OPINION: It's the call I always know is coming after every gun massacre in the United States. Television producers ask the same thing: 'Hey, there's been another mass shooting in the States, can you come in to explain, what is it with you Americans and guns anyway?'
- Gun law changes: What you need to know
- Jacinda Ardern on gun law: New Zealand has been 'blueprint' for 'not what to do'
So I go on air and say: "I cannot explain it." Every single damned time. Because that is the truth.
I have long since given up dissecting the multi-headed Hydra of the NRA, and Congress' fat pockets, and the economic pay-off of online outrage, and kindergarteners who are now supposed to learn how to shoot, and hate speech, and sanity—and, and, and.
None of it makes sense. It has never made sense. In a succinct three minutes, I am supposed to unpeel the onion, layer upon layer, to give— you know, an answer.
Sandy Hook Elementary School, The Tree of Life Synagogue, Parkland High School, an Orlando nightclub, these are names of ordinary buildings which are now national scars that never completely heal for America. Innocent places that out of nowhere turn into a weight on your chest when Kiwi friends turn to me at dinner parties and ask, 'Hey, just what is it with you Americans and guns anyway?'
Then I go back to my perfect house, in my perfect Kiwi suburb of Auckland and pretend that it won't happen here. I pretend, even though I still hesitate before writing a column mentioning I am Jewish knowing what it yields. I pretend that New Zealand's immunity was its relatively isolated geography, its stricter gun registration, its faith in fairness that seems wound into every strand of this nation's DNA.
Yes, I was doing pretty well this week, the American half of me recognising the sickening trajectory of this familiar grief. Until mid-week, when I picked up The New Zealand Herald. The full page headline read, 'Hand in your weapons'.
I sat back in my chair, mute, contained—and without warning— felt tears slide down my cheek. Tears that kept coming too, as the image of a hand holding a candle beneath it blurred. Just four words that hit me like a blow to the stomach, my history exhaled like a punch.
Hand in your weapons.
Hand in your weapons.
Hand in your weapons.
A montage of images, real and imagined, suddenly came flooding into my head. The killer being greeted with 'Hello Brother' when he first entered the mosque. The anguish of an empty bed of a four-year-old. A congregant, Abdul Aziz, throwing a credit card swiper with all his might into the window of the gunman's car.
Watching our Prime Minister on CNN adjust her headscarf around her neck as she demolished questions: "How does it feel being in the same building as the killer?" with her razor focus, "I'm also in the same building as the people bringing him to justice."
A mother with a phone in her hand jumping out of the car in Christchurch traffic to run the last few streets to get to the mosque because her teenage son had stopped talking. A young woman kneeling on the Auckland waterfront sidewalk, adding her chalk words to the messages and hearts sprawled in all directions, silhouetted against giant lettering that read, 'YOU BELONG IN NZ'.
Yesterday our Prime Minister stood on a podium and calmly, succinctly, outlined a new ban on assault weapons in New Zealand within six days of the shooting. Six. Days. She showed more leadership on gun control in less than one week than any American alive today has seen in their lifetime. She proved that compassion can be a political movement. Empathy has power. Even in grief, we became the envy of the world.
Never—ever, in almost thirty years that this nation has been an integral fabric of my life—no matter how much New Zealand can sometimes screw up a good thing, no matter how infuriating our multitude of sins— never have I been more proud, more respectful, more admiring or more grateful to my home country. Or more viscerally angry at my birth nation.
The night of the Christchurch shooting I lay in bed wondering, what is the exact moment when writing hate on a page turns into holding a gun in your hand?
Intellectually, we thought we were smart enough to understand that both are deadly weapons. But it took a twisted murderer, greeted with 'Welcome Brother', to land in our small, peaceful corner of the world to punch it home to us.
Every time media bosses specifically showcase 'controversial' commentators who fan extreme views for the revenue it generates, every time the media calls this killer by his name instead of saying out loud what he is— a 'White Supremacist', every time website hosts do not actively monitor hate-speech, every time our own politicians use immigrants as pawns to win over the quiet xenophobic vote just before an election, or every time American and Australian politicians call refugees 'rapists' and 'terrorists' then lock them in cages we're not allowed to see and then send us 'thoughts and prayers'—We are responsible too.
Our silence is killing us.
Whether hate lives in your head, or is written on a social media wall, or in your finger on any kind of trigger—we can never turn back now. It is our job, our first and never-ending responsibility to help you surrender it. We must weaponise our own voice first.
I cannot imagine the force of the grief of Kiwi-Muslims who have lost someone they love last week, but I can close my eyes at night knowing that our greatest collective revenge was that a murderous White Supremacist became the greatest eraser of hate instead.
I don't know what an entire nation's grace looks like, but I do know I just saw it this week. Choose new weapons, New Zealand. We have work to do.
Tracey Barnett is a Kiwi-American political commentator and columnist based in Auckland.