Her empathy for the survivors of the Christchurch shooting, her swift implementation of practical measures and her refusal to be sucked into anti-Islamic rhetoric provide a lesson other countries should follow
There was something both comforting and distressing about the way the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, consoled her countrys Muslim community after the Christchurch mosque attack. Comforting because here, for once, was a normal human reaction; not robotic or platitudinous, not scripted or insincere. She hugged Muslim men, just as she did women, with a comfort that betrayed no self-consciousness. The power of her response came not only from her warm physical embraceof the survivors and families of victims, but also from symbolic gestures such as wearing the hijab and refusing to use the name of the chief suspect. This was backed up with the right messaging and followed swiftly with practical measures, such as new gun legislation.
It is a marvel to see a response so well calibrated. But it shouldnt be. This is the distressing dimension of Arderns compassionate poise, that it is so unfamiliar, so rare. At a time when governments in Europe and the United States are either brazenly anti-Muslim and xenophobic, or at best silent on the matter of immigration and Islam, what should be the norm is elevated to exceptional. It is a sign of the times that Muslims feel grateful for Arderns outreach, and that the world is lauding her for a response that should come easily to any head of state whose citizens have been slaughtered. Already, thousands of signatures have been collected to nominate Ardern for the Nobel peace prize. Her empathy brings the shortcomings of others into relief. Her performance was impressive, but the bar is low.
It is hard not to compare Ardern with her counterparts. Take Theresa May, a woman whose flawed response to the Grenfell tragedy sealed her reputation as someone so emotionally distant that she was unable to see that a prime ministers place is to comfort the bereaved, rather than mingle with a handful of members of the emergency services flanked by security. But Ardern not only displayed a temperamental superiority, she reminded us that being a head of government is a responsibility that one must rise to, regardless of public sentiment on immigration and Muslims, or how ones response will be perceived.