Let’s start with some background: Last October, the police raided a Maori village in a nationwide action targeting Maori militants and environmental activists suspected of training in military-style camps and plotting terrorist acts. Maori groups called the raids, during which police allegedly shot tires and held at least one family at gun point, overblown responses to benign survival-training activities. The government moved to charge 12 people—indigenous Maoris and whites—under the Terrorism Suppression Act, but the effort faltered when the solicitor-general said the post-9/11 law was “incomprehensible.” In the end, the Associated Press reported in December, the authorities settled on charges of illegal possession and use of firearms.
The arrests upset the normally quiet island nation, breaking along one of New Zealand’s most unsettling fault lines: the treatment of the country’s 540,000 Maoris. (Maoris make up 15 percent of the population but more than half of the country’s prisoners.) Large demonstrations were held to protest the arrests and the anti-terror law, the radical environmentalist Earth First! Journal reported. Then, last month, the government acknowledged that it had received a formal letter of inquiry about the incident from the United Nations.
Denis O’Reilly, a columnist on Maori youth issues for the New Zealand Edge, places the blame for the incident on New Zealand’s misguided adoption of foreign strategies. Through the use of imported labels like “terrorist” and the equation of groups of disaffected Maori youth with American street gangs, the domestic discourse has conflated its local problems with various international boogie-men. Instead, O’Reilly argues, New Zealanders should deal with their country on its own terms:
We import models, concepts, and words from abroad and then seek to apply them here. In the same way as some of our early NZ town planners and architects [...] fail to take into account that we are in the Southern rather than the Northern Hemisphere and we end up living facing the wrong way for the natural elements that surround us.
O’Reilly wonders what the outcome would have been if the government looked to its own shores for a homegrown response: What if the prime minister had approached the accused through indigenous communication channels like members of the tribal police liaison instead of sending in the cops?
Image of 2007 demonstration in Auckland, New Zealand, by InfonewsNZ, licensed under Creative Commons.