The monstrous act that saw 50 Muslims murdered at two mosques in Christchurch last Friday afternoon, and nearly the same number of worshippers injured (one of whom, a young child, has died), is unprecedented in New Zealand. And yet New Zealand’s response has matched both the dreadful novelty and scale of the crime.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has denounced it in no uncertain terms (“a terrorist act”), declared to the Muslim community in New Zealand, “This is not us…You are us,” and donned a headscarf to meet members of the community and embrace them. Some 11,000 people turned out in Wellington, the capital, yesterday evening for a service of solidarity. More than NZ$10 million has been given in a few days — more than half locally — for support and relief of affected families. And these are just a few of the ways Kiwis have shown how they feel about this shocking and heart-breaking event.
Perhaps the greatest, most inspiring response, however, came today from a disabled man whose wife was shot by the gunman while she tried to help others, while he himself miraculously escaped. “I have forgiven him and I am sure if my wife was alive she would have done the same thing,” said Farid Ahmed, who gets about in a wheelchair since an accident six years ago. “I hold no grudge.” He added that if he would like to hug the killer and tell him that he still has a chance to change his life. He tino pai, Farid!
We have had our share of gun murders here, and even a mass shooting: the 1990 Aramoana massacre in which a mentally disturbed loner killed 13 members of his small seaside community. In the colonial era the land wars cost nearly 3000 lives, with Maori deaths greatly outnumbering those of colonial troops.
But the premeditated, carefully planned and live-streamed slaughter of innocents allegedly carried out by Brenton Tarrant – an Australian recently based in New Zealand — is in a different category altogether. Ms Ardern has rightly called it terrorism, and it is self-evidently an act of hatred towards Muslims as a group, ideologically driven.
Moreover it is one that could only have happened in the 21st century, when new waves of migration, driven partly by jihadi terrorism and other forms of Islamic fundamentalism; the emergence of white identity politics – particularly among young men; and the resources of the internet, have combined to motivate and facilitate crimes like this. It was an attempt “to incite violence, retaliation and further the divide between the European people and the invaders (Muslims)” – to quote from Tarrant’s online manifesto.
That 74-page statement of his beliefs, quickly removed from the internet by Facebook and Twitter, has been commonly styled “white supremacist” by those who have seen it. But that term needs unpacking if the attitudes it denotes are to be countered and such murderous outcomes as the Christchurch attack prevented.
Paul Monk, a former senior intelligence analyst writing in The Australian newspaper today (“Shared hatred of fanatics”, March 18), points out that, warped as it is, Tarrant’s worldview is based on facts: the declining fertility of white Westerners, mass immigration to the West from non-white countries and the newcomers’ higher fertility – a process Tarrant calls “the great replacement”. He writes that we are allowing this because of Western “hedonistic, nihilistic individualism.” Many demographers, sociologists and respected commentators have said as much – Pope Francis, a great advocate for immigrants, among them.
Tarrant’s historical grievances against Islam are also based on the broad facts of Muslim military conquests, enslavement and imperialism up until the mid-16th century at least, says Monk. On the other hand, there were the crusades, European colonialism and its exploitation of Muslim countries, the West’s “hunger for oil,” and its imperialistic “meddling in Arab and more broadly, Muslim affairs,” which had a lot to do with the rise of political Islam in the 20th century. These are things that Tarrant evidently ignores in his obsession with the current weakness of the West. Monk continues:
“Our problem, however, is not the history itself. It is the use of such history to drive brutal and irrational agendas. We need to contain and dissolve those agendas. Panic or politically correct pieties, anger or selfrighteous indignation don’t help. We are in need of a mature discourse about the relationship between the complexities and tragedies of history and the goal of a cosmopolitan world in which human beings of every colour and creed can enjoy civil liberties, tolerable prosperity and personal dignity.
“That’s a longterm project and it demands resilience and purposefulness in the face of outbreaks of the kind we have just seen in Christchurch.”
Above all, says Monk, instancing a Muslim writer on The New Arab website, that means not responding to such incidents with “sweeping claims about race or religion … [but] focusing on the actual perpetrators and the liberal and moral principles required to curtail such violence.”
The actual perpetrator of the Christchurch outrage is clearly a psychopath who worked himself up into that frame of mind through immersing himself in the online world of white nationalist internet forums, travelling to different countries to see for himself – and probably meeting leaders of these groups.
His neighbours in Dunedin, a city south of Christchurch where he has lived intermittently in recent years, said he kept his house and grounds neat and kept to himself. He belonged to a gun club that used semi-automatic rifles and spent recent weeks or months intensively body-building. One observer said he looked “ready to explode.”
A New York Times profile quotes his manifesto to suggest that he took a particular interest in United States politics and wanted to influence events there:
“I chose firearms for the effect it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide and the affect it could have on the politics of the United States and thereby the political situation of the world. … to further the social, cultural, political and racial divide,” thus “ensuring the death of the ‘melting pot’ pipe dream.”
He claimed he was not the type to seek fame.
“I will be quickly forgotten,” he added. “Which I don’t mind. After all I am a private and mostly introverted person.”
A CCTV image of Tarrant from 2016 shows a thin-faced, intense looking young man with already thinning hair.
Why Brenton Tarrant, in particular, took that path we don’t know. Like a number of other shooters he came from a broken home – according to the above profile his parents divorced early in his childhood. He followed his father’s hobby of body building and so, presumably, kept up contact with him. After his father died in 2010, when Tarrant was 20, he gave up his job in a gym and started his travels. Everything suggests that he was a loner from then on, finding his community and purpose in life on the internet.
Lacking real human relationships, his hatred of Muslims seems strangely abstract and bloodless – until its final acting out. He was driven by an idea, an ideology, which made sense of his nondescript background and seemingly superfluous existence. This suggests the absence of religious faith in his own life and a hatred, not of the Islamic faith as such, but of its cultural impact. He resents a section of humanity that seems to have greater resilience and a more certain future than his own.
These are things that — once the public mourning and the justified outrage is over, once Tarrant has been tried and convicted sent to jail, if not before – we in the “white West” need to think deeply about. If we do not, but content ourselves with slogans ('racism', 'white supremacy', 'far-right', 'populism', 'anti-immigration') — then, much as we may hope otherwise, and in spite of changing gun laws and monitoring right-wing groups, Brenton Tarrant will not be the last young man to make up a life-script for himself that ends with the killing of others.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.