New Zealand's tears fall on agitated waters

A nation mourns: People gather at a memorial near the Al Noor mosque to pay tribute to the victims of the Christchurch terror attacks. Photo Michael Cummings
A nation mourns: People gather at a memorial near the Al Noor mosque to pay tribute to the victims of the Christchurch terror attacks. Photo Michael Cummings

The choir seemed to appear from nowhere.

As hundreds of people stood silently in front of a sprawling sea of flowers and teddy bears and tributes written by school children, the singing rose up from behind the fence they had been laid against.

The singers could barely be seen through the flags and messages adorning the iron bars, but they could be heard.

The words of that hauntingly beautiful Maori love song Pokarekare Ana hung over our heads, many of the mourners quietly mouthing the words as they fell on the crowd. It's a song about forbidden love, of two young people separated by a lake and whose union is forbidden because they are from different tribes.

The choir would sing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah next, but it wouldn't summon the tears with the same gentle force as Pokarekare Ana.

They are agitated, the waters of Waiapu

But when you cross over girl

They will be calm

The music met the moment. Everyone there had come to help calm the agitated waters, to bridge a divide. As futile as it might feel, laying flowers against a fence would have to do.

Of course, they weren't alone in standing on the shoreline of something utterly senseless and searching for answers. Since a right-wing terrorist gunned down 50 people in two Christchurch mosques last Friday, a furious swell of public discourse has risen up in response to this monstrous act of violence.

Looking at the faces staring solemnly at all those flowers this week, I know that calm will not come soon. For some, it will never come.

Narratives quickly formed. People need narratives. They come in neat, easily-digestible packages that help us make sense of the world. Best of all, there are usually a few to choose from so you can select one that most closely aligns with your existing world view.

Some narratives will be grounded more in truth than others but, invariably, they function to frame complex issues as something simpler than they are. The solutions they advocate are always obvious and easy to implement if only those in positions of power weren't feckless, or corrupt, or complicit.

As a New Zealander who now calls Melbourne home, and the husband and father in an Anzac family, I've watched with interest as narratives surrounding the atrocity have formed in Australia.

One of the most prominent, it seems, is the depiction of my homeland as an almost Utopianly kind, inclusive, colour-blind society. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response to the tragedy has been rightfully lauded as outstanding in its grace, strength and authenticity.

Like all compelling narratives, it has a sizeable serving of truth at its heart. And like all compelling narratives, it simultaneously obscures a contradictory truth: as in Australia, racism and bigotry in New Zealand are alive and well. There's a reason Maori and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand are on the wrong end of almost every health, educational and socio-economic statistic. There's a reason Ardern's powerful "they are us" assertion sparked a million hashtags; if New Zealand's Muslim community truly were "us" it's not something the Prime Minister would have felt was important to say.

New Zealand is a wonderful country and I'm a fiercely proud Kiwi, but there's some distance between the tourism brochure and the reality of life there.

The man who allegedly visited this unthinkable evil upon Christchurch may be an Australian, but New Zealanders would be unwise to see ourselves as victims of a malign foreign influence. His twisted ideology has found a foothold there. He could just have easily been a Kiwi.

Things will now happen to help prevent this kind of atrocity ever happening again. Ardern has already announced that semi-automatic weapons like those used in the Christchurch shootings will be banned, and other steps will no doubt be taken as the facts of what happened - and how it happened - become clearer.

The competition between some of the different narratives will be settled over time.

The agitated waters will find some kind of equilibrium again, but looking at the faces staring solemnly at all those flowers this week I know that calm will not come soon. For some, it will never come.

As I turned to leave, a woman standing by herself beside me began to weep and I could hear Pokarekare Ana humming in my head again. Pushing through the throng, I sensed she might know the meaning of the words in its final verse.

My love will never

be dried by the sun,

it will be forever moistened

by my tears.

Michael Cummings is a former Fairfax journalist and editor