As the World Watches, New Zealand’s Leader Looks to Unify Her Country

She has sought to become the national healer, and the country is following her lead.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with one of the first responders who was at the scene of the Christchurch mosque shootings.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with one of the first responders who was at the scene of the Christchurch mosque shootings. (Edgar Su / Reuters)

Less than a week after a gunman killed 50 people inside two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the eyes of the world have focused on the country’s leader as she has sought to unify her reeling country.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for a global fight against racism, said that her government will examine what role social media played in the carnage, and on Thursday announced a ban on semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, the kinds of arms the suspect used in the attack. As if following the lead of the prime minister, New Zealanders publicly consoled one another, will stand for two minutes of silence on Friday, and will broadcast the Islamic call to prayer across the nation.

For those bombarded into numbness by headlines in the United States, which is convulsed by partisan politics, or Britain, paralyzed over Brexit, New Zealand’s response has been marked for the unity it has sought to foster. Beyond policy prescriptions, local communities have honored the dead while Ardern has taken on the role of national healer, visiting the mosques concerned; stopping for long, emotional hugs with the grieving; and admitting her own struggles along the way. On Wednesday, for example, she visited a school that lost two pupils in the shootings. A student raised her hand and asked Ardern the one question the prime minister had not yet been publicly asked: “How are you?”

“How am I?” Ardern responded. “Thank you for asking. I am very sad.”

To be sure, the specifics of New Zealand’s response—gun control, a call not to publish the shooter’s manifesto—aren’t replicable in the United States, where the Second and First Amendments protect gun rights and press freedom, respectively. Nor would they be effective in Britain, where, despite the absence of constitutional safeguards, a freewheeling press would rather apologize and settle out of court later than contain itself in the immediate aftermath of such an incident. (Indeed, British outlets published not only the attacker’s manifesto, but also footage from the assault itself.) Yet, over the past week, both of these countries, and the rest of the world, have watched the response in New Zealand in no small part because of how rarely it appears countries come together in this way.

The tone was set almost immediately after the attacks took place. Ardern tweeted, “Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities—New Zealand is their home—they are us.” It was a powerful message that resonates nearly a week after the worst massacre in the country’s modern history. When Ardern met with the families of those killed and injured, she covered her head as a mark of respect. “The prime minister, when she came wearing her scarf, that was big for us,” Dalia Mohamed, whose daughter’s father-in-law was among those killed, told reporters. The response from New Zealand’s citizens has been no less gracious.

“I think leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack has defined New Zealand’s reaction,” Rebecca Wright, the New York–based correspondent for New Zealand’s 1 News, told me. “Jacinda Ardern has met this moment with compassion, with empathy, with love, and also, crucially, she has met it with strength.”

Across the country, New Zealanders, unaccustomed to violence on this scale, performed the haka, the traditional Maori dance that has been made famous by the country’s rugby team. Rival motorcycle gangs came together Wednesday to perform the dance outside the Al Noor Mosque, where most of the killings occurred. “We came here out of respect for the fallen, and that’s why we did the haka; it’s a sign of respect,” Hamish Hiroki, the national president of the Bandidos motorcycle gang, told Reuters. In Auckland, students at New Zealand’s largest Muslim school also performed the haka.

The shootings have also prompted self-examination about racism in the country. “For the first time, New Zealanders are having to confront [that] yes, there is racism that exists in our country; that words matter; that casual racism exists here,” Wright said. “And they’re meeting the conversation head-on.”

Other steps have been taken, too. In the aftermath of the shootings, the country’s three largest broadband providers worked together to identify and suspend sites that hosted video footage of the shooting, in an attempt to limit “the publicity the gunman was clearly seeking.” Executives from the three companies subsequently wrote to the heads of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and urged them to “be a part of an urgent discussion … [to] find the right balance between internet freedom and the need to protect New Zealanders, especially the young and vulnerable, from harmful content.” (But as Jack Shafer wrote in Politico, even routine media coverage of such events leaves little doubt about the shooter’s message.)

And then there is the recently announced ban—arguably the most concrete development to emerge from the shootings. New Zealand has a tradition of gun ownership, but mostly for hunting. Even before Thursday’s decision, dozens of firearms were voluntarily surrendered. The government is also implementing an amnesty period, as well as a buyback scheme that is expected to cost about $140 million. There has been little political pushback against the move, and Parliament is expected to approve it easily when it meets next month. Additionally, said Rosemary Banks, New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, her government will focus on tackling extremism.

“The thing that’s of more long-term concern for us, for you, and for everybody around the world is how to counter the prevalence of this kind of extremist view on social media and the internet,” she told me.

Ultimately, long after all these steps are taken, Ardern, and New Zealand, will have to figure out how to move forward so events like this one don’t recur. As other countries around the world have seen, these are complex issues that lack clear solutions: Gun bans don’t end violence; cracking down on social media does little to deter racism or hatred.

“New Zealand will never be the same,” Wright told me. “But it’s doing all the right things.”