The recent terror attack on two Christchurch Mosques, resulting in fifty deaths and multiple victims with gunshot wounds was the work of what appears to be a single assailant apparently deriving motivation from what most of us would term an internet based white supremacist hate group. This is a most unwelcome wake-up call to a nation unused to such extreme acts of violence. In the immediate aftermath the commentators all seemed to agree that such an event seemed totally out of character in a country where such terrorism is virtually unknown.
What perhaps we should have been noticing is that the chances of such an event have been increasing, even in New Zealand. New Zealand communities have probably always included the disenchanted and even the despairing. The new factor is that now these groups gain support and a feeling of belonging in the internet chat-rooms. The very high rates of youth suicide should have alerted us that all is not well, and with the wisdom of hindsight we should have expected that given overseas patterns, new differences in race and culture in our community might have been expected to give birth to groups where members can feel bonded by common grievances.
A relatively new international phenomenon has been a swing towards right wing extremism whereby movements build around those determined to return to a dimly remembered past. It this new environment where those who feel they are longer part of a majority group in their neighbourhood are instead turning to messages about retrenchment, putting up barriers to new-comers and looking after one’s own. Some might even recognise in this a call to Trump type politics whereby those who come with different religion, different language or different customs must be kept from weakening what would otherwise be a great nation.
Terrorist type attacks on newcomer minorities are mercifully uncommon in much of the Western world, but such events generate their own publicity perhaps reminding the disenchanted minority that actions born of fear or anger produce tremendous reactions. I found it interesting that the assailant in this case released what he termed a manifesto, a 74 page rant bearing strong similarity to the Manifesto by Anders Breivik, the White Supremacist who murdered seventy severn innocent victims in Norway a few years back. In the explanation for the Christchurch tragedy the shooter acknowledged Mr Trump as a symbol of what he stood for. While he didn’t formally claim Mr Trump as his leader he used many of the same words and phrases that echoed Mr Trump’s main themes.
The New Zealand people can be justifiably proud of a nation where despite uncomfortable past times of dispute between Maori and Pakeha and of course various forays into conflict regions round the world, for the most part prejudice is not particularly marked and New Zealand shows every sign of being one of the more accepting communities of the world. More recently the rather uniform pattern of immigration from British speaking parts of the world has diversified and after a period in which many newcomers were treated with some suspicion, it is my impression that increasingly, most in the community showed good acceptance of the new immigrants and even some pride in the diversity in the population.
However perhaps we should note the recently retired security consultant Dr Paul Buchanan, in his commentary on the Christchurch event, took exception to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s further claiming that such bloodthirsty actions did not represent the true New Zealand attitudes. In particular he was challenging the Prime Minister’s assertion the instigators were not part of us. As Dr Buchanan pointed out, both during and after the attack, hundreds were cheering on the actions of the perpetrators via various social media platforms as the murderers set about their bloody task. That a proportion of those signalling approval included those with New Zealand media addresses showed that this appalling level of prejudice was indeed present amongst others in our community and I guess the best we might hope for is that it represents the beliefs of a relatively small portion of the population.
Confronted by such horror it is tempting to assume it is the uninvited arrival of someone else’s problem. Yes, it was a recently arrived Australian national who is placed at the centre of the tragedy as the main shooter and it is even conceivable that his attitudes were shaped by teachings gleaned from in part from his own nation’s radical minority’s popularist rants, like the public statements of the Australian Senator (Senator Anning) who responded to the shootings by placing the blame for the Christchurch shooting on those who allowed the victim immigrants into the country. Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promptly took the errant Australian Senator to task, those of us with longer memories might recall a certain Scott Morrison warning his electorate of the dangers of allowing immigrants into Australia and even talking of the disease and crime Australia would be bringing in. Where have we heard that message before?
By having the leading suspect shooter place White nationalist symbols on his shooter weapons and noting that he acknowledged Mr Trump and in particular, Anders Breivik, instigator of the massacre in Norway in 2011, in his “Manifesto” perhaps there is small comfort that some of his influences come from outside. Yet it can just as easily be argued that the consequence of allowing White nationalist groups to develop, apparently unhindered, is the responsibility of the host community.
