“You guys are really showing us Americans up”.
It was this comment-in-passing from a colleague at work that really drove home for me the effects of the horrific shooting that unfolded in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday 15 March, just two weeks ago.
It’s been an experience that’s been completely harrowing for everyone it’s touched, that’s for sure, although it’s also brought about for me a huge sense of homesickness and gratitude for NZ’s response to such a disaster.
Australians often get bundled together with our NZ friends by well-meaning Americans. And today is a day that I’m moved to acknowledge some pretty deep feelings of appreciation for that.
In fact, here’s an exchange from a couple of hours ago:
Colleague: “Are you Australians sensitive to being lumped together with New Zealanders?”
Me: “Not at all. We have a friendly rivalry. My mum is a Kiwi and I lived there for a while as a child. Right now, especially now, I’m proud if there’s an association between Australians and Kiwis”.
I really mean it. And, afterall, as Jacinda Ardern so gracefully stated in her interview with The Project’s Waleed Aly, “we’re family”.
And OH… MY… GOD. Can we pause to reflect on this incredible woman’s actions for a second?
Respect. Uncompromising empathy. Love. Purpose. Action. From her visit to the mosque, to her comments in the public eye, to her embracing, both literal and metaphorical, of families and young students affected by such an unspeakable trauma, Jacinda Ardern has been nothing short of a shining example of what it means to be a great leader in the 21st century.
I mean, it took her less than a week to announce a buyback program for, and ban the sale of military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. 6 days total, people. Impressive. And could you see this happening in the US? Ah, no. “Buckley’s chance” of that, as Australians would say.
Her humanity is totally staggering. The person she’s ostracised the most is the person who committed this shocking act of terrorism (Ardern is, with total conviction, refusing to acknowledge him by name). She’s also made uncompromising decisions regarding who it is that she wants to draw in close and embrace. Those people are, of course, those most greatly affected: the Muslim community, both in NZ, and around the globe (“They are New Zealand. They are us” she said to her colleagues in Parliament, and her allies across the world.).
The long and the short of it is that what I see is empathy. Everything she says and does is bathed in the stuff. It’s inescapably beautiful, and – so far – has been super effective at soothing the horrific impacts of death, loss, and deep sadness being felt in NZ, a country of peace and acceptance.
Trump called Ardern, of course, offering tokenistic support in the wake of a show of hatred his widely-publicised and active dismissal of Muslim communities can have only fuelled.
Concise, deliberate, beautiful: provide “sympathy and love to all Muslim communities”.
Trump couldn’t have expected that suggestion.
I mean, when someone shoots a bunch of people here in the US, the general reaction is, by and large, passive. America’s disastrous history of shunning the possibility of gun laws chucks the hard truth right in our faces:
Thoughts and prayers’ don’t save lives.
Okay, okay… so I’m totally aware of the possibilities that lie in Australians’ jumping onboard the kiwi train and laying claim over something that isn’t exactly ours (Ardern’s leadership, that is).
But if it’s about more than that? What if we consider that our showing of respect for just how brilliantly she’s handled this shows that, perhaps, the majority of people across the world want the same thing from their governments?
The overwhelming feeling, despite the deep sadness, is really a sense of immense pride.
For starters, I am proud that a country so close to home, led by an incredible woman, has tackled head-on the issue of gun violence and has refrained from bowing to any outside pressure (“Bugger off”, the NZ ex-police minister told the NRA!).
I also feel proud that Jacinda Ardern’s leadership makes front page news here in the US, and that my American colleagues notice it. In fact, the comments they’ve made to me show me that it’s what they want for themselves: a strong, effective leader unafraid to make the big calls. Jacinda’s actions have put NZ (and Australia, by association) on the map.
I feel proud of NZ and Australia’s alignment on this. I mean, even the conservative right-wing parties in both countries seem to align on gun control. In Australia, it was a conservative government (the Liberal/National Party) that backed moves for immediate gun control after Port Arthur. That same party still defends its position.
Yes, Australia has lots of social problems of our own. We also have political leadership that is less-than-desirable. But the great thing is that when it comes to push and to shove, and especially in a time of huge need, I think that most Australians really know how to show love and care to others. At the core of Ardern’s response is an approach to which I think we all aspire.
As I sit here, feeling sad and proud and hurt all at the same time, I realise that the crux of my feelings is this: I feel helpless knowing that tragedies like this will happen again and again in the US, and that the response to it will not be one of empathy. Nor will it be one of change.
Regardless, for now, it’s happening everywhere here, this immense showing of support for people who might, in any way, have been affected by Christchurch. My work corridors are filled with empathy, with people enquiring as to how the Kiwis and Aussies in their midst are doing. The walls of the expat Facebook groups I’m part of are drenched in it. I’m feeling that interest and support in so many places.
Of course, I can’t personally take credit for anything to do with Jacinda Ardern’s incredibly strong, empathetic and care-filled reaction, but what I can do is use it to fuel my own sharing of uncompromising empathy to others; both now, and during the inevitably trying times of the future.
If one thing’s for certain, it’s that Ardern is a Prime Minister for the ages. And how about that projection of Arden’s iconic image onto Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, huh?
It’s an image, both literal and metaphorical, that I hope continues to inspire the love and the care that all Muslim communities deserve.