CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand—On Feb. 22, 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city—my home—was hit by a devastating earthquake. When the dust settled, 185 people were dead and tens of thousands of buildings and homes were demolished or otherwise made unlivable. For weeks, there were tanks on the streets; for years, the central city was cordoned off from its citizens.
Just before 2 p.m. on Friday, a gunman entered the city’s largest mosque and started massacring innocent people. It was the busiest time at the mosque, with as many as 300 people in the building for Friday prayers. About 7 kilometers to the east of the Al Noor Mosque, a gunman entered the Linwood Mosque and started doing the same. Police are being cautious about releasing information, but what we do know is that 41 people were killed at Masjid Al Moor, a further seven at Linwood, with another person dying at Christchurch Hospital to bring the death toll to 49. With an unknown number of injured currently being treated, that number is likely to rise.
It should have been a day of hope and optimism. That afternoon, the city’s main gathering point, Cathedral Square—in the central business district, just on the other side of Hagley Park from the mosque—was filled with a cacophony of school uniforms and handmade placards as children assembled for the school climate strike. With a mix of anger and joy, determination and optimism, thousands of young New Zealanders rallied to show their fears for the future of the planet. As the event wound down, police came into the square and asked people to dissipate. At first, it was thought that they were just trying to break up a protest, a case of overvigilant policing at a peaceful event. Then, as those in the square started turning to their phones, hints of the unfolding tragedy traveled in whispers around the crowd.
All the students who were bunking off school soon found that they couldn’t go back—all the schools were on lockdown. The news first suggested that a few shots had been fired; in a country so unfamiliar with shootings, let alone mass shootings, a report of any shots being heard would be enough to close nearby schools. There was nothing yet to suggest the seriousness of the incident. As the afternoon went on, the scale of the horror would slowly reveal itself. Christchurch residents were asked to stay indoors. Many had no choice, with businesses and council facilities—as well as the schools—continuing the lockdown. Some followed the news on TVs or their phones, finding out what was happening in their city at the same time as the rest of the country, and indeed the world.
Christchurch is a city that has known trauma. The quakes are a wound that has left permanent marks, not only on the landscape, but on the people who walk upon it. Mental health services have struggled to cope with the lingering effects of that tragedy. But ultimately, nature is blameless. This attack traumatizes the city and its residents in a new, yet more awful way, because it was perpetuated by people: People who are angry, scared, threatened, and radicalized. Racists. White nationalists. Heavily armed cowards.
On the eighth anniversary of the earthquake, less than a month ago, there was a creeping optimism in the air. Alongside the new buildings and landscaped promenades, a small but important step: Christchurch has started to resettle refugees, a process that had been halted since the quakes. During the recovery period, rehoming migrants was seen as a lower priority than fixing roads and houses, but as that process was largely complete, it could resume again. As Rachel O’Connor, the migration manager for the Red Cross, said, “This is an important milestone in the Christchurch rebuild as the city is ready once again to say refugees are welcome.”
We all want to believe in that version of Christchurch, a vibrant city that’s recovering and greeting new residents with open arms, that values its citizens and communities of every faith. On Friday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke to a shocked nation, talking of what she saw as this country’s values: “We represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. Those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.” I think we all want to believe that those words hold true. Yet at the same time, there is now a suspicion that under our facade as a safe, tolerant country, there lies a violent, reactionary undercurrent, only too happy to prey on our naïveté.