Shame, fury and sadness: A Sri Lankan’s view of the New Lynn attack 

By Brannavan Gnanalingam 

Sinkholes are curious phenomena, where we don’t notice gradual changes under the surface, until suddenly, the surface layer collapses. Things, people, buildings, can unwittingly fall inwards. 

When sinkholes occur in urban environments, following the complex interplay between human activity and the natural environment, these can have devastating consequences. It’s almost as if the intricate grids and meeting points that make up an urban space can coalesce into one, vulnerable spot. 

Whenever there is a terror attack, I instinctively hope that it wasn’t a brown person. From talking with friends, I know it is a widespread reaction. It’s a fear of the downstream consequences if that were the case. 

The New Lynn Countdown attack was a worst-case scenario in that respect. A Sri Lankan man, radicalised by ISIS propaganda, carried out a horrendous, random attack. 

I feel numb in the immediate aftermath as a Sri Lankan; my breath and my heart collapsing into a hole of its own making. 

I don’t purport to speak for anyone but myself. I know many immigrants are desperate to tread lightly in New Zealand. Keep your head down and hope that you can do the best for your family and community. Be the model minority. No-one wants the unwanted attention that comes from someone in your community doing something so despicable. 

My initial reaction to the events is one of shame. There’s the desperate desire to disavow it – this guy doesn’t represent us. In many of the phone calls and texts among family, there is that constant refrain of his difference. Old cultural divisions playing out via modern technologies. 

‘He’s not one of us’ 

That desire is naturally intended to be deflective. Perhaps there’s this peculiar aspect to being Sri Lankan: we know more than most the way that single shocking acts could explode disproportionately into terrible scapegoating. Those holes can become permanent fixtures. But simply, I also feel the shame that once again, being Sri Lankan has been associated with something awful. 

Growing up as a Sri Lankan here, I was conscious that the country of my birth was only really known for war and terror (unless you were also a cricket fan). 

On my first day of high school social studies, we were asked what comes to mind when you hear the word “Asia”. Most people said banal things like “rice” or “China” or “sushi”. 

One person, out of nowhere, said the “Tamil Tigers”. As the only Tamil person in the class, I was like, “C’mon man, that’s not the first thing people think when they hear the word Asia”, followed by, “Was that a personal dig?” followed by “How the hell do you know that?”. 

But it’s true that Sri Lanka in the West has largely been described by successive decades of horror – war, the Boxing Day Tsunami, and terror attacks. There is also the sad fact that decades of such events would have a warping effect on a number of people. 

What wasn’t being told though were the everyday stories of Sri Lankans going about their lives, the complexity and messiness of its histories, and the sheer diversity of its peoples. 

My numbness was soon replaced by fury at him. How could someone be so warped that they’d take it out on random strangers? How could he be so gullible to act on such stupid, fascist ideas? 

My fury was particularly magnified given the solidarity and hard work ordinary New Zealanders (and particularly Aucklanders) have done with level 4. For many in these times, a trip to the supermarket was a daily highlight. I feel so much sympathy and sorrow for the victims and supermarket staff caught up in all of this. 

When a sinkhole collapses, it can also start a chain reaction. I fear that this guy’s behaviour will give ammunition to other disgusting elements to lump together innocent Sri Lankans and Muslims. 

There was barely-concealed glee among the Islamophobic goons in Sri Lanka and India in response to the attack. The cultural warmongers in the UK and the US, desperate to show New Zealand up because of its successful (touch wood) Covid-19 response, have also been vocal with their “told-you-sos”. 

There is also the sadness of what this attack means. 

His actions give political cover for unduly risk-averse responses on refugee resettlement, particularly during a period when the need is so acute. That actual innocent lives will be affected by this man’s actions. And more generally, our right as Sri Lankans to define ourselves as simply ordinary, is once again superseded by the worst of us. 

But I do feel some resolve, as well. That this guy can’t define us. 

It isn’t enough simply to wait for the next sinkhole to appear. Sinkholes can be fixed through hard work and ensuring our foundations are strong. We can’t just let the cracks be simply papered over. 

(The writer is a Sri Lankan New Zealander. This article was first published in Stuff on 4 September 2021)