Nothing quite like the mosque attack on March 15 has happened in New Zealand before.
Forty-nine people were shot dead in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, their deaths livestreamed on Facebook.
The perpetrator — a 28-year-old Australian white nationalist who hates immigrants.
In the wake of the carnage, much of the coverage in the international press has presented it as part of the global rise in white nationalism, a trend commentators suggest that Donald Trump has encouraged through his words and deeds.
One of New Zealand’s local political parties is called New Zealand First — reminiscent of Trump’s slogan, “America First.” It was founded in 1993 by Winston Peters, who still heads the party and is the country’s deputy prime minister. In that same year, local journalists published articles calling Asian immigration the “Inv-Asian.”
In 2014, in opposing Chinese investments in New Zealand, Peters said at a campaign event: “Two Wongs don’t make a white.”
The suspected gunman in the mosque attack called non-white immigrants “invaders” in a manifesto he reportedly put online.
As the international press often points out about Trump, rhetoric matters when one is in high office and Peters’ rhetoric certainly sounds nationalist. A 2017 investigation into a New Zealand white supremacist group found its members voicing their enthusiasm for Peters, despite his mixed heritage (he is part-Maori). One lesson of the Trump era is that a public figure’s words matter, and that is no less true for the likes of Peters.
In contrast, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her response to the tragedy. She was quick to label the attacks as “terrorism” and bluntly called an Australian lawmaker’s suggestion of a link between Muslim immigration and violence “a disgrace.”
She went to Christchurch the day after the attacks and visited members of the refugee and Muslim community dressed in black and wearing a hijab, a sign of respect.
She promised to cover the funeral costs of all of the victims and offer financial assistance to the families. She has promised gun reform.
She has challenged world leaders that incite fear and called them out.
She has chosen language based on inclusion, compassion, and belonging.
This is what leadership looks like.