Complacency often weaves a stifling cocoon. Its smothering security is only shattered in a dramatic way, which then exposes a whole new and large set of challenges.

The abominable Mosque slayings in Christchurch have destroyed our cocoon of complacency, in which we have all lived for so long.

In its aftermath, we are understandably searching for answers, wondering about how this plot could have been so carefully planned, who was involved, and how it was that the law enforcement and security agencies seemed as taken by surprise at its occurrence as the rest of us, and what steps we can take to prevent anything akin to this ever happening in the future.

They are all legitimate issues to focus upon and resolve as thoroughly as we can. But worthy and necessary as they are, they are all after the event.

At the same time, we need to be looking inside the cocoon, as it were, at why we allowed the circumstances to arise where the mindset behind this attack could develop here in the first place. Understanding and addressing that more basic point is as an important part of what happens next as are the more practical issues that have already been canvassed.

There need be no national gnashing of teeth, but a calm and considered look at who we are as New Zealanders, and what we have become. And then, what we as a society have to do now.

It has been said that the antecedents of this attack lie to some extent in the proliferation of and relative lack of attention paid to small but extreme, right wing nationalist groups that have arisen particularly, although not exclusively, in Christchurch, over the last forty years or so, and that we have ignored the messages of hate they have peddled at our peril. Absolutely and unquestionably true, but addressing that alone is not the full solution.

After all, we were better than that, we thought, and extremist outbursts could never happen here.  They just were not the New Zealand way.

The phrase “they are us” has captured the public imagination in the wake of the tragedy, and within it, lies the germ of our long-term solution.

They were indeed us, which means that the solution now lies basically with the rest of us, not solely the “thems” we are pointing our collective fingers at it. The “thems” only prospered because of the complacency of “us”.

And it is not as though “us” did not have any warnings, or early opportunities to repudiate the periodic expression of the message of hate that exploded in Christchurch last Friday afternoon. It has been around in various, more low-level forms, for a long time. And, in our complacency, or perhaps our naivete, we have let it go.

After all, we were better than that, we thought, and extremist outbursts could never happen here.  They just were not the New Zealand way.

Our long-term complacency means “us” now have a number of difficult questions to ponder and attempt to answer.

For example, where were we in the 1970s, when an Auckland radio station ran a “Punch a Pom A Day” campaign, or when political advertisements showed frizzy-haired Polynesians wielding clubs, and taking away people’s houses and jobs? Or when Pacific Islanders faced dawn raids on their homes to check whether they were here legitimately?

Where were we a few years later when peaceful protesters against the Springbok Rugby tour were clubbed in Molesworth Street, or bashed up outside Eden Park?

When some politicians started attacking Asian immigration, and more recently immigration from Muslim countries, mocking their names and accents, or blaming them for buying our houses, where were we? When people who spoke out against these attacks were denounced as “sickly white liberals”, where were we?

When legitimate attempts by successive governments to put right historical wrongs were attacked as sanctioning separatism, and setting up a grievance industry, or when the use of the Maori language on radio and television was attacked as divisive, where were we?

Where have we been when it is considered almost acceptable to differentiate people by their gender, age, appearance or accent as somehow explaining their behaviour? Where some can say “they are not like us” or “why don’t you go back to your own country” and get away with it?

Bluntly, every time we have let examples like this slip by with only temporary outrage, we have made the next such incident a little more bearable.

New Zealanders like to think of themselves as living in a generally open and tolerant liberal society. They point to the many social innovations pioneered here over the years, and our basic egalitarianism, or sense of everyone getting a “fair go” as proof of that. For many that is true, but for others the tolerance implied occurs really only through their apathy.

“Nothing to do with me” is sadly too often a response heard, which is then confused with tolerance for diversity. After last Friday, “nothing to do with me” is no longer an appropriate way for “us” to behave.  It is to do with all of us.

There will be a formal investigation of the events surrounding what happened in Christchurch. The community at large will rally round the affected families to give them all the support and comfort they deserve at this time. Parliament will change laws shown to have failed to prevent a recurrence at some point.  All fit and proper and as it should be.

But unless we take the “they are us” message to our own hearts, and change the fundamental attitudes we need to change, and not just speak out against bigotry, intolerance and apathy wherever they occur, but banish the politicians and others trying to play such cards (rather than secretly admiring them for their cheek) we will be left just managing this horrific set of circumstances, not resolving them.

Many have said New Zealand has been changed forever by these events. How much that is a reality will be shown by the way “us” react to the next cultural or ethnic slur, or incident, and whether we continue to just tolerate “they” in our society instead of moving to embrace them and the richness diversity brings to our land.

“They are us” should never mean we are all the same. But “they are us” should always mean we are treated, cherished and respected equally for whom each of us is.

We are the threads that, when woven together, form the tapestry that can yet make New Zealand the world’s best multi-ethnic, multicultural nation.

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