are more used to, tired of and frustrated with politicians who are in effect as racist as the terrorists and terrorism they often seek to denounce.

Though profoundly distressed by the events of Friday, I am hopeful that the tragedy will result in local and national conversations which lead to, through policy and practice, social, political and cultural templates for other countries to emulate in responding to, and preventing, terrorism. The encounter at the Octagon fresh into my sojourn in Dunedin was not the only time I have been subject to wary looks and violent language. It is worse for others, identified as belonging to a faith or community that is feared more. The pain of acknowledging this is – more than or at least alongside revisions to legislation around gun ownership – a necessary step towards a country that may never be able to prevent terrorism, but always sees it as entirely alien to its core values, beliefs and principles rooted in decency, dignity, diversity and democracy.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is the Founding Editor of Groundviews. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago. An edited version of this article was published in The Otago Daily Times.