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Why violent death stalks the shores of paradise

New Zealand's pioneer spirit has been perverted, says local writer Susan Hancock
What is happening in New Zealand? As expatriates - myth has it that expatriates now outnumber inhabitants - we think of New Zealand as an idyllic place. Going home, we congratulate ourselves on belonging to a country where nature and culture seem so much in harmony - if you can blinker out the increasing resentments of the Maoris at the injustices that have been done to them.

Harder to ignore are the massacres - five since 1990, all but one in the countryside - that have erupted through the complacent surfaces of New Zealand life. One, maybe two, can be put down to individual madness and to chance. But five? Are we looking at some kind of national psychosis? Or is it that history does right itself, and that somehow the wrongdoings of the past are working themselves out?

The most recent of these episodes seems to suggest another, more practical explanation. Until this weekend Raurimu had been famous only for the Raurimu Spiral, one of the steepest railway lines in the world. It's a place where the affluent stop over on their way to the ski slopes. I suspect it is now going to become a symbol of the difficulty that is afflicting New Zealand life, under the surface of affluence, where rural isolation and the despair of unemployment are making their mark.

I don't know if all the perpetrators of these New Zealand massacres were unemployed, or marginalised by mental illness. I do know that anxieties about soaring unemployment and the engendering of a permanent underclass in a country that once prided itself on the strength of its rural economy and the abundance of its social welfare system are now prevalent. The Reserve Bank, commissioned by the government, has, in the last few years, brought inflation to its knees; it has also brought numbers of New Zealanders to theirs.

The Governor of the Reserve Bank, Don Brash, recently said to me that if he were out of work in a small town he would be able to think of something to do - something in the way of small business, he meant, not taking up a gun and demolishing your family. New Zealanders now carry more guns per capita than do Australians or the British.

In these small settlements it is the weight of changelessness, the fixity of life as you stand watching while the economy, for others, expands and affluence recedes, leaving a man with a sense of the inflexibility of his own horizons. In these circumstances, perhaps, family life, which is all you have, becomes intolerable: all of these massacres have begun at home. It may be time to rethink the social consequences of policies that lead to such individual isolation and despair.

New Zealand was, from the 1840s through to the 1970s, a country that took conscious pride in its Utopianism - a place where a hard-working white man, a pioneer, could create out of the bush a place for his home and family; a place where by felling and clearing he could make his mark. New Zealand towns were never cities, self-sufficient entities, but centres where a rurally prosperous economy did its business and enacted its commerce.

Since the open market economy began to dominate our national thinking, however, we have traded our ploughshares for swords. It may be to some that the gun seems the only way to make your mark. The alleged killer of Raurimu was found unarmed in a field, naked, like King Lear.