Two weeks ago, my country lost three soldiers in a single attack in Afghanistan. This may not sound unusual to those from other countries who’ve seen regular losses among their military, but New Zealand’s role in the Bamyan province since 2003 has primarily been the Provincial Reconstruction Team, rebuilding infrastructure and educating the locals towards self-sufficiency — we have lost 10 soldiers during our time in Afghanistan. The impact of these three deaths on our nation was made more heartfelt by the loss of two more soldiers in another attack only two weeks earlier, and the fact that one of the three was Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, the first female soldier killed since the Vietnam War.
New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan has been a point of regular debate within our country, especially as the conflict has worn on, with strong opinions presented on either side. This debate comes to the fore more prominently when we lose soldiers, but one detractor in particular managed to upset the apple cart with comments on Facebook (we’ll call her Ms. X).
“Oh so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking – did they forget she also like invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass”
And in response to someone pointing out how disrespectful Ms. X was being to someone who’d given their life to honour their country…
“that’s not honoring our country, it’s helping to destroy another one. She 100% does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices. We are not at war. We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that. Go to war expect to be killed. You can’t have it both ways – oh nice little career with the military and shock horror when you get blown up.”
Needless to say, by the next morning, there was a Facebook group with 16,000 members calling for Ms. X to hand in her New Zealand passport. But this is where it started to unravel.
Ms. X, a sometime journalist and documentary maker, made these comments with all of her preconceptions in place and little fact e.g. Jacinda Baker was a medic, a profession devoted to saving people… hardly a killer of innocent people. Attempts to change Ms. X’s view went in vain, with even intelligent debates devolving to the point of her accusing those arguing against her as having been brainwashed. But that’s fine; under a system of free speech, Ms. X is entitled to her opinion, no matter how loathsome we may find it.
It didn’t take very long for Ms. X’s group of detractors to develop an ugly undercurrent. Threats of rape and violence, death threats, and even her home address being published reportedly led to Ms. X’s family going into hiding for their safety, and Ms. X herself being too scared to return home from Canada from where she’d made her original comments. Possibly a cruel irony is that some of those making threats against her were reportedly former and current soldiers, a profession that usually prides itself on defending free speech — as the famous line says, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As it stands now, the Facebook group moderators now must be vigilant against these threats and similar comments coming through to their page, and both the New Zealand Police and Interpol are investigating.
But where does the higher ground lie in this situation? Yes, Ms. X should have shown respect and kept her awful comments about Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker to herself, or framed her comments in a way that reflected her point of view whilst still regretting the loss of a life. Yes, it was totally appropriate for people to try to have an intelligent debate with Ms. X, calling on their experiences in Afghanistan and arguing their points of views. No, it is completely inappropriate to threaten to rape and kill someone, just because they angered you — apart from the fact that it demeans us as human beings and lowers you to troll-level, it completely reinforces the opinions of those like Ms. X and makes them feel more justified in what they say.
Perhaps the higher ground lay in just as regarding Ms. X as an internet troll and ignoring her comments accordingly. I cannot condone what Ms. X said, and as the relative of someone who served in the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team, helping to clean their water and train local women as midwives (among other things), I respect what New Zealand’s military has done over there. At the same time, I am disgusted at what a few people, emboldened by the thin veneer of social media separation, have lowered themselves to doing, just because they were upset with the comments of one ill-informed person. The sad fact of the matter is that Ms. X and the level of threats against her have now become part of Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker’s final story — in this regard, one could say the trolls have won.
In closing, in what may be a more proper tribute, here is the moving haka to the three fallen from their comrades as their bodies arrive into Burnham Military Camp in Christchurch.
Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, Corporal Luke Tametea, Private Richard Harris, Lance Corporal Rory Malone, Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer, Corporal Doug Hughes, Lance Corporal Leon Smith, Corporal Doug Grant, Private Kirifi Mila, Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell, and those who came before — Rest in Peace.