Ardern’s Response to Christchurch has Put Other Leaders to Shame, But Not for Its Compassion Alone

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Jacinda Ardern won her spurs last week with her response to the Christchurch atrocity. But the world’s praise for her eloquence and compassion missed the point.

Ardern was different. She fought from the start like a real politician, scorning the killer, attacking racism and slapping back at Turkish president Erdogan’s revolting election propaganda – which used the murderer’s own video – then hitting out at US president Trump. And insisting that New Zealand’s gun laws would change forever.

That was the measure of her. Humanity came armed with political leadership. And what a sorry lot Ardern showed our own hapless “leaders” to be. 

Most of them have reacted to mass murders with instant cliches of sorrow and endless waffle about “terror”, and then operatic – and often inappropriate – praise for security forces who have in most cases failed to prevent the crime from taking place. In Christchurch, the cops appear to have driven the murderer off the road before he moved to a third mosque.

“They are us,” Ardern said of the Muslims slaughtered in her country. It’s the sort of remark we might have expected from a Trudeau, or even a Macron – but we shouldn’t get caught in the comparison game. Ardern was on her own. And she talked in global terms. If the rest of the world is happier talking about “global jihadism”, she talked of global white supremacism. 

When Australia’s own racist senator Fraser Anning – he who once spoke of a “final solution” to immigration – blamed the Christchurch bloodbath on “the immigration programme that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate”, Ardern simply called his remark “a disgrace”. 

In any case, the Christchurch crime against humanity was clearly the work of an Australian immigrant fanatic. And Australia’s own recent history of brutality towards Muslims and immigrants – a sinister characteristic often obscured by our own affection for the rough edges of our “cobbers” down under – is now being studied rather more seriously.

Much of the journalistic response to this epic drama, of course, was pitiful. Several in the New Zealand media as well as British newspapers used the murderer’s own video, along with his crazed manifesto, to promote their stories. It was an utter failure. The Daily Mirror editor tried to explain that his paper ended up removing the footage because “it is not in line with our policy relating to terrorist propaganda videos.” Who on earth needs a “policy” to tell them not to publish material in a way that has the effect of abetting an act of murder? 

And in Australia itself, the moment Anning punched a young man who slapped an egg on his head, this – not his obscene remarks about Muslims – became the “story”. Reporters naturally visited the hometown of the mass killer – and discovered that he was once an “angelic” child. But what did this mean? 

There is a photograph in existence which shows a dark-haired baby boy in a romper-suit with woollen socks – every mother’s little angel, of course, except that he happens to be Hitler. The picture is in the Bundesarchiv (the German federal archives). 

Babies are inevitably innocent and murderers were always once little angels and thus – go back far enough – and you’ll find an innocent little Australian living in the nondescript (until now) town of Grafton. It was hitherto famous, journalists told us, for its jacaranda trees. Get it? Beauty and springtime surrounded our little angel-turned-murderer.

And all this when the relatives of the Mosque victims were speaking in the language of real angels – in expressing their love for their country of asylum, their affection for their white friends and neighbours, and their admiration for Ardern. Refugees don’t usually demand democracy – although the Muslim immigrants in New Zealand (refugees or not) clearly live in a democracy – but they always expect dignity and justice. 

That, precisely, is what Jacinda Ardern offered them. Yet as I write these words, I have been able to find – on the website page of a New Zealand television station in a “moderated” YouTube comment – that it “would have been better if this dumb PM had been gunned down too”.

Yes, Jacinda Ardern was quite right to condemn social media for spreading video of the attack – and for dismissing a journalist’s suggestion of a visit from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg because “I’m not interested in a PR exercise”. 

That is why she also dispatched her foreign minister Winston Peters to Istanbul to “confront” Erdogan over his own outrageous use of the murder-video in an election rally. Erdogan had also said that anyone who comes to Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would be sent home in their coffins “like their grandfathers were” during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. 

Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent MindsErdogan, like Anning, is what my mum and dad would have called “a very nasty piece of work”. New Zealanders, as well as Australians, were lo killed in large numbers at Gallipoli. The folly of their invasion of the Ottoman empire was followed by the 1915 genocide of Turkey’s Christian countrymen and women – one and a half million Armenians. It was a mass murder infinitely greater than that of Christchurch, but one which Erdogan has always denied.

As for Trump, he was asked by Ardern to express “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities”. And the best Trump could do was to dismiss – that very same evening – any idea that white supremacist “terror” was a growing lethal threat. “Not really,” he replied. This was not global politics. This was a mean, repulsive comment. But what do you expect when both an Australian killer and an American president talk the same language?

No one should turn Jacinda Ardern into an angel. Politicians can ascend to great heights if they have the spittle for it – I quote Sir Thomas More – but we live in an age where political leadership is crumbling in the lands which once fought world wars for their freedom. 

So let us not compare New Zealand’s premier right now with the self-harming prime minister who is helping to destroy Britain. Brexit, too, is part of the same anti-immigrant sentiment which propelled an Australian to commit mass murder last week.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.