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The example of New Zealand

We had been in New Zealand for five days when the Christchurch attack happened. Nothing so profoundly horrible had ever occurred in this quiet, peaceful country. A New Zealand teenage boy said several days afterward, “New Zealand was a safe place, where anyone could be free and open about their ideology and religion; the country represented all that. It still is the same place. We’ve just grown up.”

Christchurch was visited by tragedy just eight years earlier when an earthquake killed 185 people and demolished numerous buildings. But this was different. A natural disaster is one thing. The attack on the Christchurch mosques was inexplicable.

My wife, Ellen, and I had already been won over by the gentle, kind, cheerful disposition of New Zealand’s people. But these fundamental virtues rose to a higher level when everyone in the country stood firmly in solidarity against the evil of the event and in compassionate support for the Muslim community. They were led by their prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who took swift parliamentary action to ban military-style weaponry and who attended many memorial gatherings. In most of her public appearances she wore a hijab.

New Zealand is a land of migrants, beginning with the Maori, who arrived from other Polynesian islands some time in the 12th century CE. The Muslims at prayer on March 15 were largely migrants from Syria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Many of them were refugees fleeing from war-torn or poverty-stricken countries. Fifty of them died and 28 were critically injured.

The perpetrator of this event, a member of what Jelaini Cobb aptly called “the growing transnational movement of epidermal fanaticism,” is a recent immigrant.

Memorials spontaneously appeared in towns throughout the country. The one we saw in Queenstown had many candles, flowers and written sentiments. One said, “Black, white, or brown; Muslim Christian or Hindu; Asian Islander or Maori: This is NEW ZEALAND. We are one. Stand together, stand strong, stand united.”

Before New Zealand was home to humans it was a natural paradise. Its birds had lost the ability to fly because they had no predators. The only mammal in the country was a bat. When the Maori arrived, they brought pigs and rats. Some five centuries later, Captain Cook brought sheep on his second voyage to the country. Immigrants, chiefly British, later brought rabbits, and when they overran the country, stoats to control their numbers. Then stoats multiplied beyond control.

The result was decimation of the native birds and plants.

For some time New Zealand has taken steps to change this human-caused imbalance by drastically reducing the population of the non-native predators. In the central part of the north island the Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari has a predator-proof fence that protects the self-sustaining flora and fauna from all invaders. We went through two elaborately secure portals to get in and walk through the natural habitat, as close to the way New Zealand was before people came as possible. Many of the plants and birds in Sanctuary Mountain were previously on the verge of extinction.

But no fence can protect people from hate. In even the most perfectly tended garden, the seeds of hatred dwell with the seeds of love. The example of New Zealand shows us that we can never know for sure where that hatred lurks. But it also shows the greater power of human solidarity and shared compassion in an open society.

Dennis Read lives in Ashland.