New Zealand’s resolute response to tragedy


Authors: Nur Diyanah Anwar, NIE, and Cameron Sumpter, RSIS

On 15 March 2019, New Zealand experienced the deadliest peacetime attack on civilians in its history. Questions remain regarding security oversight leading up to the tragedy, but the overall response in New Zealand has been thorough, constructive and inclusive. Overwhelming displays of solidarity observed throughout New Zealand society have also mitigated the damage caused by this dark day in the nation’s history. 

A woman holds a fern during a vigil for the victims of the mosque attacks during an ecumenical celebration in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 21, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva).

When first reports of the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch reached Wellington, New Zealand’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet activated the national security system. Chief executives from relevant government agencies met at the police headquarters to form the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination that organised actions into relevant work streams.

One stream concentrated on the assailant, identifying any operational support he may have received and managing security measures in the climate of heightened risk. Another focussed on the victims, bereaved and impacted communities. An international stream looked to ensure the security of New Zealand’s political and commercial interests abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade worked closely with the embassies representing the victims to address the needs of victims and their families, expedite visas for their relatives and provide information to their respective home countries.

Given that Muslim rites require bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death, many embassies and families of the victims were concerned by identification taking longer than expected. Authorities chose accuracy over haste to avoid misidentifying victims, fuelling the rapidly growing grief and anger in the waiting room of Christchurch Hospital.

Yet just a day after the attack, New Zealand Police’s Maori, Pacific and Ethnic Services quickly assembled a team of 18 Muslim community leaders in Christchurch to help manage religious and ethnic protocols. They drew upon long established relationships within these communities to communicate effectively and ease tensions.

The Christchurch City Council’s response was informed by the aftermath of the city’s massive 2011 earthquake and months of aftershocks. The council also harnessed its strong working relationships with a range of ethnic community associations in the region forged by a multicultural strategy established in 2016. Immediately following the attack, council authorities quickly evolved into an ad hoc system of ‘permissionless leadership’ — practical decisions could be taken to address immediate concerns. Partnerships built up over years were once again invaluable in reaching the right people and avoiding contention.

As part of the emergency response to an active shooter incident, police sent out a call for schools in the vicinity to go into lockdown. With curtains drawn and lights out, the atmosphere was tense, particularly as some of the students accessed versions of the assailant’s live-streamed video on social media. On the following Monday morning, emotional speeches during school assemblies urged unity and tolerance. Students were encouraged to create symbols of solidarity through arts and crafts. Some of the output was displayed on school grounds while others were taken to memorial sites closer to the mosque.

Despite the harrowing ordeal and ongoing trauma, family members of the victims and others present during the attack continue to visit the mosque. It has become a primary source of support and ‘family’ for those who lost loved ones. Local police, city officials and government-appointed case managers are regarded as ‘brothers and sisters’ because of their prompt and ongoing assistance. Social support personnel often joined the community for iftars (breaking of fast) and were often on hand after Friday prayers. This enhanced the levels of trust between the local Muslim community and authorities.

Several organisations have also shifted their attention towards addressing the mental and social wellbeing of the Muslim community. Such initiatives include the Canterbury Resilience Hub that was established after the attacks. It provides useful resources on grief, loss, counselling and financial support, as well as helplines for individuals affected by the tragedy.

Other grassroots groups such as the Nawawi Center focus primarily on the socio-psychological health of victims’ children. They offer access to trained psychologists and organise social activities for youths. These initiatives allow volunteers to regularly check in on those affected and alert relevant authorities if red flags appear.

The prevalent sentiment surrounding the tragic events of 15 March is that the attack was on New Zealand society as a whole, not just the Muslim community. The incident continues to be a litmus test for New Zealand’s unity and fortitude. Yet, apparent across all levels of society is a deep-seated trust and good working relations between central and local authorities and the grassroots, as well as between individuals and groups of different faiths.

This confidence and solidarity within society illustrates a requisite level of resilience to not only bounce back from this act of terrorism, but potentially spring New Zealand forward towards greater strength.

Nur Diyanah Anwar is a PhD Candidate at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore. She was a Senior Analyst with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Cameron Sumpter is a Research Fellow with the CENS at RSIS.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.

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