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New Zealand -- confronting complacency

Massacre will bring dramatic changes to protect multiculturalism

"The worst of the world has visited our shores and we'll never be the same again," Winston Peters, New Zealand's foreign minister, said in response to the March 15 shooting that killed 50 people at two mosques in the southern city of Christchurch.

The massacre allegedly perpetrated by Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, is prompting calls by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and others for a drastic overhaul of the country's strikingly lax gun laws, including possibly banning semi-automatic weapons.

But the killings are also rightly forcing New Zealanders to consider much broader questions about the role of the security services, white extremism, social media, and the future of the country's much-vaunted multicultural society.

Many of us have long known there is a darker underside to New Zealand, obscured by the rosy image it often projects. In particular, the government is now being accused of persistently ignoring local white extremists while the police and intelligence authorities focused on external jihadist movements.

Muslims and other minorities have frequently complained about abuse and occasional low-level racist violence as well as social media trolling. They say the authorities did not take them seriously.

In comments directly after the shooting, Ardern asked how a self-proclaimed white supremacist, living in the small university town of Dunedin, spent two years plotting his attack without being noticed by the police or intelligence authorities. Questions have been raised about how Tarrant passed background checks for licenses to buy five guns, including two semi-automatic assault weapons.

The answer will likely be that New Zealand's gun licensing system is under-resourced, and administered by an overworked police force. Three government attempts to tighten a system which requires gun-owners to register themselves, but not their guns, have failed. There is no official data, for example, on how many firearms New Zealand has or how many weapons each of the 250,000 gun owners might possess.

An armed policeman stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque, where one of two mass shootings occurred, in Christchurch on Mar. 16.   © Reuters

There are now belated calls for the country to follow the example of Australia, which imposed tough restrictions on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and launched a mandatory buyback of such guns after a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania.

Meanwhile, critics have justifiably claimed that the New Zealand security establishment became fixated on possible jihadists -- especially, following the U.S. lead, after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Home-grown white supremacists have been overlooked. The police and intelligence organizations also appear to have spent time spying on local environmentalists, advocates for indigenous Maori rights, and groups calling for the independence of West Papua.

A New Zealand security analyst, Paul Buchanan, director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a private company, says that while New Zealand's intelligence services have focused overwhelmingly on Islamic extremism, right-wing extremists in Christchurch have been "very visible, very vocal" and have regularly carried out attacks on minority communities.

Although Tarrant was not on any watch list, he had been active on social media. He posted images of his weapons on Twitter two days before the attack. He also posted ahead of the attack a 74-page manifesto, "The Great Replacement," that blamed immigration for the displacement of whites in Oceania and elsewhere. This all went unnoticed by authorities. Minutes before Tarrant launched his attack, he emailed the manifesto to Ardern's office, other lawmakers and the media.

New Zealand has anti-hate speech laws, but they are weak and seldom enforced. The government may now need to put more resources into controlling hate speech, while also maintaining its commitment to free speech.

Christchurch has been a brutal lesson that the protection our isolation once offered is disappearing and New Zealand is now part of the "real world," as one commentator put it. This might well mean increased domestic surveillance, more draconian security measures and other infringements of our freedoms.

We give loud voice to our multiculturalism. As Ardern puts it, it is part of who we all are. But now we will have to pay an as-yet-undetermined price to maintain the identity we say we believe in.

In my own multicultural family -- we often dine with four cultures at the same table -- we naturally feel proud of the country's openness and socially inclusive policies. Now a combination of complacency, hubris and ignorance has helped the country to miss the lethal currents of resentment flowing through some elements of the white population.

New Zealand's population of 4.8 million people includes 200 ethnicities, 160 languages and around 60,000 Muslims, most of whom are ethnic Indian migrants from Fiji. Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, is expected soon to have a majority non-white population due to growing numbers of Chinese, Indians and Pacific Islanders.

The mood in Christchurch has been unsettled since an earthquake in 2011 killed 185 people, destroyed much of the city center and left residents worried about poor housing and uncertainty about reconstruction. Experts should examine how much this social discontent has fed support for the small local group of skinhead white supremacists.

The mosque shootings have highlighted our naivete. Christchurch's main rugby team, for example, is called the Canterbury Crusaders, complete with a logo of a medieval knight of the kind who fought against Muslims.

While tens of thousands of New Zealanders have joined prayers and weeping, and feel pride at Ardern's public manner, concrete government action has yet to come.

There is little doubt that in the wake of the massacre, the country will demand drastic action to protect its treasured diversity. New Zealand's small hunting gun lobby will complain about new firearms controls, but it is incomparably weaker than its U.S. counterpart.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand intelligence agencies must stop deferring to the U.S. and focus on our country's own priorities, including intercepting white rights groups. It is not Islamic State that is roaming the streets of Christchurch and killing innocent people.

We New Zealanders who live multi-cultural lives, and want our grandchildren to share its joys, should see it as our duty to protect our diversity and multiculturalism. After all, if it cannot work in a remote but democratic and open country it is not going to work anywhere.

Michael Field is a New Zealand-based writer.

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