Sally Blundell examines the two very different readings of ‘us’, that emerged after March 15.
An essay from the newly published Public Knowledge from Freerange Press.
Warning: This essay discusses details of the 15 March Christchurch mosque shootings.
Just before 2pm on 27 August 2020 Justice Cameron Mander sentenced Brenton Harrison Tarrant to a life in jail without the possibility of parole. His actions, undertaken nearly a year and a half earlier, prompted a wave of shock, grief and debate about who “we” are.
The news spreads like a stuttering fire. There is a man with a gun; he has killed a worshipper (true). No, there are two shooters (not true). No, two mosques (true). There are shots heard at Christchurch Hospital (not true). At a student climate change protest in Cathedral Square the ping of text messages takes on an urgent frequency. There are police. Police? People are told to disperse, go home, stay away. The inner city is closed. Schools are in lockdown. New Zealand’s terror threat level is lifted to high for the first time.
Forty minutes after gunshots were first heard at the Masjid Al Noor in central Christchurch on 15 March 2019, two police officers from Lincoln, in Christchurch for a police training course, ram a car on Brougham Street. A 28-year-old white Australian male, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, is arrested. The next day he appears before the Christchurch District Court, charged with murder. Twelve weeks later, appearing via an audio-visual link from a spartan white cell in Auckland Prison, he smiles as his lawyer Shane Tait enters his client’s plea of not guilty to all 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and a single charge of engaging in a terrorist act. (Nearly a year later, on 26 March 2020, he changed his plea to guilty on all counts.)
The shootings at the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre claimed an initial 50 lives – this many days later, 46-year-old father of two Zekeriya Tuyan died in hospital, bringing the death toll to 51. In less than an hour Christchurch, population around 388,000, found itself on the map of racially or ethnically driven mass shootings blazing across the USA, Britain and Europe. Places of racial or religious discontent. Places of rapid social change and growing disparity. Places of easy access to guns.
Quick as a thought, two things happened – two very different conversations, two very different readings of ‘us’.
Not Christchurch, assured city mayor Lianne Dalziel. The accused was an outsider, a widely travelled Australian arriving in this country in 2017 with his pernicious consignment of hatred fully formed. Christchurch, she said, was neither racist nor Islamophobic – most of the shaven-headed participants who took part in a white supremacist march in 2012 ‘weren’t from Christchurch’.
And not New Zealand, a country of more than 200 ethnicities and 160 languages; a country that was ranked the second-safest country in the world in the 2018 Global Peace Index. What happened, said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a televised press conference on 15 March, was ‘an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence. Many of those directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home. It is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetrated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.’1
Quick as a thought, two things happened – two very different conversations, two very different readings of ‘us’. The first, a very public endorsement of progressive nationalism and religious inclusivity; the second, an equally emotive exposé of white privilege and simmering racism suddenly hauled out of the shadows of ineffability.
Within hours ‘This is not us’ became an affirmation of inclusiveness and solidarity, reverberating across the public sphere through the traditional avenues of media, speeches and public art. The phrase punctuated headlines. It appeared on felt-penned messages along the stone and iron fence of Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens, in chalked hearts on the footpath, on placards and walls, in tweets and Facebook messages. Tributes proliferated. Flowers sweated in their in cellophane sleeves. Teddy bears held handwritten messages of aroha. On the busy intersection of Linwood Avenue, opposite the cordoned smaller mosque, Salvation Army volunteers offered tea and biscuits. A heavily armed police officer hugged a grieving woman. An army of carpet layers, plasterers, glaziers, painters, builders and gardeners donated their time and materials to clean and repair the mosques so the Muslim community could return for prayers the following Friday. Non-Muslim women adopted headscarves as a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community, as a challenge to potential abusers to pick their victims now. On signs, on screens, in the pristine gallery space of the Centre of Contemporary Art gallery, the words As-salāmu ‘alaykum (peace be with you) were painted, pencilled and stencilled. A week after the shootings, some 20,000 people gathered in Hagley Park for the Islamic call to prayer and a two-minute silence. ‘We are here in our hundreds and thousands, unified for one purpose,’ said Imam Gamal Fouda. ‘That hate will be undone.’
