Dividing Words and Unifying Dances, Part One
Sometimes, the oceans of attitude and philosophy that separate two countries are far wider than the vast Pacific.
One country, plagued by an epidemic of mass shootings for decades, remains stuck in a bog of political paralysis. Another, shocked by this modern evil’s arrival on its shores, springs to action.
In the US, teenagers across the country march and shout. Students in Parkland, Florida, still mourning 17 deaths in a school shooting, board buses to the state capital of Tallahassee to call for an assault weapons ban. They soon learn that the state legislature has already rejected the proposal, while their classmates who arrived in Tallahassee early watched from a balcony in tears.
In New Zealand, teenagers throughout the land perform traditional Maori haka dances and chants, in a moving display of solidarity with their fallen countrymates. Meanwhile, adults in leadership quickly enact new gun laws in the hope of preventing future tragedies.
These two countries share a common language, many common values, and a long history of friendship. Why does the global threat of mass violence so inspiringly unify one, and so hopelessly divide the other?
It Starts at the Top: Ardern’s and Trump’s Words and Deeds
No politician represents all the thoughts and feelings of a nation. Plenty of New Zealanders disagree with Jacinda Ardern’s policies, and many Americans refuse to even acknowledge the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Yet national leaders are, for better or worse, the faces of their nations in the eyes of the world. In times of crisis, their words and actions matter.
Ardern: “They Are Us” – Unity as a national priority
The Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings on March 15, 2019 shocked even those who have grown numb to most mass violence. Accused gunman Brenton Tarrant’s decision to live stream the first attack, at the Al Noor Mosque, ignited global outcry. Tarrant is also the alleged author of a 74-page manifesto filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and neo-Nazi symbols.
Ardern’s Twitter reaction to both the shooting and the manifesto was swift and decisive:
In a subsequent speech, Ardern repeated her “they are us” theme, making frequent use of the Maori word tahi. Among the many meanings of tahi are “one”, “jointly”, “togetherness”, and simply “people”. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, whose cultural renaissance in recent decades has reshaped New Zealand’s expressions of its national identity.
In the same speech, Ardern added that “the person who has perpetrated this violence against us is not [us].” However, since the alleged shooter was an Australian citizen, Ardern soon recognized that her meaning might be misunderstood as a reference to his foreign birth.
In an interview with the BBC, she acknowledged the presence of white nationalist sentiments in New Zealand itself, refusing to lay blame for the horrific crime on Tarrant’s Australian roots. She emphasized that in her view, anti-immigrant beliefs are as out of place in her country as the violence that they spawned, even when such beliefs are held by native-born New Zealanders.
Ardern also firmly rejected any notion that New Zealand’s policy of welcoming immigrants, including Muslims, caused the violence – or that blocking immigration would benefit the country. She called upon global leaders to “weed out” racism wherever it exists, stating that no country can be safe as long as racism exists anywhere in the world.
While continuing to preach unity, Ardern moved swiftly to change New Zealand’s gun laws. Existing laws allowed Tarrant to legally purchase the weapons allegedly used in the attacks. Within weeks, a law banning most semi-automatic weapons (those commonly referred to as “assault weapons”) took effect, including an ambitious national buy-back program.
Trump: They Are Not Me – Empty Sympathy and Blame Laying
In his initial reactions to both the Christchurch tragedy and multiple US mass violence events during his time in office, Donald Trump has usually sounded an appropriately sympathetic note. Responding to the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh in October 2018, in which gunman Robert Bowers allegedly killed 11 people and injured six others, Trump tweeted:
When reading from prepared remarks, Trump sometimes even pairs his sympathy with appeals for unity, although he stops short of the resolute statements of solidarity that Ardern made in March and April 2019. Unfortunately, he often undermines his own moments of sensitivity by quickly straying off script and focusing on anger and revenge over perseverance and hope.
Furthermore, Trump’s sympathy seems to quickly dry up at the first suggestion that he might bear some responsibility for preventing future attacks – either by toning down his own inflammatory rhetoric or by changing America’s gun laws.
When asked whether an assault weapons ban might have helped to prevent the Tree of Life shooting, Trump suggested instead that more guns were the answer. Speaking to reporters, he said that the synagogue should have had armed guards at the door. And while he decried anti-Semitism, Trump refused to address an obvious link between the gunman’s motivation and his own words.
