by Sanjana Hattotuwa
I posted on Facebook this week a rough comparison between New Zealand’s response to terrorism in Christchurch and Sri Lanka’s response to the Easter Sunday attacks, a month after. Fleshing this out and placing it for wider consideration amongst an older demographic, possible through this column, may help kickstart what Martin Luther King Jnr in 1963 called the ‘fierce urgency of now’ to highlight the importance of civil and basic human rights.
The country is moving rapidly, almost inexorably, to the right. The hawks are happy and the populists, salivating. Mob violence in Negombo on Monday, the true nature and extent of which wasn’t fully captured in domestic media, captures a country on edge, even though the PM proclaimed that normalcy had returned. The whole country is combustible and it is unclear what exactly may spark violence or when. A traffic accident, sporting a surgical mask, a colour worn, single sentence, intonation of a word, signboard, looking at someone, looking away from someone, beard, place of worship, patronising a shop, seeing a name, renting a room or house, altercation, a private feud, personal jealousy or hidden hatred now find a febrile, fertile context, islandwide, for digital expression, rapid expansion or kinetic escalation.
Given all this, is our response to terrorism inevitable and justified? Is there another way, an alternative model?
After Christchurch, there is not a single instance of mainstream media in New Zealand following the security forces around and broadcasting visceral footage. No intelligence reports were leaked, to gossip sites or mainstream media. The press didn’t name the perpetrator, following the example set by the Prime Minister speaking in Parliament, a few days after the attack.There was immediate and enduring bi-partisan unity in government to collectively face the aftermath and implications of the terrorism. Coherent, consistent and clear messages from the government helped control and curtail the spread of rumour, fear and anxiety. Empathic, strong political leadership was evident, including the clear identification with victims of the attack through garb and language, led by PM Ardern. In meetings held around the country late March, representatives of the ruling party, Labour, and the opposition, National, were seen together and silent, listening to victims and community representatives. There was no bickering or blaming each other, in these relatively private meetings or in public. The PM visited the scene of the terrorism the very next day, noting that she didn’t do so earlier because it would have impeded Police officers and first responders from doing their duty by the distraction of having to deal her with security.
The government asked the victims how they felt and what they wanted to be done, instead of telling them what to do or making public promises. Political leadership didn’t voice the name of the perpetrator, setting the bar for all others to follow in the country. The focus was on the victims, and not around adding oxygen to infamy. Key content around the attack was deemed illegal to possess and share in any form. Thiswas also communicated to social media companies. Even though the heinous attack was broadcast live and spread virally over many platforms, no social media was blocked in the country. A visibly upset PM instead sanguinely chose to use the moment to work with Silicon Valley technology companies and President Macron of France, to propose and launch a promising new global platform to tackle terrorism online.
No one announced or launched a new political career or campaign in the aftermath of the attacks. Putting human security first, twinning it with national security and in the course of a week, the governmentcompletely overhauled the country’s gun-ownership laws. The PM herself went to schools and spoke directly with children, including those directly affected by the violence. All official memorialisation, remembrance and events to reflect upon and recall the tragedy, to date, have been multi-faith and multi-cultural. All communications from the government, all the time, were in Maori and English. There were no photo-ops of former PMs handing the current PM intelligence reports.
Compare and contrast to what we have witnessed after Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Human rights activists are being blamed for terrorism by the President. Not to be outdone, the Army Commander blamed ‘too much of freedom’ and ‘too much of peace’ as drivers of recent terrorism. Though it is entirely unclear what this means or he himself understands what he said, the reception to both statements was largely positive, suffering little pushback. Populist politics and policies were going to define 2019’s political and electoral cartography well before Easter Sunday. The attacks accelerated and cemented these dynamics. Key figures who through dog-whistle politics and proxies now weaponise grief, also offer personal guarantees of relief and security. In criticising the President and PM, which is richly deserved, political operators also discredit institutions and democratic norms, setting the foundation for authoritarian frameworks anchored to outcomes over due process, discipline over democracy, and ends that justify the means. One individual used the immediate aftermath of the terrorism to announce his candidature for the Presidential elections.
The Speaker, with an increasingly active Twitter account, reiterated the need for national security, echoing the dominant sentiment of others jostling for public acceptance. The UNP’s political, public and crisis communications remains, save for a brief period late last year, a good idea. The President continues to make false statements, and now in Parliament. Mainstream media’s enduring fascination with blood, gore and sensationalism have dominated the framing of Easter Sunday and its aftermath. Leading commentators simplistically suggest the indictment of intelligence officers responsible for the most heinous of human rights violations or implicated in extra-judicial killings and abductions are somehow central in the purported demoralisation of the sector, allowing this terrorism to grow. The rule of law aside, which is now projected as a luxury the country cannot afford, the multiple intelligence reports provided by elite domestic and international intelligence agencies over months that went unheeded aren’t included in this reasoning. And despite commendable efforts by the Cardinal and others, communal tensions are rising. The accurate reportage of this is constrained and curtailed through the weaponisation of draconian emergency regulations, where even accurate journalism that flags this unrest risks being reported as content that inflames communal tension. Journalists on the ground are burnt out, and worried, observing more than they dare to report.
Ironically, MLK’s words may give the greatest legitimacy to hawks and their hacks in Sri Lanka today. Those in favour of a blanket, sustained militarisation and the clamping down of freedomin response to terrorism propose as inevitable and necessary the policies, actions and regulations they propose. Especially when confronted with the monstrous incompetence of both the President and PM, counter-arguments seem both weak and risible. However, the entirely justified anger directed at and criticism of those in government must not extend to the outright dismissal of democracy, and what are clear laws in place to address terrorism. Are New Zealand’s vital lessons in this regard, because it is a 1st world country, exceptional and inappropriate as a foil? I think not. Decency, dignity and democracy aren’t things just for the West or white people. They are notrecent or cheap imports. They are not an American conspiracy. These are our values. They are ingrained in our history. At a time when the political and sections of the religious firmament conveniently forget this and what we truly are, have been, and will continue to be, we have a choice to be silent or speak up.
Like a surprising number of others at this time, I choose to speak and stand up. In small but meaningful ways, amongst family, friends and colleagues, online and in person, I hope you do, too.
Courtesy: Sunday Island