Kia Kaha: New Zealand shows the world how to face down white supremacist terror
This week, the world became Christchurch. And nothing Donald Trump says can prevent it from happening.
It’s a small city at the bottom of the globe, far away from the metropolises that normally are the targets of terrorism, in a nation that has never experienced a terrorist attack of any kind. Yet even there, it became not just possible but reality: Another angry young white man, ginned up on alt-right memes, pathological self-absorption, and visceral ethnic hatred, struck last Friday. Fifty lives were sacrificed on the altar of white supremacy.
Christchurch is a city with tragedy in its beautiful bones. Strolling its sometimes leafy and garden-like, sometimes barren and stricken streets late last August, I couldn’t help but fall in love with its remarkable resilience. Maybe it comes with being tucked away in the some of the most remote reaches of humanity on New Zealand’s southern half.
The quake-damaged ChristChurch Cathedral is scheduled for a multimillion-dollar restoration project.
Most of the world noticed in February 2011 when the city was rocked by a series of devastating earthquakes that killed 185 people. Among the buildings nearly destroyed in the temblors was the old stone cathedral that gives the city its name. It sits unrestored even to this day, but there are still dozens of sites in the city where the quake’s scars have not been covered back over.
The scars that will remain after the rampage of the Christchurch terrorist (who will henceforth go unnamed) will not be as visible, but they may be deeper. The country has now experienced its first terrorist attack. A city renowned for its courage and strength will have to find reserves it never fathomed it might need.
But in doing so, it may set an example for the world to follow, too.
I was in Christchurch at the invitation of the city’s annual writers festival, Word Christchurch, to talk about the rise of right-wing extremism, as explored in my book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. My lodging was less than a mile from the Al-Noor Mosque, on the other side of the city’s botanical gardens, and I noticed it on my strolls through the greenery, remarking on its pleasing aesthetic and cultural presence.
A wind sculpture in the Royal Botanical Gardens. Arts have played a key role in Christchurch’s recovery from the 2011 quakes.
It felt slightly incongruous, to be honest, because there are probably few places I have visited that seemed less likely to invite a terrorist attack than Christchurch. Its people are, in addition to their resilience and toughness, incredibly kind and generous and open-spirited. Yet it is those very attributes—the spirit of kia kaha, strength through community, the Maori phrase that became the city’s post-quake motto—that white supremacist terrorists seek to destroy more than any other thing.
Perhaps that is why, in defiance of the terrorist’s intent, the world has come to Christchurch’s door in support. Most people in the world see reflections of themselves and their own communities in this small city. We all can see the pain. And so there has been an outpouring of support and offers of help from around the globe, from communities of all colors, all backgrounds. Because we all can see the hate, too—and we know the time has come to take a stand against it.
Donald Trump, however, is not in that number. As always, this isn’t about community or terrorism or white supremacy, in his view. It’s about him.
Monday’s Tweet was a classic: “The Fake News Media is working overtime to blame me for the horrible attack in New Zealand. They will have to work very hard to prove that one. So Ridiculous!” The connection, however, is not terribly difficult to make: The terrorist, in fact, specifically praised the president as a source of inspiration: “’Trump is a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” he wrote in his online manifesto.
Trump, indeed, has had a symbiotic relationship with far-right extremists since at least 2015, one in which he has continually delivered wink-and-nudge signals such as “white genocide” and Pepe retweets, which white nationalists and other bigots have uniformly interpreted as encouragement and inspiration.
More to the point, those extremists have continued to march in Trump’s name: wearing bright-red MAGA hats to far-right street-fighting events, chanting “Hail Trump!” at Charlottesville in 2017, threatening civil war on his behalf to this day. Officials at the White House, as usual, adamantly denied that such a relationship exists after the Christchurch massacre: “The president is not a white supremacist,” said the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on Fox News. “I’m not sure how many times we have to say that.”
In reality, however, Trump’s denials are so anodyne and half-hearted and hollow that no one believes them—particularly not the white nationalists themselves. When Trump denounced white nationalists after Charlottesville, for example, movement leader Richard Spencer openly laughed at it: “Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”