Bowers had claimed on social media that HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides aid to refugees, was funding “caravans” of migrants from Central America seeking asylum in the US, calling the migrants “invaders”. Trump’s own history of anti-immigrant rhetoric is well documented, and he continued those attacks even as he denied any connection between his words and Bowers’ deeds. Just two days after the Tree of Life shooting, Trump tweeted:
The characterization of the approaching asylum seekers as an “invasion”, a term Trump used repeatedly during October 2018, echoes Bowers’ hate-filled posts and stands in stark contrast to Ardern’s consistent “They are us” messaging. Trump also frequently links seeking asylum in the US to illegal entry into the country (which it is not), and in turn, illegal entry to violent crime:
MS-13 is a gang formed in Los Angeles during the 1970s by immigrants from El Salvador. Trump has never presented evidence to support his claims that MS-13 members were present in large numbers within the 2018 migrant “caravans”. It is also important to note that the available data strongly suggests that both legal and illegal immigrants to the US commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born residents.
As his reaction to the Tree of Life shooting shows, instead of “They are not us”, Trump’s message about perpetrators of mass violence is much more often simply, they are not me. When it was revealed that alleged Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant referred to Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity” in his manifesto, Trump stated that he was not familiar with the document, and even expressed doubts about Tarrant’s racist motives.
Pressed on whether white nationalism is a rising worldwide threat, Trump claimed it was not, describing the movement as a small group of troubled people. The remarks continued a long-standing pattern of Trump dismissing any possible connection between his US Muslim travel and immigration bans and anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hate crimes.
Just a few days later, Ardern issued her call for a unified global response to the dangers posed by racism.
Trump blames victims after mass bombing attempt
Consistent with his “they are not me” theme, Trump is quick to blame others for the problem of mass violence. Serial bomber Cesar Sayoc filmed himself at a Trump rally two years before mailing pipe bombs to 16 journalists and Democratic party politicians, several of whom Trump had called out by name at the rally.
In responding to the attempted killings, Trump directed the worst of his wrath not toward Sayoc, but toward the bomber’s intended victims:
To be clear, Donald Trump did not create the problem of mass violence in the US, and no reasonable person believes that he could wholly solve it. None of that excuses a complete lack of meaningful action, however.
And it is extraordinary that a leader who referred to immigrants from Mexico as “rapists”, and the countries of origin of law-abiding US residents as “s**tholes”, would suggest that the media bears primary responsibility for inciting violent anger in America.
Lessons from Parkland, Florida
On February 14, 2018, expelled student Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others.
Students who survived the attack drew national attention with their calls for state and national action to ban assault weapons in the US once and for all.* For a brief moment, Trump appeared willing to consider such proposals. Yet he soon returned to long-standing habits.
In remarks very similar to his comments eight months later after the Tree of Life shooting, Trump suggested that the best way to prevent school shootings is to provide teachers with guns, a standard talking point of pro-gun lobbyists in the US. He also reached for a scapegoat, choosing Robert Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s ties with Russia:
In the months that followed, yet another opportunity for the US to undertake significant measures to address the threat of mass shootings faded away. National gun control proposals died quietly in the halls of. Meanwhile, in early March 2018, a vote of the Florida legislature doomed a statewide partial assault weapons ban, with Parkland survivors crying in the background.
A year later, diverse groups of students over 13,000 km away from Florida stopped traffic on New Zealand streets to perform haka dances with one voice.
Following Prime Minister Ardern’s lead, the national parliament in Wellington acted almost as one, voting an assault weapons ban into effect by a margin of 119-1. Whether the ban will prevent future mass violence remains to be seen, but the contrast between one nation’s action and the other’s constant recycling of old arguments could not be more stark.
*The United States did enact a limited ban of assault weapons in 1994. Gun rights activists claim that the law was ineffective at curtailing violence. However, the ban only applied to the manufacture of new assault weapons after the law went into effect. Therefore, unlike New Zealand’s new law, it did not remove any weapons from circulation. The law also had multiple loopholes that allowed gun buyers to modify legally purchased firearms, effectively converting them into assault rifles.