Post-Massacre Reality: Why We Shouldn't Move On
Faisal Al-Asaad examines the way we speak about crises and a mounting pressure to 'move on' from tragedy.
Political practice often resembles managerialism in at least one respect: its demand for neatness and simplicity. ‘Streamlining’ is not exactly a favoured buzzword of politicians and activists, but it may as well be.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen this on full display in the wake of the mosque shooting. As the state moved to clean up the mess it helped create in Ōtautahi Christchurch, mainstream media worked overtime to sanitize and launder the Muslim image it had spent years staining and muddying. While this was happening, a quiet deletion of a large Islamophobia archive took place.
Harmony has only ever been a euphemism for relative consensus
Of course, there was also no harm in running national identity through another whitewash cycle. Press conferences and vigils up and down the country recentered the narrative around the comforting but very much vacuous uniformity of “this is not us” and “they are us” rhetoric. In the meantime, the meaningless void that is comments sections filled with racist vitriol, and a vigil in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland even saw dozens of people walk out in protest over its “politicization” by overly vocal and angry Muslim speakers. Harmony has only ever been a euphemism for relative consensus.
On this count, it is perhaps worth noting that anti-racist activism has tended to share at least some of the mainstream’s disposition, though certainly not its goals or aspirations. Few of us are attracted to this space because of any messiness involved: ‘complexity’ and ‘nuance’ may be part of the lexicon, but not the aesthetic. We seek shelter in it as a momentary escape from the very contradictions and compromises we are forced to endure by the everyday exigencies of racial, capitalist modernity.
But as many found a means with which to reorder and smooth out their post-massacre reality, others were faced with an intractably fractured and shattered existence. What is more, we are not entirely sure how it could be any other way.
I’ve found myself reflecting on this experiential dissonance, having kept one foot in the Muslim community and one foot outside. It is jarring, to say the least, and the only way I can describe the difference between the two spaces is that between a sinking ship and those on the shore scrambling, or not, to do something. At times, this has been so to the extent that I’m forced to picture someone standing on an upturned helm as it is slowly submerged, and watching a shore-side debate unfold between a haughty, sunburnt, barbecuing beachgoer explaining why those onboard have only themselves to blame, and the woke ally unleashing a devastating ‘call out’.
many of us are still in the water, too immersed in it to try and make sense of or ‘find meaning’ in it
This metaphor really shouldn’t be pushed too far, not least since it symbolises the very material devastation wrought by what not long ago, we called the “Refugee Crisis.” But I guess what I’m trying to say is that many of us are still in the water, too immersed in it to try and make sense of or ‘find meaning’ in it. Nothing looks neat or simple from here, especially when you’re getting pushed and pulled by angry, unpredictable waves, and taking action is easier said than done when you’re frequently going under.
By now you’ve perhaps heard this more than once: few of us were surprised by what happened. For two decades, every mosque around the Western world has probably been occasion to the wry quip, loaded with irony and anxiety in equal measure, that ‘it would be so easy for someone to just walk in here right now and start shooting’. But nothing can prepare you for it when it happens, and there are no protocols for afterwards; no tikanga for mourning fifty people slaughtered in their place of worship.
So while many seemed to be scrambling, many others equivocated. A reporter friend of mine who lives in Turkey flew down to Christchurch the following day, while another who lived in Auckland decided against it, as did I. The compunction had more to do with practical rather than moral agency: it wasn’t a question of whether or not we wanted to be there, but one of whether or not we would just be taking up space. Sure enough, a few days later I was on a phone call with another friend who did make her way down, and who railed against “all these Aucklanders” when I asked about the media’s reporting of distraught families awaiting the return of the bodies, “the families are a little frustrated,” she said, “but they’re fine and they just want to see their loved ones; it’s all these Aucklanders who are getting angry on their behalf and making a big deal out of it.” But then again, in a situation that can’t be helped, unhelpfulness is simply a matter of degree.
And to be clear, ‘all these Aucklanders’ are still our people, as are various leaders within our communities who tend to leave in their wake a path of mistakes, missteps, and mishandling in the best of situations, to say nothing of the one we’re in now. This is nothing new to us; it’s really an occupational hazard at this point. That is, of being part of a Western Muslim community riven by generational, racial, and gendered tensions, and with little in the way of democratic governance. In the wake of such events, these dynamics come into sharper relief, and you become keenly aware of a sense in which the community you’re a part of are really just people you’re stuck with.
‘Rooting out racism’ sounds like a lovely Sunday morning activity, but the fact is that our problem isn’t the weed, it’s in the soil
There are other, more claustrophobic ways in which one can be stuck: between the rock of security and intelligence and the hardplace of civil society. In the mega-industry of humanitarianism and its reproduction of suffering victims, Western Muslims have never been the ideal site of investment, unless recast as refugees and asylum seekers. However, an adventurous few have made significant inroads, to the extent that their interventions and positions in our communities go virtually unquestioned. Indeed, these groups and individuals tend to speak and act on behalf of Muslims with impunity, knowing as they do that we lack the social, cultural, and economic capital to direct our own affairs and protect our own people. If this seems overly cryptic, it is because the wellbeing of vulnerable people depends on it. This is the reality of a ‘community sector’ that renders our livelihood contingent on our subservience.
No wonder so few of us find comfort in existing avenues for political action: technocratic crisis management and protest-centered anti-racism have little to offer on these fronts. Police safety briefings provide great photo ops for our self-ordained leaders and saviours, and little else, while queen street rallies reinforce the impression that the enemy is a swastika-clad fringe on the West Coast. ‘Rooting out racism’ sounds like a lovely Sunday morning activity, but the fact is that our problem isn’t the weed, it’s in the soil.
