Word of a terrorist attack is always jolting, whether it comes via a phone call in the middle of the night, the morning news spilling from the alarm clock, or an email breaking into an ordinary day at the office.
When news of such an unspeakable event breaks, I start getting media queries almost immediately. They all ask the same question: What does this mean?
I am now sadly practiced at processing atrocities like the appalling shootings in New Zealand.
There is a list of questions I always ask myself in order to make sense of the senseless.
Despite the temptation to rush to judgment, my rule is to wait for the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves. In this case, the facts came out really fast, in part because the perpetrators broadcasted them to the world. The shootings at the Christchurch mosques are the very definition of terrorism: the willful intention to do violence on innocents to serve a political agenda.
Who is to blame?
In cases of terrorism my answer is always the same: the terrorists. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was exactly right when she said that people with such extreme views “have absolutely no place in New Zealand and in fact have no place in the world. … We utterly reject and condemn you.” Shifting the blame to anyone else is just wrong. Terrorists should be made to own their evil.
What about whataboutism?
There are always some who want to make a tragedy about their agenda. That agenda may be gun control, politics, religion, or any number of other concerns, hatreds, conspiracies or righteous causes. But trying to make the issue about their cause and not about terrorism does nothing to advance our understanding of either – especially when people are in the midst of crisis, tragedy and mourning.
Take issues on their own merit. We don’t need a terrorist attack to argue that an extremist ideology that dehumanizes people of another religion or embraces xenophobia is wrong. We can argue that every day.
What about the terrorist threat?
All terrorism is terrible, but it is not all equal. Terrorist groups that are organized and supported by global networks, or directed by state-sponsors like Iran, represent systemic threats to national security and the peace and prosperity of societies. Individual acts of terrorism, even horrific acts of terror such as these mosque attacks, are extreme public safety challenges. Each should be handled with the resources and means appropriate to the nature of the threat.
It is also worth remembering that if we add up all the terrorists in the world, including terrorists such as those in New Zealand, they are but a minuscule fraction of any race, religion, or any other group of humanity.
What about people?
Acts of terrorism can be quite telling in terms of understanding who we are – the good and the bad. In their wake, we see leadership, like the compassionate, firm and steady hand of Prime Minister Ardern. We see our capacity for caring and empathy, like the many people all over the world who stand with the people of New Zealand this morning, praying for them, their losses, and their future. And we see the exploiters, the hate-mongers, and the manipulators.
What does the horror in New Zealand mean? You have my answer to these questions. What are yours?