He wanted notoriety. But it is New Zealand’s stoic leader who has become the face of a tragedy

Christchurch, New Zealand CNN  — 

The man who opened fire on two New Zealand mosques last week may have succeeded in killing 50 people, but the country’s leader has promised to deny him the one thing he truly wanted: Notoriety.

“You will never hear me mention his name,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the New Zealand Parliament Tuesday.

“He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless, and to others I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing – not even his name.”

Since the massacre, Ardern, at 37 the world’s youngest female head of government, has spoken with emotion and empathy, reassuring families and updating the public with the latest on the investigation.

It has been her face – and not that of the suspected shooter – that has come to dominate media coverage.

As the suspect– thanks in part to a ban on publishing certain details about him – has been forced into the background, facing punishment but denied the fame he desired, Ardern has earned international praise for her handling of the event, which has thrust her into the unwelcome role of, as she put it, voicing the grief of a nation.

Personal touch

While Ardern has provided a point of stability for all New Zealanders as the country continues to reel from a terror attack that weeks ago would have seemed implausible, her actions have personally touched the relatives of those who died in the massacre, which tore apart a close Muslim community in this small city of around 400,000 people.

The day after the attack in Christchurch, Ardern wore a hijab as she stood in the center of a room, surrounded by families desperate to hear words of reassurance. They were tired, worried and many were grieving loved ones presumed killed in the hail of bullets fired by a man who singled them out for their beliefs.

Even before she said a word, Ardern’s simple decision to cover her hair served to show families she respected them and wanted to ease their pain.

“People were quite surprised. I saw people’s faces when she was wearing the hijab – there were smiles on their faces,” said Ahmed Khan, a survivor of the attack who lost his uncle at the Al Noor mosque.

Ali Akil, a member of Syrian Solidarity New Zealand who came to Christchurch to support the community, said wearing the hjiab was “a symbolic thing.”

“It’s saying I respect you, what you believe, and I’m here to help,” he said. “I’m very impressed.”

Residents get emotional as they pay respect by placing flowers for the victims of the mosques attacks in Christchurch on March 16, 2019. - New Zealand's prime minister vowed to toughen the country's gun laws after revealing Saturday that the man accused of murdering 49 people in two mosques legally purchased the arsenal of firearms used in the massacre. Jacinda Ardern said the gunman, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, obtained a "Category A" gun licence in November 2017 and began purchasing the five weapons used in Friday's attacks in the southern city of Christchurch the following month. (Photo by Tessa BURROWS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read TESSA BURROWS/AFP/Getty Images)
New Zealand PM bans assault rifles
01:29 - Source: CNN

Tightening gun laws

Ardern also impressed – both inside New Zealand and overseas – with her quick action following the attack.

She was quick to label the incident a terrorist attack, a designation that can be lacking for far-right killings, and within hours had vowed to change the law to prevent future atrocities.

“Our gun laws will change,” she said, evoking memories of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard who clamped down on guns within two weeks of the 1996 massacre at Port Arthur in Tasmania, which killed 35 people.

True to her word, New Zealand’s cabinet met Monday and agreed on “in principle” changes to be detailed next week. They’re expected to include a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

The move has proved popular on the streets of Christchurch where heavily armed police stand guard at roadblocks heaped with flowers in remembrance of the dead.

“I think a lot of us in New Zealand have watched what’s happened in America and we sure as hell don’t want to see that here,” said Trish Jamieson, a social worker who was laying flowers near the Linwood mosque on Sunday.


Ardern was elected Prime Minister in October 2017, at the head of a coalition between her left-wing Labour Party and the populist, anti-immigrantion NZ First.

She had only taken over as Labour leader three months earlier, at which point it was trailing so far in the polls that it looked doubtful it could cobble together a coalition government, let alone score anything close to a majority.

In a poll before Ardern took over from then Labour leader Andrew Little, the party’s support had plunged to less than 25%, a 20-year low. Months later, as “Jacindamania” gripped the nation, it surged to over 40%.

While she would eventually have to rely on NZ First and the Greens for support, Ardern succeeded in boosting Labour enough to make her the world’s youngest serving female leader, and end a decade of control by the conservative-leaning National Party.

Since then she has occupied a role unfamiliar to most New Zealand leaders: Global celebrity.

She became the first world leader in nearly 30 years to give birth in office, and then by taking her three-month old daughter Neve to the United Nations, where Ardern was photographed playing with the baby alongside partner Clarke Gayford. Neve looked on as her mother addressed the assembly while Gayford, whom the couple say is the main caregiver for their daughter, held the baby.

Speaking to CNN after her address, Ardern said she wanted to “normalize” the idea of being a working mother, and described New Zealand as “incredibly progressive.”

Since coming to power, Ardern has presented an image in stark contrast to leaders of many large Western nations. As countries, including the United States, have attempted to keep migrants out, Ardern has actively sought to bring them in.

She’s made multiple offers to take in refugees languishing on Manus Island and Nauru, the products of a Australia’s strict immigration policy. The offer has been repeatedly refused.

This progressive reputation – Ardern has also supported LGBT rights and called for cannabis decriminalization – made it all the more shocking when the country was the subject of a far-right terrorist attack.

“I’ve said many times that we are a nation of 200 ethnicities, 160 languages,” Ardern said Tuesday. “We open our doors to others and say welcome. The only thing that must change after the events of Friday is that this same door must close on all of those who espouse hate and fear.”

CNN’s James Griffiths contributed reporting from Hong Kong.