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Jacinda Ardern Has Rewritten the Script for How a Nation Grieves After a Terrorist Attack

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Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has staged a revolution. In the wake of a shooting that killed fifty people, in two mosques, in the city of Christchurch last Friday, Ardern has quietly upended every expectation about the way Western states and their leaders respond to terrorist attacks.

Ardern has resisted war rhetoric. Since the modern era of terrorism began, on September 11, 2001, world leaders have responded to terror by promising vengeance and waged war, rhetorically and militarily. George W. Bush set the tone, with a statement on the morning of the World Trade Center attacks: “Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” He elaborated in a televised address later that day. “Today, our fellow-citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack,” he said. He named the emotions evoked by the chaos in lower Manhattan: “disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” He pledged war. “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation,” he said. “Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared. . . . America and our friends and allies . . . stand together to win the war against terrorism. . . . America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.”

In the years since then, many other leaders have given speeches that shared key elements of Bush’s rhetoric: interpreting acts of terrorism as a declaration of war on an entire country; calling the attackers cowardly and asserting the country’s own courage; and promising to hunt down the terrorists. “Today, France was attacked at its very heart, in Paris, at the offices of a newspaper,” the French President Francois Hollande said, on January 7, 2015, the day twelve people were killed at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “We will not be intimidated,” the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said, in a statement following a massacre carried out by the white supremacist Anders Breivik, in July, 2011. Stoltenberg called Breivik’s attack an “act of cowardice.” And, while Barack Obama avoided war rhetoric in his responses to terror, in his first statement on the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013, he promised to “get to the bottom of this.” In 2015, responding to a shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, he twice called the attacker a coward.

Ardern, on the other hand, immediately showed that she had no time for the perpetrator of the mosque shootings.“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand; they may even be refugees here,” she said. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.”

These phrases are remarkable for what they do not contain: a promise to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice; any attempt to degrade him; any recognition of his desire to be seen, recognized, and fought. The opposite of terror is not courage, victory, or even justice, and it is certainly not “war on terror.” The opposite of terror is disregard for the terrorist.

In a later statement, Ardern made her policy of disregard explicit. Speaking to Parliament four days after the attacks, she said, “He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. And that is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. And, to others, I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

In not speaking about the attacker, Ardern has also managed to avoid creating a “them,” even as she has continued to speak about “us.” Addressing the families of the victims, she said, “We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage. We can and we will surround you with aroha, manaakitanga, and all that makes us us.” She used Maori words that mean kindness, compassion, generosity. Again, it was the absence that was notable in Ardern’s speech: the absence of a rhetorical pivot from “us” to “them,” the enemy.

Even more remarkably, Ardern has succeeded in othering the terrorist, but not by treating him as an emissary from a hostile outside world; indeed, she had succeeded in describing the tragedy in both national and global terms. In a nuanced response to a BBC interviewer, who asked if she was concerned about a rise in white nationalism in New Zealand, she said, “My call would be a global one. I’m very clear here to make the distinction that yes, this was an Australian citizen, but that is not to say that we do not have ideology in New Zealand that would be an affront to the majority of New Zealanders, that would be utterly rejected by the majority, the vast majority of New Zealanders. But we still have a responsibility to weed it out where it exists and make sure that we never create an environment where it can flourish. But I would make that a global call.”

Ardern’s insistence on disregarding the killer, while recognizing the enormity of the loss he has caused, reflects a deeper understanding: some people kill people. Ideology of any sort is secondary to the violent impulse. (It is no coincidence that most terrorists have a history of violent behavior, particularly in the home.) In the face of this fact, a society, and its leaders, can do only two things: grieve and work to reduce the opportunity to kill. These are precisely the tasks Ardern has taken on. “One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation,” she told Parliament. “At this time, it has been second only to securing the care of those affected and the safety of everyone.” She has become New Zealand’s mourner-in-chief.

The most effective way to fight violence is to make the violence less efficient. Less than a week after the attacks, Ardern’s government announced a ban on military-style weapons. Even before the terms of the ban were worked out, Ardern encouraged people to begin surrendering weapons to the police, and at least several dozen people did. The gun ban thus became, at least to a degree, a matter of political agreement, rather than an emergency measure or a restriction imposed by the government.

This is what political leaders do in the face of a senseless tragedy: they grieve with their people, they think with their people, and they act together with their people. None of those tasks requires a declaration of war.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !