John Armstrong’s opinion: Christchurch Royal Commission must dig deep to heal nation's wounds

It is still very early days to be making such an assumption, but the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque massacres looks like being a somewhat different beast to previous probes accorded that high-level status.

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Supreme Court Justice Sir William young will head the wide ranging inquiry. Source: 1 NEWS

The commission’s hearings and findings are likely to amount to much-needed catharsis — and not just for the members of the Muslim community, most of whom will still be stunned by the tragedy.

Many of them will also be heaped in guilt for having survived the onslaught on everything they hold dear, be that faith, family or whatever.

At this point, it should be emphasised that this Royal Commission will not be unique in being a vehicle that brings “closure”— to borrow that tired, overused and consequently devalued term.

It would have been the hope of all New Zealanders at the time that the Royal Commission into the crash of one of the national airline’s DC-10 passenger jets in the Antarctic would bring closure to the families, relatives and friends of the 257 passengers and crew who perished in that calamity some four decades ago.

It didn’t. That inquiry instead brought angst, anguish and argument. 

It will be hoped the current Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions will bring some kind of closure for those who spent time in those homes where things horrid were a fact of daily life.

Those two examples are evidence of something else, however. It is usually the case that the great bulk of the populace is several steps removed from the subject matter under investigation by a Royal Commission.

What makes the inquiry into the events of March 15 different is that they cut about as close to the bone figuratively-speaking as it is possible to get.       

Everyone feels wounded by the atrocity; everyone is struggling to understand how someone could become so devoid of humanity.

The inquiry offers a forum for the nation as a whole to confront these demons which — judging from some of the copy-cat behaviour of recent days — lurk not that far below the surface of New Zealand’s at times rather dysfunctional society. 

Without such a mechanism providing the means to purge and cleanse the national soul, the country will be tempted to keep looking back as much as it wishes to march forwards. 

Admittedly — and thankfully — the near unanimity displayed by Parliament in tightening up New Zealand’s up-till-now woefully-lax gun control laws has begun the healing the deep wound to the nation’s psyche.

Shame on David Seymour for failing to realise that. Let it be forever on his conscience that when the call came to put the national interest ahead of his party’s interest, he was found wanting.

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The royal commission of inquiry will be chaired by Supreme Court Justice Sir William Young. Source: 1 NEWS

Let’s forget about the Act Party, however. Everyone else has.

The Royal Commission is countless times more important.

It is essential that  the country is provided with some mechanism to examine and thus understand how someone could do something so evil.

The Commission’s terms of reference, unveiled by the Prime Minister last Monday, guarantee that will happen.

Much of the Commission’s resources will be devoted to unearthing every element of the alleged killer’s life which might help to explain what motivated him. Also under investigation will be any links to groups within or outside New Zealand. Without answers, then closure is not possible.

Neither can closure be found by simply ignoring the alleged mass murderer.

That was pretty much the stance adopted by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the shooting spree.

It was the wrong stance.

Jacinda Ardern’s vow that no-one would ever again hear her utter the name of the alleged killer might have been just the kind of evocative and passionate response that circumstances demanded at that time.

That statement also amounted to a kind of retaliatory move made on behalf of all New Zealanders expressed in the most civilised, yet firmest of tones.

She then implored others to similarly “speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them”.

That plea flowed from her view that one of the prime things that the alleged gunman had been seeking from the slaughter of innocents at the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre was notoriety.

Not mentioning his name would thus deny him that notoriety he was craving.

It is within Ardern’s prerogative to hold such an opinion.

However, she appears to have been influenced by the growing calls in the United States for those committing mass shootings not to be named in order to deprive them of recognition and fame.

It is claimed some shootings might have been prevented if such “incentives” were removed and that the shooters should be as unrecognised in their deaths as they were in their lives.

It is argued that media coverage increases the frequency of mass shootings just as the detailing of suicides boosts the numbers of people resorting to taking their own lives.

The trouble with that line of argument is that there is not a thread of scientific evidence to verify such a causal link.

In the Christchurch case, moreover, the shooter chose not to follow the standard script which would have had him bringing about his death by his own hand or being cut down in hail of bullets fired by the police.

The sense of closure that would have been provided by his death has thus been denied both the Muslim community and the wider populace.

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The National Party Leader says we need to understand whether the Christchurch shooting could have been prevented. Source: 1 NEWS

His intention may be to have himself put on trial in order to promote his ideology from the platform of the High Court. The moment he tries to do so, however, he would be silenced by the presiding judge.

He may well be silenced. But the blunt truth is that the genie of notoriety is out of the bottle. 

When someone is facing 50 charges of murder and 39 of attempted murder — numbers which make that person potentially responsible for the largest mass killing in New Zealand’s history — it is pointless to try to stuff that notoriety back into the bottle.

Like any other miscreant brought before the courts, if found guilty he must be made to accept responsibility for his actions, no matter how unpleasant that will prove to be for the families of his victims.

That is even more essential in his case, given the scale and magnitude of his alleged crimes.

Every decision made not to mention Brenton Tarrant’s name allows him to further abrogate that responsibility.

In summary, every Royal Commission that deals in death and destruction has the same bottom-line. What happened must never happen again.

Without being able to see how the pieces in the jigsaw which make that individual what he is, we will never understand the how and why. 

Without that understanding then make no mistake we risk it all happening again.