At the same instant another story erupted, fully formed and referenced as if long waiting in the wings of public discourse. Before any connection was made between the killer and white supremacist groups in New Zealand, a storm of berating and self-berating commentary said yes, this is us. On radio and in print, academics pointed to New Zealand’s history of colonial occupation, the New Zealand Wars, the land confiscations, the exclusion of Māori, Chinese and Indians from barbers’ shops, bars and balcony seats in the cinema. Remember the banning of te reo Māori in schools, they said. Remember the statement by former Prime Minister William Massey: ‘Nature intended New Zealand as a white man’s country, and it should be kept as such.’ (There are calls to change the title of the tertiary institution that still bears his name.) Remember the dawn raids targeting so-called overstayers from the Pacific Islands. Remember the Orewa speech, the ‘White Lives Matter’ posters pasted around the University of Auckland’s campus after the election of United States’ president Donald Trump in 2016. As the university’s Chris Wilson told Stuff, ‘There’s certainly enough dry grass there that can be set alight.’5
Let’s be honest for once, she said. ‘White supremacy is part of us, a dark power in the land . . . . It’s real, and it’s twisted, and it’s been here forever.'
Four days after the mosque shootings, historian Anne Salmond presented her assessment. The doctrine of white superiority, she wrote, is still alive and well in New Zealand. ‘Sometimes it’s loud and ugly, at other times simply taken for granted, and all the more insidious and dangerous.’ This doctrine, she wrote, is woven through our history and still it continues – in our rejection of Māori tikanga, in our curses and online comments, in taxis and around dinner tables. Let’s be honest for once, she said. ‘White supremacy is part of us, a dark power in the land . . . . It’s real, and it’s twisted, and it’s been here forever.’6
Others quoted filmmaker Taika Waititi’s more succinct description of New Zealand: a nice place but ‘racist as fuck.’7 (In a tweet after the mosque shootings he said, ‘My heart is broken. My country is weeping and so am I . . . . This is not us.’)
The Garden City bore the brunt of these call-outs. And for some reason. In the 1980s and early 1990s, white power supporters, skinheads and booted neo-Nazis began to gravitate to Christchurch, Nelson and the West Coast, congregating under capitalised offshoots of a growing white nationalist movement: Blood and Honour, National Front, Arian Legion, Southland Skinheads, Independent Skinheads, the Fourth Reich and Right Wing Resistance – a dismal parade of shaven heads, black T-shirts, Nazi salutes and inflammatory tattoos. The resulting charge list of racist attacks makes for grim reading: Wayne Motz, 22, shot dead by a skinhead who then walked to a police kiosk in Cathedral Square and shot himself in 1989; Māori sportsman Hemi Hutley, attacked at a Westport hotel and later drowned in the Buller River in 1997; South Korean student Jae Hyeon Kim, killed near Charleston in 2003. In 2016, local businessman and unremitting white supremacist Philip Arps delivered a pig’s head to the Masjid Al Noor. Three years later, after the mosque shootings, he was found guilty of distributing the live-streamed video, even requesting it be modified with crosshairs and a kill count.
‘There’s a tradition of white supremacy in Christchurch and the South Island which goes back 20, 25 years,’ explains University of Canterbury sociologist Mike Grimshaw. ‘There’s a group of disaffected young white males down here – and it’s very much a male thing. This is a rust-belt city (or it would be in the US) and it has a long history of under-educated, poor white working-class resentments. This exposes something deeply troubling about our society and about what sits beneath – online and offline. Yes, the shooter was from Australia, but we should not be distracted into thinking such ideologies of hatred as he expresses do not find support here in Christchurch, in Canterbury, in New Zealand.’8
Still, this does not support the charge of collective responsibility inherent in the term ‘us’. The aggressor enacted his venom in Christchurch, not his original choice but, as he claimed in his conspiracist ramble, a ‘target rich of an environment as anywhere else in the West’. He enacted his attacks, he wrote, as revenge for Ebba Åkerlund, the 12-year-old Swedish girl who died in 2017 when a failed asylum seeker from Uzbekistan rammed his car into a crowd in Stockholm. They were further fuelled by a visit to France in 2017. In every town he visited, he said, ‘the invaders were there’.9
Such statements were aimed at a specific readership, a readership quite foreign to the one united in the public affirmations of ‘this is not us’ solidarity. It’s been a long ride, he wrote, ‘and despite all your rampant faggotry, fecklessness and degeneracy, you are all top blokes and the best bunch of cobbers a man could ask for . . . If I don’t survive the attack, goodbye, godbless and I will see you all in Valhalla!’
Tarrant was not the valourised lone wolf, nor did he arise from New Zealand’s shabby history of white supremacy. As with other perpetrators of hate-based violence, he saw himself as a soldier in a war known only to an enlightened few. Those ‘top blokes’, his ‘cobbers’, are global, members and followers of various international anti-Semitic, anti-immigration and Islamophobic groups, including Europe’s identitarian movement, originating in France in 2003 to promote the anti-immigrant dreams of a fabled white homeland. He made donations to such groups. He supported Australia’s nationalist factions and undoubtedly shared digital space with similar groups in this country. He shared their in-jokes, their language, their chaotic ideologies, their puerile signals.
It was for them he posted online his plans to ‘stop shitposting and . . . make a real life effort post’. It was for them he expressed his muddled notions of capitalism, Marxism, globalism and eco-fascism. It was for them he honoured everyone from Crusader knights and Serbian nationalists to Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and Oswald.
Stuart Bender described ‘performance crime’ in which the act of recording became a ‘central component of the violence itself’
Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. It was for them he referenced the ‘Great Replacement’ far-right conspiracy theory coined by French writer and polemicist Renaud Camus to denote the gradual destruction of western civilisation by non-white mass immigration (as The Economist notes, variants of that once fringe idea ‘are now common, not just in social-media posts by anonymous wackos but in the speeches of elected politicians from Hungary to Iowa’10). And it was for them he live-streamed the slaughter of people at prayer in what Stuart Bender, from Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, described as a form of ‘performance crime’ in which the act of recording became a ‘central component of the violence itself’.11
To achieve their impact, such demonstrations do not need banners and flags. They do not need an address or a city street to march down. They are orchestrated by US author Don DeLillo’s men in small rooms ‘who have to organize their desperation and their loneliness, who often end up doing this through violent means.’12 Through their click-bait collegiality and instant endorsements, the online platforms of Facebook, Reddit, 4chan and 8chan provide a more enticing corrective to that desperation than any number of acts of thuggish bravado. ‘From where did you receive/research/develop your beliefs?’ Tarrant asked himself in a mock interview. ‘The internet of course,’ he replies. ‘You will not find the truth anywhere else.’ Spyro the Dragon 3, he quips, taught him ‘ethno-nationalism’; Fortnite trained him to be a killer.
The vast capabilities of the internet and the hyperlinked world of Facebook and Twitter were promoted as a tool for good.
Today we are in the midst of what Ferguson describes as the world’s ‘second networked age’, built on the vast capabilities of the internet and the hyperlinked world of Facebook and Twitter. These capabilities were promoted as a tool for good. The internet was on democracy’s side, helping the crowds topple tyrants in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Kiev’s Maidan. For some, wrote Google’s Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in their 2013 book The New Digital Age, internet access will be their first experience of empowerment in their lives, thanks to an ‘inexpensive device they can carry in their pocket . . . . To be sure, governments will always find ways to use new levels of connectivity to their advantage, but because of the way current network technology is structured, it truly favours the citizens.’13
Two years later, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg called the internet ‘a force for peace in the world.’14 A force it is. The Brexit referendum, writes Ferguson, was a victory of the network over the hierarchy of the British establishment: Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings knew how to use Facebook; David Cameron’s team did not. Similarly, Team Trump’s use of social networks in 2016 defeated Clinton’s ‘hierarchically organised’ campaign. It was Trump’s network, Ferguson says, and the exploitation of Facebook and Google’s advertising platforms by Russian operatives, that influenced a groundswell of American voters. ‘If you apply network science consistently to the past,’ says Ferguson, ‘you find that it was always quite likely Facebook would be used for ill as much as for good, and it was quite likely that crazy stuff as well as good stuff would go viral.’15
The algorithmic rise of the alt-right should come as no surprise. Early in the last century, white supremacists seized upon D. W. Griffith’s 1915 signature (and unapologetically racist) film, Birth of a Nation. At the film’s premiere, explains US sociologist Jessie Daniels, members of the Klu Klux Klan paraded outside the theatre. Shortly after, they began producing their own feature films. Almost a century later, another generation of white supremacists saw the same potential in digital technologies. ‘I believe that the internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest,’ wrote former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke on his website in 1998. As Daniels says, new technologies helped the movement trade Klan robes for high-speed modems.16 Atrocity-justifying ideologies have not changed in their discourse. Victims and potential victims are still framed as threats, criminals or subhumans.
But digital networks push extremes viewpoints into the realm of acceptability simply by exposure.
Society is still at a crisis-filled turning point. Violence is still inevitable and necessary. But digital networks push extremes viewpoints into the realm of acceptability simply by exposure. The average smartphone user, writes Ferguson, ‘clicks, taps and swipes that insidious little device an amazing 2,617 times a day.’ And we don’t just passively read. ‘We engage. We like. We retweet. We reply. We comment.’17 This level of saturation gives fringe claims plausibility; they are something ‘everybody says’, not just for perpetrators of violence and atrocity but also for passive bystanders.
The resulting wave of fear-fuelled paranoia spreads, not like a stuttering fire but as a burning coal seam, flaring up in a sickening map of retaliation, provocation and identification across the globe. A week after the Christchurch attacks, Identitarian Movement Austria held a protest against the ‘Great Replacement’, calling for ‘remigration’ (a euphemism for the mass deportation of European residents with a migrant background or non-white skin) and ‘de-Islamization’. Five weeks later, a 19-year-old California gunman accused of killing one person and injuring three others in a hate-motivated shooting at a synagogue in Poway near San Diego claimed to have been motivated by the New Zealand mosque attacks.
A change in terminology is now facilitating the spread of such ideologies across more mainstream media platforms. The identitarian movement no longer speaks about race or colour but culture, civilisation, nationhood, a so-called European identity now under threat by ‘non-European’ cultures – namely Islam. In this way, radical white identity politics have entered public conversation through the banal guise of population statistics, simplistic slogans – ‘Send her back’– and insinuations of shared unrest.
Were we prepared? Just as the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 were caused by largely unsuspected faults buried under the stony blanket of the Canterbury Plains, the eruption of ethnically driven hatred and violence was never expected on such a scale. Of course, the two are vastly different: one tectonic, the other histrionic; one a geological fault, the other a human fault designed to galvanise more hatred and conflict. But both were unpredicted, both hidden in plain sight.
The events of 15 March 2019 are now part of our story, our public life. They are part of ‘us’.
The list of designated terrorist entities published a week after the Christchurch terror attacks includes 1962 people and 455 groups, almost exclusively populated by Al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked individuals and organisations. None were right-wing extremists or white supremacists. In the US, while law enforcement agencies and internet companies have been focussing on Islamist radicalisation and jihadist terrorism, white hate crimes are on the rise. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which tracks extremist killings, every single such killing in 2018 had a link to right-wing or white-supremacist ideology.
The events of 15 March 2019 are now part of our story, our public life. They are part of ‘us’. While symptomatic of the global escalation of violent extremism, it erupted here – as good as anywhere else, according to the attacker. But making it ‘us’ is an opportunity to own it, understand it, see it, stem it.
Tech giants made a desultory pitch at the moral high ground. Twitter conducted a patchy purge of white nationalists, closing the accounts of some prominent hatemongers; PayPal shut down the accounts of various far-right groups. Within the first 24 hours of the terrorist attack Facebook removed more than 1.5 million uploads of the video and claimed to have caught 1.2 million before they made it into users’ newsfeeds. That still left 300,000 copies being bounced across the net.
On 17 May at the G7 summit in Paris, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern launched her Christchurch Call to Action campaign to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. Within weeks the Helen Clark Foundation released its new Anti-Social Media report, calling for a new body to be set up to regulate social media in the same way that the New Zealand Media Council and Broadcasting Standards Authority does with traditional media.
But what constitutes unacceptably extremist content? How do we adapt regulatory tools and algorithms to discern between legitimate online dissent and inciteful hate? A Law Foundation-funded study found that while the Christchurch Call was a ‘positive initiative’, it ‘falls short of dealing with the scale of challenge’. It is critical, noted lead researcher Marianne Elliott, ‘the Prime Minister and her advisors look beyond immediate concerns about violent extremism and content moderation, to consider the wider context in which digital media is having a growing, and increasingly negative, impact on our democracy.’18
There is no doubt we have turned a blind eye to acts of casual racism.
There have been repeated calls for stricter hate speech laws, to ‘call out’ racial or religious slurs that feed the ground from which violence emerges. Disrespectful words and actions, said Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt, give permission for discrimination, harassment and violence to continue. Casual racism ‘can lead to the stereotyping, and the stereotyping can lead to the othering . . . and as soon as you start treating others as alien it’s close to demonising, and demonising can slip into the 15th of March’.19 There is no doubt we have turned a blind eye to such acts of casual racism. ‘We are grieving, we are devastated, we are upset, we are angry,’ former refugee from Somalia, Guled Mire, told Christchurch’s Tuesday Club less than two weeks after the attack. ‘But I can’t say we are absolutely surprised. We as a community have talked about growing racism, Islamophobia, white-supremacist extremist ideologies. We have been talking about that constantly as a community, only to have been constantly ignored. It is time we have those very uncomfortable conversations.’
