Defeating terror with the strength of kindness

I am hugely impressed with what New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, did after the horrific terror attack in Christchurch on 15 March. She told us – and the world – that New Zealand utterly rejected what the gunman had done and stood for. It would not be allowed to change New Zealand’s way of life.

Too right. People like him should not be given a platform. Or a profile. Nor should such people – still less the fear of them – be allowed to change a country’s attitudes and belief systems. Particularly in New Zealand, which is one of only a few true democracies in the world, and one of just a handful actually set up that way from scratch.

Parliament buildings and grounds on 19 March 2019. Flag on the ‘Beehive’ is also at half-mast, I managed to clip part of the flagpole when framing the photo.

What counted in this moment of deep tragedy, as Ardern showed by example, is kindness and compassion for those affected, all the while totally ignoring the miscreant and the beliefs he represented. By doing this, Ardern showed how powerful kindness can be. She provided a focus for sentiment, a place and way for New Zealand to rally together around the victims, people who had been targets of a stranger’s hate through no fault of their own. She showed us who were important in this tragedy. That also took the focus, totally, away from the terrorist.

This attitude has been largely missing from many state narratives of terrorism around the western world. It’s too easy for governments to cheaply obtain popular support by engaging with the attacker’s beliefs through promising revenge for whatever just happened. But all this does is validate the attacker and what they represent, then incite further opposition as the advocates of each opposing ideology avenge themselves for the last thing the other did. That’s how wars start. What’s more, the victims often become personally invisible at this state level. In a way it’s understandable. Revenge is easy and rewarding – more so, scientific study shows us, than kindness. At state level, that makes avenging any loss a rallying cry. But it also smacks of zero-sum game: somebody’s taken something away from you or your nation, so you have to take something away from them or their cause. Bwahahaha!

Except, of course, it doesn’t stop there; we’re not talking Clausewitzian rules here. Those hit by the avenging sword of justice then have to wreak a retaliatory revenge on the avengers, and so it goes on. There is no army to defeat in the field, after which governments come to rational settlements. As we say in New Zealand – a place where our national sense of humour is built on laconic understatement – bugger.

It is also too easy, in such circumstance, for governments to fall into the trap of fearing the unknown thoughts of strangers in their own societies and taking away the freedoms of all citizens on the back of it. The innocent are victimised by the state for no better reason than that, by superficially fitting a ‘profile’, they become suspects. Often, that suspicion of strangers becomes a social trend. This is not new: look at the French Revolution and Robespierre’s ‘terror’ of 1793 as one of the first ‘modern’ examples. McCarthyism, in the 1950s United States, is another. Stalin’s Soviet Union was rife with the problem. Each example was wrapped in its own culture; but the fact that such behaviours crossed both time and ideology make clear that the underlying issue was a common human phenomenon.

Why does all this happen? Human nature is a large part of it, transcending any proximate frameworks of society or culture. As individuals, humans apparently have a desire to validate themselves personally, to be seen as ‘one of us’. Yet the cultures and societies we build, by and large, don’t allow that to happen easily. All too often we fall into that zero-sum game: to validate ourselves (‘us’), we have to invalidate somebody else (‘them’). Why? My finger of suspicion points to Robin Dunbar’s discovery that ideal communities of humans number no more than 150, which is the largest group reasonably supportable by hunting and gathering. Apparently we are geared, innately, to think in ‘us versus them’ terms, in which ‘us’ maxes out at 150. Is this true? Maybe. Certainly it’s true that much of what we do, as individuals, devolves to ‘us’ versus ‘them’ oppositions, often down to quite petty scale.

So what do you do when your society is hit by whatever it defines as ‘them’? Do you promise revenge, validate ‘their’ act against you by pursuing ‘them’, and set up systems that risk criminalising your own people, just in case they might think like the attacker?

The better way, as Ardern showed, is that governments should not play the game the other side expects. Don’t feed evil. Better to ride over the narratives that have been such a focus for the west in the past eighteen years and to instead look to a better and kinder place. This is something also lost of late; one of the outcomes of the last two generations of neo-liberalism has been the implication that to be kind is to be weak. In this world view, it seems, strength can only be shown by acts of asserted power, usually at the expense of others, one way or another.

Well, wrong. There are stronger and better ways: ways in which we uplift each other. And Ardern has shown us one of them.

There’s one other thing. Ardern is a unique world leader; only the second elected woman Prime Minister in New Zealand, one of only two recent world leaders to give birth while in office; and she’s been adept at managing the public image. But there has always been that slight suspicion that it was all act and no substance. As an opinion piece in The Guardian remarked, both New Zealanders and the world had been wondering where the steel was behind Ardern’s public persona of warm good nature.

Now she’s shown it, decisively taking charge, changing the narrative the west is conditioned to wrap around such events, and bringing the country with her. How? Through empathy; through kindness and compassion, and by personally taking the lead so we can all follow that example. Ardern, in short, has shown us, here in New Zealand – and the world – not just that kindness and compassion are strengths; but how to be kind and strong, as a state and a people, all at the same time.

It is a powerful message. Over a century ago, New Zealand was called the social laboratory of the twentieth century, leading the way with free democracy in which all could vote, leading the way with a nascent welfare state in which those who were old, or sick, would not suffer for it. It seems to me that today, as we weep in our hearts and rally, as a nation, to embrace and support those of us affected by last Friday’s atrocity, New Zealand is leading the world again, by example, into the twenty-first century.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

6 thoughts on “Defeating terror with the strength of kindness

  1. The response is incredible, I saw school kids doing the haka in support of those affected. Jacinda Ardern is very genuine and honest, too, which makes a change – hardly the same in the UK.
    From my side, I’ve been contemplating a move to NZ and the support has encouraged me even more. Great people responding to the actions of one lunatic.

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