Written by Charlotte Graham-McLay
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been the sunny face of New Zealand, celebrated as the nation’s youngest leader in 150 years, the one who gave birth in office and brought her baby to the floor of the United Nations. At 38, she’s pitched progressive politics and her nation’s charms to Stephen Colbert and the “Today” show. Vogue magazine called her the “anti-Trump.”
Now, with the massacre of 50 people at two mosques by a gunman espousing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hatred, Ardern is back in the international spotlight, but the glamour is gone. Instead, she speaks for New Zealand at a moment of national pain, her vision of kindness in politics tested by the worst mass murder in her country’s modern history.
“We represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it,” she told reporters at Parliament as the horror of the shootings began to unfold on Friday, her words broadcast around the world even as the killer’s video and manifesto of hatred were spreading online. Ardern herself had been emailed a copy of the manifesto minutes before the massacre began.
“You may have chosen us,” she said of the gunman, “but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
That sentiment has echoed across New Zealand in the aftermath of the shootings. In a country of less than 5 million people, prized for its safety and natural beauty, people had the same refrain: Things like this do not happen here.
On Saturday, thousands attended vigils and visited makeshift memorials around the country. They expressed disbelief on social media, using the hashtag #TheyAreUs to embrace the Muslim community.
In Auckland, the largest city, a gathering in Aotea Square opened with a prayer for Muslims and others discriminated against around the world before the crowd sang “Stand by Me,” local news media reported. In the capital, Wellington, lampposts near the city’s largest mosque were plastered with signs.
“Love and solidarity to our Muslim whanau,” the posters read, using the indigenous Maori word for family. “No room for racism here.”
In Christchurch, where the massacre occurred, the tragedy drew together unlikely allies. Members of rival New Zealand gangs stood in solidarity outside Hagley College, where relatives of those dead, injured or missing gathered to console one another.
“We’re here to show our support and our love,” said Karnz Vercoe, part of a group of former gang members called Tu Tangata.
President Donald Trump, who was mentioned as a source of inspiration in the manifesto believed to have been posted by the gunman, condemned the killings and called them a “horrible, disgraceful thing.” Asked by a reporter if he saw white nationalism as a rising threat around the world, Trump said: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
Ardern recounted on Saturday her own conversation with Trump after the attack. “He asked what support the United States could provide,” she said. “My message was: sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”
She said she had “conveyed the sentiment that I think exists here.”
Aware that the eyes of the world are on New Zealand, many see Ardern as their representative for processing and reacting to the news.
“Given the situation, I really don’t think anyone could do much better,” said Jordan Teheuheu, 21, who stopped at a makeshift memorial in Christchurch. “In our time of need, we need people who show who we are.”
But Ardern, who took office in 2017, faces great challenges. She has promised to overhaul New Zealand’s gun laws in the wake of the attacks, though she has yet to say how and gun-rights supporters have pushed back.
The Kiwi Gun Blog, an online publication, said that among the mosque shooter’s goals, one was “to cause the gun rights of responsible New Zealanders to be attacked.” It said “our prime minister is now capitulating.”
A former race relations commissioner, Susan Devoy, has also called on the government to start counting instances of hate crimes, suggesting they are more common than New Zealanders like to think.
“There can be no other response if we are serious about learning anything from the murders of our innocent people this week,” Devoy said.
After speaking to the nation from the capital on Friday, Ardern flew to Christchurch on Saturday, accompanied by lawmakers from across the political spectrum.
She was somber, dressed in black. At a meeting with Muslim leaders, for which she wore a black head scarf, Ardern asked those present what they would like her to do.
“Our time is for you to determine,” she told the leaders. They wanted her to meet families of the victims, and she did.
Christchurch, a city of 375,000, has faced tragedy before: It was rocked by major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, demolishing much of the central city. The February 2011 quake killed 185 people.
The city’s mental health services are still stretched to the breaking point. Just last month, Ardern promised $54 million for mental health treatment in Christchurch.
Lynette Hardie Wills said people “are still suffering” after the quakes. Eight years later, she is still waiting for repairs to her badly damaged home.
In the newly rebuilt inner city, a mural wall surrounds the ruined cathedral in the heart of the city. On the side of the Christchurch Art Gallery, huge neon letters spell out, “Everything is going to be alright.”