While I know crimes against immigrants including expressions of hate surface from time to time in this country, the uncomfortable truth is that the priorities of the community also shape how the police respond to such events. In the hours after the two sets of shootings it turned out that the police had previously to deal with several years of incidents in the Christchurch area and these in the main instigated by skinheads and white supremacists as they threatened and even physically attacked non-whites . If we needed further reminding, on Friday evening the nation watched as a TV reporter outlined the terrible unfolding story while a grinning adult who fitted the popular image of a skin head capered behind her, gesturing with what I supposed to be the OK hand signal, now associated with white nationalists (and some the the Trump supporters) in full view of camera and the police in the background. That he was allowed to continue this performance for several minutes may have been good television, but to me it was a sobering reminder of what image of Christchurch was being portrayed to a wondering world.
I would imagine many of the local readers would have shared my experience of hearing other New Zealanders express prejudice about Muslims. I have for example on several occasions been told that Muslims have no place in our country and that if they do come they had better conform to our expected standard of dress and behaviour. As it happens I have never personally encountered anyone calling for an actual attack on Muslims, let alone any at worship, but I can well believe such attitudes do exist. Like others in New Zealand, we are probably also aware that social media provides a platform for the hate-mongers. But here is a small question. What accountability will now be directed at those who cheered on this last outrage? Are their rights to continue to use those social platforms now at risk? If not, why not? Does their joy at the mass murder qualify them to be stripped of gun licences or put on some sort of watch list.
We can take heart that the Prime Minister appears to have handled the tragedy with wisdom and care. She conveyed a strong message that she did care for the victims and moved rapidly to ensure the disaster didn’t get worse. I presume I am not alone in noting that when Mr Trump rang to ask what she wanted him to do to help, Ms Ardern asked him to express love to all Muslims. On the phone he agreed, but several days later we note he has not yet done so.
Again given the contrast with what has happened elsewhere I took heart that Ms Ardern has called for an explanation as to why social media were able to keep replaying clips of the shooting in the hour after the massacre. Given that a friend told me this morning how an acquaintance had asked one of main social media sites to take down the video clips but was told that the violence fell within the allowable content of the site, new sanctions will be welcome.
New Zealand has relatively conservative gun laws yet here again it is good that the Government is reacting by attempting to block some of the exposed loop holes. The standard allowed semi automatic able to be sold, the AR15, is currently sold with a small magazine, but it turns out it is easily modified to take a much larger magazine, and an ex-soldier friend tells be that not only can you buy a much larger magazine, but that with a piece of wire it can be modified to become fully automatic. Although we don’t have huge proportion of gun deaths or for that matter the large number of gun clubs that seem to bedevil parts of the US, given that the accused shooter apparently attended a rifle club in Dunedin, the horrendous crime in Christchurch mean that we can also hope rifle clubs come under increased surveillance.
There is some irony in that until this massacre occurred, the majority security concern about potential terrorism in New Zealand was that the threat would more likely come from Muslims terrorists infiltrating New Zealand society. As long as the checks concentrated on identifying those radicalised by potentially militant Muslim groups it is understandable that other groupings such as those with White Supremacist attitudes should get less attention. Even once identified and listed as a likely danger I need to add that for obvious reasons, that listing a person as a potential danger is unlikely to provide sufficient reason for detaining the suspect. My own very limited experience in attempting to encourage those with strong prejudice to soften their attitudes is that such changes are very difficult to achieve.
Although we don’t have huge proportion of gun deaths or for that matter the large number of gun clubs that seem to bedevil parts of the US, given that the accused shooter apparently attended a rifle club in Dunedin, the horrendous crime in Christchurch mean that we can expect rifle clubs come under increased surveillance.
Since various organizations in our wider community including churches already have aims which include community building and assisting tolerance and compassion, perhaps the best we can do is insist that more attention be given to integrating minority groups in our community. We can hardly claim to be welcoming if we can’t count Muslims amongst our friends. A church or an organization which talks of tolerance without developing lines of communication with those at risk of being marginalized is unlikely to make a difference. The challenge then becomes to look at our own organizations and institutions and to ask if any changes in programme would assist us develop a safer and more integrated community.
Perhaps we might finish by reflecting on the message sent to me this morning from a mate in Florida.
Ron Gambolati’s note read:
“Anyone who believes that one ethnic group is superior to another has only to take a DNA test to be sadly disappointed. There is no pure race. We are all mongrels of humanity – and better for it.”