Editorials

Madness and savagery in New Zealand

While it would be easy and reassuring to call the terror attack on two New Zealand mosques last week “unspeakable” or “beyond comprehension,” there are words for Friday’s tragedy — horrific and murderous are just two — and the savage act was too easily comprehensible. The assault was the act of a lone gunman who called himself an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist.” That is nonsense that obscures a malignant narcissism, intolerance and lust for violence. Unfortunately, while the alleged killer acted alone, he is not alone in those beliefs. The rest of us must reject this obscenity and all its alleged justifications.

Last Friday, Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, allegedly attacked two Christchurch mosques with semi-automatic military-style weapons, shotguns and a lever-action rifle while they were holding mid-afternoon prayers. During the rampages, the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history, 50 people were killed and another 40 wounded, 12 of them critically.

Horrific as these acts were, even more savage was the gunman’s decision to livestream the atrocities as they were carried out. His desire to document the attacks was part of a social media “strategy”: Minutes prior to the assault, he published an “ideological manifesto with extreme views” that sought to justify his actions — 74 pages of far right-wing nonsense that denounced immigrants, Muslims and Jews.

We all must respond to this brutal and senseless assault on the Muslim community. Governments and public figures must denounce and disavow all hate-speech against entire groups. There is no place for collective smears. While race-baiting politicians said that they cannot see and do not intend any relationship between their rhetoric and acts of violence, their dog whistles attract followers. Conscious or not, their language and that of people like Tarrant are identical. Tarrant wrote in his manifesto that U.S. President Donald Trump was “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

In a similar vein, law enforcement organizations must take nationalist and extreme right terrorism as seriously as they do Islamic terrorists and that of the left. The tendency to dismiss nationalist and white supremacist groups as marginal or “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” as Trump did in the aftermath of the attack, is wrong and wrongheaded. There needs to be greater international attention to and coordination among law enforcement groups to address this problem.

An obvious step is the tightening of gun laws. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised that gun laws will be tightened after last week’s attacks. Gun owners must register in New Zealand but it is a license for each person, rather than one for each weapon. One option is a total ban on military-style assault rifles; it is hard to see how such weapons ever make sense for civilians.

Great responsibility also rests on internet and media companies that provide platforms for the spewing of hate and bile as well as the forums at which like-minded extremists congregate, commiserate and communicate. Companies that aggressively market their services and monetize their data must now be as vigilant in policing their spaces, rooting out this poison and ensuring that its perpetrators cannot find refuge online.

Other media companies must also reconsider how they cover these events. There is considerable evidence that lone actors crave validation and attention. Extensive coverage responds to that desire. While such acts cannot be ignored, they can be covered in ways that do not glorify the terrorists but instead shame and marginalize them.

Ordinary citizens have a role to play as well. They too must denounce hate speech, rather than turning away or suffering in silence. They must take the offensive when needed, reporting suspect individuals or comments.

Acts like those that unfolded in Christchurch last week seem distant from Japan, not only in terms of distance but in terms of culture. There are relatively small number of foreigners in Japan and the idea of an immigrant horde displacing local culture is absurd. Japan has extremely tight gun control laws, and the prospect of a mass shooting of this nature is a virtual impossibility. According to the National Police Agency, in 2017 there were only 22 shooting crimes throughout Japan, in which three people were killed and five injured. Members of organized crime gangs were perpetrators in 13 of the crimes. When there are acts of mass killing — and there are very few — in Japan, most are caused by stabbing or arson.

Our hearts go out to the grieving communities of New Zealand. We must all stand with them, and against the ignorant hatred that motivated last week’s attacks.