New Zealand's Ambassador To The U.S.: 'This Is Indeed A Deeply Sad Time For Us'

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 15, 2019 11:10 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There was a deadly massacre earlier today in Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand. It killed at least 49 Muslim worshippers in two mosques. A number of suspects are in custody. One man has been charged with murder. This is the response from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference this morning.

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MIKE POMPEO: The United States condemns this hateful assault. We pledge our unwavering solidarity with the government and people of New Zealand in this hour of darkness, and we stand ready to offer any and all assistance.

GREENE: We have a representative of New Zealand's government with us. It is Ambassador Rosemary Banks. She is New Zealand's ambassador designate to the United States. Ambassador, our condolences to you and your country today.

ROSEMARY BANKS: Thank you. We have deeply appreciated the messages of sympathy and solidarity that we've received from the president, from Secretary Pompeo and from many, many of our other American friends. This is indeed a deeply sad time for us.

GREENE: What is the latest that you're hearing from Christchurch? We were hearing scenes at hospitals this morning that just sounded devastating - people waiting to - just hoping that their loved ones were in there recovering.

BANKS: Well, it is a period where we are still working through exactly who is most injured. The police have responded very quickly. All the New Zealand authorities are totally focused on this at present, and our prime minister has come out very strongly condemning this as a completely senseless act of violence against innocent people.

GREENE: Calling this maybe the darkest day in your country - is it feeling that way to you today?

BANKS: It really does. We have never experienced a terrorist attack of this nature. We felt great sympathy and concern when we'd seen those attacks here in the United States and Europe and elsewhere. But this is our first experience. As you can imagine, we are reflecting deeply on where this has come from and how it could have happened.

GREENE: Yeah, I want to ask you about that. I mean, the suspect - one suspect has been charged with murder. And as we understand it - although we haven't confirmed it yet - he published some kind of lengthy screed online that sounds like it had a lot of racist language, talking about immigrants, talking about that he had been inspired by extremists in the United States. I mean, as you learn more about that writing and about him, what are you reflecting on?

BANKS: I think we are reflecting on the way that extremist ideology has penetrated all of our societies. And no doubt in the long periods of analysis and thoughtful reflection after this, we will have to try to work out how we protect our society, how we become more resilient. We have been very open. We're a very diverse society. We've had - we have over 200 ethnicities, 160 languages. It's perhaps not the image that people have of New Zealand, but we have been very welcoming to outsiders.

And it's a double tragedy that for these people who are the victims in these mosques, they're refugees, they are people from our migrant communities who have chosen to live in New Zealand, thinking they would find a safe place where they could be free in their religion and their culture.

GREENE: In this online screed or statement that we're talking about, the United States was referenced a lot. I mean, the debate over the Second Amendment here - there was talk of, you know, a possible civil war over gun rights in the United States. I mean, what conversations do you think need to happen between your government and U.S. officials, given a lot of that?

BANKS: Well. I personally haven't seen the - I haven't read what has been put on social media by the attacker. But I think in our country, one of the things that it will cause us to think about again is how well our own gun laws and control of weapons is actually working.

GREENE: And what are gun laws in New Zealand? How easy it is - is it to access guns?

BANKS: It's not easy, but it seems that there are weapons coming into the country. And not all of the those - we have a very strict licensing system, but unfortunately, that seems not to be trapping all of the weapons that it should be or the owners that it should be.

GREENE: I mean, speaking of weapons potentially coming in and speaking of whoever carried this out, often, we see attacks like this carried out maybe by a lone wolf. It sounds like there are multiple people in custody in relation to this incident. Is your government convinced and is law enforcement convinced that this is over at this stage?

BANKS: I believe they are convinced this particular event is over. I can't comment further on exactly how far the police have got in their investigation. They certainly had detained four people. It seems like one of those is the one that is most likely the one who did the attack.

GREENE: It sounds like you were talking about New Zealand as a place that felt so safe. I mean, your country embraces multiculturalism. It sounds like it was a place where you might think that you were safe from something like this. I wonder if you think that this might, in some way, change your country or its culture at this moment.

BANKS: You know, that's something I think we have to be very determined to make sure doesn't happen, and you've just seen the prime minister's own words about that. She said that these - the values that we hold so dear - our diversity, freedom of speech, freedom of culture, freedom of religion, all the things that you hold dear - that in no way can this attack either shake these values or change them. I'm sure that all New Zealand is thinking about our future today. We'll be reaffirming that we will remain the kind of safe country and free country that we have been.

But we have to be aware that there are perhaps new dangers, new threats that we have not ourselves had to confront up till now in the way that you and some other countries - many other countries have. So we've been very blessed. We're conscious of that. We've been very happy to welcome visitors to our country, and we shall show continue to do so. I'm sure we will remain safe.

GREENE: What sort of assistance can the United States and the world community provide to New Zealand at this moment as we head into this weekend?

BANKS: Well, we very much appreciate a number of offers of assistance that we've had. We are a member of the security community - have a close security partnership with the United States. And we do know and appreciate that if we see a need - if we see some need for assistance in this difficult time that we can certainly reach out to you as our good friends.

GREENE: Rosemary Banks is New Zealand's ambassador-designate to the United States. Speaking to her about the tragedy in Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand this morning - an attack on two mosques that killed at least 49 people. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time. And we're all thinking of New Zealand today.

BANKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.