Can you forgive a mass murderer? Can someone who conceived a hatred for your kind, who arbitrarily targeted your community and methodically prepared a slaughter that took the life of your husband, of your wife or child, of your parent or brother or sister, along with the lives of friends  – can such a man become the object of your charity? Your pity?

Yes. This week in the High Court at Christchurch, during the four emotionally charged days of the sentencing of Brenton Tarrant, perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks, “I forgive you” was heard more than once from a survivor or relative of those murdered by the terrorist.

Yet the dominant message of 91 victim impact statements seems to have been, “No! I cannot forgive you!”

Unresolved heartbreak and anguish were palpable as wives, sons, fathers and daughters accused him. You took from me my precious companion, the father of my children. You murdered my child. You nearly killed my little daughter. I cannot sleep. You riddled my body with shrapnel and now I live in pain in a wheelchair.

And there was raw anger, no doubt increased by the impassive gaze of the assassin in the dock. You are a coward, a nobody, trash, scum of the world. You will rot in jail alone. Only the fire of hell awaits you. You are a monster, you deserve to suffer, to spend the rest of your life in silence.

Several also taunted the killer with the good that came of his evil deeds: the overwhelming support the Muslim community has received from the New Zealand public and a greater unity among Muslims themselves, who come here from many countries. “This event made us more united, stronger… you are the biggest loser,” said Mohamad Adwy.

Many begged Justice Cameron Mander to keep the terrorist locked up forever.

And who can blame them? Brendon Tarrant committed truly horrendous crimes.

The 29-year-old Australian came to New Zealand in 2017 for the sole purpose of planning and carrying out an attack on the Muslim community. He based himself in the southern city of Dunedin, trained at local gun clubs, built up a stock of 7000 rounds of ammunition, chose two mosques in Christchurch and one in another town (which he failed to reach) researched the mosques and visited the main one, Al Noor, surveying it by drone. He wrote his manifesto and uploaded his livestream to the internet.

Then he stormed the mosques during Friday prayer, when the greatest number of people would be there, on their knees, backs to the door. He went from room to room firing indiscriminately and then systematically firing at the wounded. He put two shots directly into a wounded toddler clinging to his father’s leg. Speeding away to the second mosque he drove over the body of a woman whom he had just executed. He told police that he had intended to burn down the mosques as well.

As a result of the attacks, 51 people died and 40 were wounded. It was an act of calculated terrorism that came completely out of the blue and profoundly shocked the whole country. It traumatised many victims and survivors. Why should anyone forgive that?

But some have, and in a couple of instances at least, with impressive generosity.

Addressing Tarrant by his given name, grieving father John Milne held up photos of his youngest son in court and said, “I have forgiven you, Brenton, even though you murdered my 14-year-old son Sayyad.”

The murder had left a huge hole in his heart that would only heal when he saw his son again in heaven, Milne said. “I hope to see you there too, Brenton. And if you get the chance, I would love you to say sorry to Sayyad. I am sure he has forgiven you too.”

Milne thanked Tarrant for eventually pleading guilty to the murders and saving “so much extra pain”. He wanted him to keep a photo of his son. “Once again, you are forgiven unconditionally, Brenton. Please remember his name Sayyad. S.A.Y.Y.A.D.”

Janna Ezat spoke movingly about her son, Hussein-Al-Umari, killed at the age of 35. It was her birthday, and Mother’s Day in the Middle East, when she received Hussein Al-Umari’s body which was still riddled with bullet holes. “He used to give me flowers for my birthday but instead I got his body,” she said.

She ended her statement, however, by saying, “I decided to forgive you Mr Tarrant, because I don’t have hate. I don’t have revenge. The damage was done and Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice … to forgive you.”

It was the first day of sentencing and the only time that day that Tarrant appeared to acknowledge his victims. He gave a slight nod before blinking repeatedly and wiping an eye.

Khadra Ibrahim’s 3-year-old brother, Mucaad, was the youngest murder victim (the toddler mentioned earlier). She had not seen him recently since she lives in Perth. She was still struggling with feelings of anger and hate for killer but said she forgave Tarrant.

The outstanding witness to the possibility of forgiveness in this case, however, is Farid Ahmed.

When the shooting began, his wife Husna was in the women’s room at Al Noor Mosque. She immediately ushered as many of the women and children as she could to safety, but as she ran back into the mosque to look for her husband, who depends on a wheelchair, Tarrant shot her.

Within days, however, he would tell The Herald he forgave the murderer. This week, he affirmed what he said at the beginning: “He is a human brother of mine… Maybe he was hurt, something else happened in his life and he couldn’t process his grief and disappointment in a healthy way. But I have forgiven him, and I am sure if my wife was alive she would have done the same thing. So I have no grudge.”

He says his faith is strong and he turned to Quranic teaching to get him through his darkest days. “I had choices either to seek punishment or to forgive. I chose the path of forgiveness, without any expectation.”

Making peace with Tarrant in his heart has freed Ahmed to do something constructive, he says.  He speaks regularly in the community and at events around the world delivering a message of love and peace. He also wrote a book as a tribute to his wife, a heroine of the massacre, in the hope more people would understand his decision to forgive her killer, something his daughter has also done.

Will these expressions of forgiveness penetrate the heart of Brenton Tarrant, a place of contradictory impulses?

The prosecutor called him a dangerous narcissist, ideologically driven, who should be locked up for life. 

During the days of sentencing he sat shackled in the dock, a diminutive figure in prison issue sweats, turning an expressionless gaze on his accusers, although when one of them made a joke at his expense he laughed along, before correcting himself.  

At his conviction he had pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, intent to kill and terrorism, but subsequently changed his plea to guilty. At sentencing he gave up his right to speak, letting a standby lawyer state briefly that he agreed with Justice Mander’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole – a first for New Zealand. It would have been the right time for an apology.

At different times, according to probation and psychological reports, Tarrant has said he could not control his impulse to offend and that no professional could help him – he was the only person who could psychoanalyse himself; but also that his beliefs at the time of the massacre were “not real”, that he was in a “poisoned mental state” and was “terribly unhappy”, that he felt ostracised by society and wanted revenge. He has also expressed remorse, and even said he was willing to meet victims in a restorative justice process.

A friend of the court argued for a minimum non-parole sentence, saying there was a chance Tarrant could be rehabilitated, that a life sentence was inhumane and degrading, that Tarrant had “the right to hope”.

But the judge wasn’t wearing it. He was not persuaded by reports of a change of heart. As far as he could gauge, Tarrant was “empty of any empathy” for his victims, remaining detached and self-centred.  

Brenton Tarrant will spend the rest of his life in prison. Most of his survivor-victims are jubilant. As for Farid Ahmed, he prays for guidance for his wife’s killer, that his heart may change “from hate to love, from violence to peace” and that his “conscience wakes up and makes him realise how he ruined himself and others.”

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet