Wellington, March 21, 2019
In school, we all learnt the phrase, “Beware the Ides of March” courtesy of Shakespeare’s Play, ‘Julius Caesar.’
The soothsayer’s warning to Caesar was brushed aside and Caesar was assassinated a little later in the day. For the last nearly 420 years since Shakespeare wrote the phrase, it has become a harbinger of impending doom.
Friday, March 15, 2019, the day of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch, marked the ‘Ides of March’ for 2019. In many ways, it was our equivalent of the 9/11 attacks in New York, so dramatic was its impact.
The attacks in the US
As events around 9/11 were unfolding, (the then US) President George W Bush was visiting a school in Florida. Photographers have recorded his being advised by aides whispering in his ear of what was happening, and all the while he had to sit quietly and stone-faced through a students’ performance, gathering his thoughts, before his hurried departure.
His subsequent public addresses helped – indeed had to – quell the shock, grief, anger and horror of the American people, while at the same time having to come to grips with what had happened, or might be about to yet happen, and working out the National response. The photograph showing him addressing the people, megaphone in hand, from the rubble of the World Trade Centre, quickly became a metaphoric and iconic symbol of defiance and determination.
Jacinda Ardern’s sincerity
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would have faced similar circumstances and emotions as last Friday afternoon’s tragedies began to unfold.
Like President Bush, she would have had limited time to process the information being received, and deal with her own inevitable emotions and reactions, before being expected to address the Nation, both to offer information about what had happened; comfort to the distraught and bereaved, and reassurance to the country about the national response.
Her subsequent now iconic photograph at the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre with the Christchurch Muslim community was, like President Bush’s all those years ago, a classic example of a picture being worth a thousand words.
The image of a pained Prime Minister wearing a hijab, like that of a President in windbreaker and speaking into a megaphone, conveyed all the appropriate emotions – empathy, determination, resolution, and even the fear that both leaders must have felt about the path their countries may now had begun to travel down.
Above all, they were images of their humanity, something we often forget about our political leaders. They too have feelings like the rest of us about the evil, injustice or whatever of the events, but they also have the responsibility of laying those to one side, and representing the Nation as a whole, as they deal with what has happened.
Warm glow of support
Both President Bush and Prime Minister (Ardern) gained the warm glow of popular support for their measured responses to the appalling tragedies which, undoubtedly, coupled no doubt with massive bursts of adrenalin, helped sustain them during the dark days.
Sadly, as we know from the case of President Bush, mistakes and errors of judgement are likely to occur as time passes, and the immediate wave of public sympathy wanes.
That is not a politically loaded observation, nor a judgement call. It is simply a statement of fact. They are both human beings, after all, and no human being is ever perfect.
Above Partisan fray
The essential point is that Prime Minister (Ardern), like President Bush before her, is genuinely trying to her best, as she sees it, by the country in these unprecedented circumstances. Her efforts deserve the tolerance of our support, whatever our political allegiances. Normal political hostilities will resume over time, but, for now, the situation is one that should be above the partisan fray.
Many words have been spoken and written about the victims and their families since last Friday. No matter how eloquent, how undoubtedly well-meant and sincere, or how compassionate, they are inadequate compensation for the lives so needlessly lost, but they are the best human beings can do in such circumstances.
May all of us in our daily lives stand resolutely with those who have suffered and been so pained, and may we determine to never let hatred and intolerance take firm hold in our land.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown in the Labour and National-led governments from 1999 to 2017. He established the UnitedFuture Party and wound it up on retirement from Parliament. He lives in Wellington.