Innocence lost in the Land of the Long White Cloud
“Kia ora” is a traditional New Zealand greeting that means “be well.” The words come from the Maori, a people who migrated to New Zealand early in the last millennium from central Polynesia near Tahiti, which they call Hawaiki in history and legend.
Struck by the beauty of their new home as viewed from the sea, the Maori called it Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
This migration was not a single cohesive wave, but rather a succession of voyages, sometimes in the reverse direction, each completed in a large double-hulled canoe (a waka), and each a monumental feat of transoceanic navigation, completed using the sailors’ knowledge of celestial bodies and the seasonal peregrinations of the whale.
Far from being a monolithic unit, the Maori people embody a varied group of iwi, or tribes, each of whom is thought to descend from a particular waka. The iwi fought among themselves occasionally, and with the arrival of European explorers and settlers, the human tendency to squabble over resources and land continued to boil over into conflict at times — even in this idyllic place that had spent such a long geological epoch doing things its own way that some of the birds decided to get along without wings.
Strikingly, though, New Zealand has demonstrated a historic tradition of getting things done to prevent violence. This was codified in 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi between Great Britain and the iwi, an imperfect document that New Zealanders have spent time, blood and anguish litigating, but one whose fundamental objective was to redress inequity and cultivate harmony among diverse groups.
Which brings us back to kia ora, the Maori expression adopted by all New Zealanders. In its universal connotation of hospitality and friendliness, the saying might reasonably be translated as “Hello, brother.”
It was with these English words that Haji Daoud Nabi greeted a newcomer at the entrance of the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15.
According to Radio NZ, the approaching man then pulled out a gun, and shot and killed Haji Daoud. He entered the mosque where he continued to shoot Muslim worshippers using semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, killing 43. The gunman (New Zealand’s prime minister has requested that the media not name him) then drove to a second mosque east of Al Noor, the Linwood Islamic Centre, and killed seven more people, according to sources.
After being repulsed physically by one of the Linwood members, the gunman drove away, allegedly toward a third Islamic community site where he planned to continue shooting and was arrested forcibly by police.
Witnesses stated that the gunman livestreamed his attack on Facebook while using loudspeakers in his car and in the Al Noor Mosque to play militaristic music glorifying European Christians. The absurdity of this aspect of the killing, allegedly committed by a man who was not a European but did invade New Zealand from another nation, speaks for itself.
I use the word “invade” in contradistinction to the more benevolent word “migrate.”
Invasion is violation and transgression. It means crossing a border and doing harm. It can encompass violence committed on another nation or a population, or thievery of territory, rights, dignity and happiness. It is also a word that gets thrown around metaphorically to incite fear and resentment, the seeds of violence.
Going to a coffee shop and speaking a different language from the barista is not invasion.
Going to another country to leave a trail of litter and boorish behavior while Insta-ing everything in sight to impress your social-media “friends”?
Seizing another nation’s territory and sending a portion of their population to die in concentration camps? Invasion.
Taking a refugee child from his mother’s arms and putting him in a cage? Invasion. Selecting a place for the ease with which one can obtain firearms legally and then going there to produce an action video glorifying the murder of Muslims? Unequivocally an invasion that must be met and extinguished.
This is the great shame of the world. New Zealand has been a land of spectacular scenery, clean waters and safe living. In some ways, it has remained that special house in an arcadian place, a house you’ve imagined or one you might remember visiting in your childhood, if you had a happy childhood: the place where the ground was scented with petrichor, where your grandmother played the harmonica, where the workshop in the garden was filled with fascinating tools. The house where they never thought to lock the door.
Well, now they need to. Like the flightless kiwi and pukeko birds, New Zealanders sometimes journey in quixotic ways, but they get things done, often in distinctly novel and empirical ways — splitting the atom (Ernest Rutherford, 1917), the first ascent of Everest (Edmund Hillary, 1953, with the Nepalese Tenzing Norgay) or setting land speed records aboard ancient motorcycles (Burt Munro, 1960s).
New Zealand has never been a global superpower, but in World War I and World War II, its armed forces got it done militarily, distinguishing themselves in the service of Allies from the shores of Gallipoli to the Battle of Britain.
And now, New Zealand, the first nation to recognize women’s right to vote (1893), can get it done legislatively. In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has accomplished several things.
First, she asked listeners not to dignify the gunman’s identity or professed cause by naming him or according him unwarranted attention. The prime minister also emphasized the role of social media in this murder. In so doing, she recognized that third millenium violence has climbed onto a platform propped up by crowd attention, and enjoined the world — all of us — to take responsibility for the soul-rotting night soil that we waste our lives pursuing, viewing and promoting on social media.
Next, the prime minister announced that the country would ban semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, a move confirmed in her Cabinet and supported by both major parties.
This exercise elicited soul-searching in both wings. The left-leaning Labour Party second-guessed how the gunman’s orchestrated act might have been detected and prevented. The conservative National Party also supported the ban, with its leader, Simon Bridges, calling it “imperative in the national interest,” while acknowledging potential objections to tightening gun-safety laws.
Speaking from the middle of the road, I understand the value of guns as a tool for sportsmen, hunters and farmers, and recognize both rural and urban citizens’ desire to protect themselves. Conversely, I agree with both Ardern’s statement and Bridges’ acknowledgment that no ordinary citizen needs military-style assault weapons — not as a birthright, a lifestyle accessory or a means to feel stronger because he can blast a maximum number of bullets into another person.
What is encouraging about this soul-searching is that it was accomplished within a few days, without partisan finger-pointing and character assassination.
Maybe this question isn’t so sticky at all; it’s just been made that way by fear-mongering media outlets and lobby interests so entrenched that legislators on both sides of the political aisle are too afraid to discuss it without calling each other names. Agree with it or not, New Zealand’s leaders saw that something had to be done, and they did it.
Finally, Prime Minister Ardern got out among her citizens and made a concerted effort to join and greet Muslims where they live, work and worship. In so doing, she brought Maoris and New Zealanders of European extraction with her; in Wellington, citizens formed a human chain to encircle the Kilbirnie Mosque during prayers.
In the days to come, this event will fade from the global news channels, and the fund of Facebook froth will be diverted to spray gasoline on some other burning disaster, scandal or “emergency.” But let us hope that the citizens involved will remember their fellow Kiwis’ message and keep hearing it, passing on kia ora: “This is not what New Zealand is about. This is your home and we want you to be safe.”
Because when the world is burning, I can’t think of anything more life-affirming than having someone who looks, thinks and sounds differently from me walk up and say, in any language, “Hello, brother.”
Jeremy Beer is a human-performance researcher and writer living in San Antonio.