The man stood outside the Palmerston North mosque. Scenes from the video of the massacre remained etched, with ghoulish and vivid clarity, on his mind. Still high on a mixture of adrenaline and nerves three days later, he stood there daring, hoping, one of the mosque-goers might show up. But a part of him knew this was unlikely: the suckers were still reeling, afraid and weary they might be next. Besides, the point wasn’t to make them bleed; just to rub salt in the wound and savour his victory.
The man with the swastika-emblazoned singlet was later approached and ushered away by police. Predictably, and as he himself probably anticipated, none of the charges were brought against him which one might reasonably expect in such a scenario: public nuisance, disturbance of the peace, inciting violence. But should you feel incensed, rest assured that police told him, maybe even sternly, that it was a no-no: “he’s allowed to stand there and he’s allowed to wear a t-shirt of his choice. It’s just a case of letting him know it’s not appropriate”.
I love this story, it has been a personal favourite since the attack. It is not only the fact that in a remarkable observation by a member of the world’s most fatuous police force, the symbol of one of the greatest human catastrophes in modern history was reduced to a form of cultural expression.
Move on: if that isn’t the greatest metaphor for ideology in our time, I don’t know what is
It is also how this story captures, in such a wonderful and grotesque synecdoche, the full gamut of conditions that produce white supremacy: the bureaucratically minded public servant for whom quietude and complacency pass as public welfare; the white man whose entire life experience amounts to being reassured, in a million different quotidian ways, of his entitlement to other people’s bodies and lands; and, I imagine, innumerable bystanders, leading their daily existence according to that quintessentially kiwi principle – conflict aversion. Fantasise as we might about the changes to come in the wake of tragedy, the fact is that barely three days after the massacre, a white man sporting a swastika outside a mosque was met with nothing more than a polite ‘move on’.
Move on: if that isn’t the greatest metaphor for ideology in our time, I don’t know what is. If once ideology was imagined as inviting us to participate freely in the crimes of the state, it is now sufficient as the unequivocal demand for our indifference. Move on, there’s nothing to see here. It is fitting that the police should be so fond of this expression, since it performs all the vital tasks entrusted them by the state: to normalize crisis and obliterate dissent. Yet if policing and ideology can share such an intimate conceptual space, it is no stretch to contemplate middle New Zealand as the consummation of their union. Isn’t it true that every occasion for ‘recalling’ the violence of colonialism is met with ‘move on, it’s in the past’? Just yesterday a Hamilton city councillor opined that the best course of action for the nation is to ‘move on’ from the shooting and ‘act normally’ as though nothing had happened. A former police officer himself, the councillor apparently felt that, for fifty dead Muslims, fourteen days of grief is surely enough. It doesn’t take a historian of the armed constabulary and settler militia to recognise that the descendants of these groups have inherited a culture that is strikingly authoritarian.
For all the sinister ideological trappings of the injunction to ‘move on’, being on the move is all the same important, as is the measure of normality it makes possible. Arabic speakers know this as well as anyone: “mashi el hal” intimates, if not positive wellbeing, then a sense of the ordinary, ‘my state of being is in motion’. Nothing else quite conveys the odd mixture of joylessness and hopefulness as this little, colloquial phrase: mashi el hal, things are as they should be, and if they aren’t here and now, they might be eventually, somewhere down the road; either way, this is the journey I’m on. I’ve always found the mild contentedness conveyed therein strangely comforting: no over the top posturing or contrived performance, just a determined resignation to the fact that our world is full of contingencies and contradictions, and that one must simply persevere to navigate their way through the gauntlet.
This is what comes crashing to a standstill in situations like that of the shooting; in situations of crisis. A crisis is precisely that, wherein normality is suspended. It is the sudden stop or interruption, without invitation or warning; it is the disarming jolt as the bus comes screeching to a halt, or as the power is suddenly cut off. We snap into survival mode, whatever that looks like: a sudden rush of alertness and activity, or at the very least a rush of anxiety, and the frantic effort to put things back to normal and back into motion. In the extreme, as in recent weeks, it is also the desperate attempt to avoid dwelling on the absurdity of one’s continued existence in lieu of those lost. For many of us, the seemingly unlikely pair of survival mode and survivor’s guilt have been nothing if not dutiful companions.
But this flurry of activity and movement is difficult to sustain, and every now and then a dreaded pause in the action is imminent. In those moments one is assaulted by the realization that, as a friend put it, “I don’t even know what ‘normal life’ is supposed to look like after this.” In the standstill, we are forced to take stock of how it came to be this way; of where to go and how to get there; of the difference between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’. It is no accident that crisis and critique have a common etymological origin. The Greek krino designates the act of separating or cutting, implies a rupture in the order of things. Eventually prevailing as a predominantly medical term, it also came to denote a critical moment in which life or death are at stake, and which calls for a decisive judgement to be made between alternative courses of action. We have to pause and weigh things up, but at some point, we have to make a decision and start moving again.
I want to sit with that empty space, amidst the debris of the ship-wreck, before it is inevitably cleared, cleaned up and remade as a memorial to our saviours
If this is true, we should be properly Hippocratic and consider the ethics of the critical moment. In a sense, and regardless of what we decide, there is something fundamentally unethical about action, not least the political kind, insofar as we place our voices and agencies precisely where others have lost theirs. Our decisions are made by us and for us, in the absence of those who shared our journey up until this point. What is more, it must be this way. But for now, and for as long as possible, I want to sit with that empty space, amidst the debris of the ship-wreck, before it is inevitably cleared, cleaned up and remade as a memorial to our saviours.