To stem the escalating influence of the chat-room and newsfeed spread of extremist viewpoints, such conversations need to be heard and disseminated offline as much as on; in homes, classrooms and workplaces as much as in the meeting rooms and lecture halls of politicians, academics and policy think tanks.
In his opinion piece Stephen Croucher quoted recent research into attitudes of Finnish youth. It showed that prejudicial opinions of Finns toward Russian immigrants are largely shaped during adolescence. It is worth quoting this at length:
In our increasingly connected world, it’s essential we take steps to combat these fears to reduce the chances of such atrocities happening in the future. First, how families talk about minorities and immigrants is critical . . . It’s incumbent upon parents to be role models for their children and adolescents and to promote tolerance and mutual respect early.
Second, in an increasingly computer-mediated world, it is our shared responsibility to challenge racist and hateful cyber messages. If you see a YouTube clip that you deem abusive or offensive, report it.
Third, the more contact we have with each other and learn about one another, the less likely we are to fear one another. This may sound trite, but the more we know about other groups, the more likely we are
to pass that information onto one another and improve overall social cohesion. In turn, we are better able to identify and challenge those bent on dividing society. It is our collective responsibility as diverse societies to recognise our diversity and to face the psychology of hate that would attack our home and us.20
To be tolerant of difference and intolerant of intolerance, as espoused by philosopher Karl Popper, requires more learning, more discussion, more understanding of the different cultures and religions represented in this country. Formal education has a role here. Research from the UK found school pupils, both religious and non-religious, ‘were found to be more tolerant of religion and religious diversity in contexts where there was an awareness of religion in the community and less so where there was ignorance about and disconnection from local and family religious and cultural history…. [E]ncouraging pupils’ interest in their family, community and local religious narratives and cultures could be a way of increasing tolerance for religion more generally.’21
But the line between teaching religion and teaching about religion is, in this country at least, a blurred one, resolved through a blanket ruling requiring all state primary schools to be entirely of a secular character during school hours (under Ministry of Education guidelines, boards of trustees have the choice to close the school to allow religious, usually Christian, instruction to take place). This ruling aims to prevent religious instruction and observances within our state schools, but under these regulations, religious education, the neutral teaching about religion, tends to be confined to customary and cultural practices taught in the social sciences learning area of the national curriculum. In our reluctance to identify the difference between the study of world religions on the one hand and religious instruction and indoctrination on the other, New Zealand children leave school with almost no understanding of the differences, and many similarities, between the world’s main religions. As tertiary institutions around the world scale down their humanities programmes, the study of, discussion around and specialisation in religious studies are further undermined.
Such roadblocks to understanding the many views and experiences of those who call New Zealand home limit the opportunities for those much-needed ‘uncomfortable conversations’ and leave unchecked those more extreme ideas already metastasising from online to off, from a position at the far edge of extremism to one of passive tolerance.
Three days after the mosque shootings, cartoonist Toby Morris posted his ‘This is us’ comic strip on The Spinoff. New Zealand is a country built on racist colonial violence, he wrote, but still we pretend we’re safe from the worst of the internet, still we ‘give airtime to people who’d like us to forget or ignore this history . . . . This bullshit idea of US and THEM. But that’s wrong. There’s only us. All of us. This is us.’22
8. Interview with the author, March 19, 2019.
9. All quotes from the shooter’s online “The Great Replacement”.
12. Qtd in Anthony DeCurtis, “An Outsider in this Society: Interview with Don DeLillo,” in Introducing Don DeLillo, ed. Frank Lentricchia (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 57–58.
13. Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (New York: Knopf, 2013), 7.
15. Qtd in Sally Blundell, “Out of Control,” The Listener, March 25, 2018, 22.
20. Croucher, “Combating Fears to Reduce Hate.”
21. Elisabeth Arweck and Julia Ipgrave, “The Qualitative Strand: Listening in Depth,” Young People’s Attitudes to Religious Diversity, ed. Elisabeth Arweck (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), 27.
Feature image: Christchurch City Libraries (Flickr)
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.