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Putting Our Better Angels to Work in the Wake of Christchurch

Every mass shooting signals deep, unaddressed flaws in the social structure. And here we are.

A message is left amongst flowers and tributes by the botanical gardens on March 19, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people were killed, and dozens are still injured in hospital after a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques on Friday, 15 March. The accused attacker, 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, has been charged with murder and remanded in custody until April 5. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Nationalists—white or otherwise—need “invasions” on a regular basis in order to stay revved up and equal to the cause. Thus:

“We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history,” the New Zealand killer (whose name I will not mention, honoring the precedent set by the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern) said in his gonzo manifesto. “Millions of people are pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the white people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create cheap labor, new consumers and tax base that the corporations and states needs to thrive.”

This is so ironic, considering . . . uh, history.

The world is organized the way it is right now thanks to Europe’s nearly 500 years of invasion, conquest and colonization. Blain Snipstal, writing at Why Hunger, puts it about as bluntly as possible:

“The plantation system was the first major system used by the colonial forces in their violent transformation of the Earth into land, people into property, and nature into a commodity — all to be sold on the ‘fair’ market. This transformation was long, crafted and violent, and supported by the state. Land was stolen from the Indigenous and people were stolen from Africa. Race and White Supremacy were then created to give the cultural and psychological basis to support the rationale, organization and logic of capital.”

This wraps a terrifying context around the most recent mass shooting: 50 people killed, another 50 injured last week at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The killer was a white nationalist who felt his manhood slipping away because the country was diversifying, ethnically and culturally; and the symbolic sanctity of “the border” — separating white, European culture from whatever else is out there on Planet Earth — was breaking down.

“Diversity is not a strength,” the killer explained in his manifesto. “Unity, purpose, trust, traditions, nationalism and racial nationalism is what provides strength.”

Not so long ago, this was simply accepted reality. We don’t have to dig too deeply to start realizing that the racist infrastructure of our world is still in place, even in socially progressive countries like New Zealand.

“The contagion of white supremacy has been here a long time,” writes New Zealander Kennedy Warne at National Geographic. “We are part of Britain’s imperial project, premised on the superiority of the white race. The history of colonization in my country is a history of dispossession and cultural destruction for the indigenous Maori. . . .

“Now, crashing into the consciousness of the whole country, is the realization that other forces have been at work here, the narratives of bigotry that many of us assumed were vestigial relics of a shameful past. The virus of white supremacy, it turns out, is in no way atrophying, nor is it confined to Britain, Europe, the USA — its more obvious sites of recent replication. It is here too, proliferating in a petri dish of immigrant angst, resentment at Maori progress, and mistrust of the foreign.”

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This is the infrastructure of dehumanization, and the task of undoing it lies as much before us as it ever has. Yes, we’ve made social progress in lots of ways—in civil rights, in women’s rights—and public awareness has slowly shifted. This was evinced by New Zealand’s reaction, official and unofficial, to the Christchurch horror: The prime minister donned a Muslim headscarf as she met with people in its wake, and Christians attended Muslim services in solidarity with the killer’s targets as mosques reopened across the country.

Warne described it as “summoning our better angels. Reminding us that there is no ‘other’ here. They are us.”

And thus the imperial West reaches beyond itself, as it must, but are love and empathy no more than reactive emotions? Are our better to be angels summoned only after the damage has been done?

Every mass shooting signals deep, unaddressed flaws in the social structure. The “colonial forces” that began remaking the whole planet some 500 years ago remain essentially in charge; certainly they do in this country, which has assumed global leadership in outmoded — i.e., military — thinking . . . and spending. Last year’s U.S. defense budget was $716 billion (with Donald Trump, the “invasion” trumpeter in chief, requesting a $34 billion jump in that figure for 2019). This is indicative of government fully committed to the idea that much of the world is its enemy.

And as long as the country itself is committed to waging war, a segment of the population will be as well. Some of them, when they believe invasion is imminent, will do so on their own.

Perhaps a deeper change is coming, a redoing of the military-industrial infrastructure, both nationally and globally. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who as a child fled war in her native Somalia and lived in a refugee camp for four years, wrote recently in a Washington Post op-ed:

“I believe in an inclusive foreign policy—one that centers on human rights, justice and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world, one that brings our troops home and truly makes military action a last resort. This is a vision that centers on the experiences of the people directly affected by conflict, that takes into account the long-term effects of U.S. engagement in war and that is sincere about our values regardless of short-term political convenience.

“This means reorienting our foreign affairs to focus on diplomacy and economic and cultural engagement. At a time when we spend more on our military than the next seven countries combined, our global armed presence is often the most immediate contact people in the developing world have with the United States.”

As I sit in silence, as I mourn the victims of another mass murder, I find in Omar’s words not solace but an energizing hope. Change begins with awareness, and maybe, at long last, it has arrived. Our better angels have a lot of rebuilding to do.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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