There’s so much to say about what happened in Christchurch, but before we go there, let’s make one thing clear: fascism will not win.
Broken people who stockpile guns and write pompous, rambling manifestos, will not win.
But we also can’t ignore them, as the world’s governments have been doing for too long. Since the attacks of September 11, much of the world has been obsessed with the idea of shadowy Muslim threats lurking around every corner, creating a sprawling security apparatus that it turned on vulnerable, often immigrant communities while allowing white supremacy to gestate unmolested.
This is not a new development under Trump, though certainly his presence, words, and actions have made white supremacists louder and bolder, as has the rise of far right political figures across the world. Collectively, we covered our eyes in fear and mistook the victims for perpetrators, while the real threats grew and grew. The result was what happened in Christchurch.
Details are still trickling in, and it’ll be some time before we fully understand who these people were, how they were seduced by fascist hate, and why they really chose Christchurch, a city still collecting itself after earthquakes rent its streets to pieces eight years ago. But we do know some things.
According to prime minister Jacinda Ardern, none of the perpetrators were on intelligence service watchlists. The government bodies responsible for supposedly keeping Kiwis safe were apparently blindsided by this attack. Indeed, there’s evidence right-wing extremism wasn’t even on their radar. Intelligence agencies have complained about under-resourcing, but the SIS, New Zealand’s domestic domestic spy agency, focused exclusively on the threat of ISIS in its most recent annual report, ascribing to it “the majority of leads.”
The attack in Christchurch happened despite beefed-up powers controversially rammed through at the behest of the previous center-right National government, including allowing the country’s equivalent of the NSA to spy on New Zealanders. Then-prime minister John Key made a habit of fearmongering about the threat of ISIS to get them passed. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Islamic Women’s Council has said their many warnings about this very kind of thing have gone unanswered by both this current government and its predecessor.
In practice, the vast surveillance capabilities of the New Zealand government have been often turned against those not fitting Key’s lurid descriptions: Kim Dotcom, a Green Party MP, a politician’s rivals for a top job, targets of the repressive Bangladeshi security forces, to name some of those we know of. We know the SIS accesses data about people entering and leaving the country (after doing so illegally for decades), making the events in Christchurch an even more baffling oversight. The top it off, the country was recently shocked by revelations that government agencies had hired a private intelligence company in the past to spy on environmentalists and even families of earthquake victims.
It may be a familiar tale for those reading across the world. In the United States, authorities have been similarly preoccupied with hounding left-wing activists and goading young, sometimes disabled Muslim men into “planning” terrorist attacks instead of focusing on growing far-right violence. In one instance last year, California police went after anti-fascist protesters involved in an event where eight of them were stabbed and beaten, ignoring the neo-Nazis who were involved and even going so far as protecting and working with the fascists to prosecute their foes.
There is another ominous development visible in the aftermath of the shooting. There is, particularly in the United States, a vanishing line between the far right and “mainstream” conservatism, borne out again by the responses to this incident. Breitbart, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Signal, the Daily Caller — scroll down to the public comments on this news and marvel at the many readers echoing the vile comments of the Hitler-plagiarising Australian senator Fraser Anning, blaming the attack on Muslim immigration and multiculturalism, and complaining about the media’s favorability to incidents involving dead Muslims.
New Zealand is not immune to this. While the recently defeated National Party more or less falls next to the Democrats on the political spectrum, of late its MPs have started seemingly winking at the far right, fearmongering about a non-binding UN migration pact, and one of its leading lights sharing fake news about liberal activists supposedly working across the globe to decriminalize pedophilia. Though the details and possible connection to Christchurch remain murky at best, the leader of the New Zealand Green Party was assaulted the day before the mosque attacks by a man reportedly shouting something about the UN.
Likewise, the economically nationalist New Zealand First party, which has trafficked in ugly nativism in the past, came under fire during the 2017 election for appearing to flirt with the “alt-right.” Its longtime leader Winston Peters, who sounded genuinely and uncharacteristically shaken after hearing this week’s news, at the time defended signing and being pictured with a Pepe the Frog poster. Its youth wing chanted “build the wall” at an opposing party member of Mexican heritage, and several party members told me, in one case under repeated questioning, that they would refuse to bar someone with “alt-right” views from getting involved in the party.
Then there’s the media. As commentators have now copiously documented, right-wing media figures in New Zealand who have expressed sorrow about the attack have also used their platforms to peddle Islamophobic talking points. Perhaps this incident will be a wake-up a call to the country’s public figures.
New Zealand must now resist going down the road of the Bush-era US and so many Western countries that have responded to terrorist violence by strengthening the repressive powers of the state. Grief, anger, and fear are powerful emotions that often cloud our judgment. Already there are demands online, many of them, dismayingly, from the Left, for the government to do everything from aggressively censoring online spaces to surveilling people based on overly broad reasoning. This is understandable and human; it is also misguided for the same reason the Left for years resisted neoconservatives’ calls to do the same in response to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
Empowering the government to aggressively shut off the Internet’s pipeline for far right ideas may go some way toward slowing the advance of fascism, but it would fail to attack the root causes of its appeal, while creating plenty of unintentional blowback harmful to both civil society and, particularly, the Left. As we learned time and again with Islamic terrorism, it takes more than censorship to kill an ideology. This doesn’t mean nothing should be done; YouTube’s algorithm has been criticized for a while for encouraging a descent into far right ideas, for instance, and this can be changed with little impact on civil liberties.
Likewise, the bodies of the dead in Christchurch were barely cold before one National MP suggested it was time to talk about strengthening surveillance powers. But events and data around the world this century have shown us ever more radical anti-terrorism powers have done little to keep us safer from such attacks. They have, however, been great for governments intent on stamping on the kind of mass activism that flowered before this week’s shooting started.
New Zealand might instead follow the example of Norway, a country rocked by an even more horrific white supremacist attack back in 2011, long before Donald Trump and “fake news” came on the scene. In response, Norwegians stubbornly refused to abandon their political principles and defiantly carried on life as normal. The perpetrator, who (as far as this most recent manifesto can be believed) inspired and has been compared to Christchurch’s attackers, was given a fair trial, allowed to berate the judge, and was even permitted to study for a degree from prison. Norway, which has no life sentences for prison, did not change the rehabilitative criminal justice system it had designed as a result of its experience under the thumb of the very Nazis today’s “alt-right” admires. Kiwis often compare their country to a Scandinavia of the South Pacific; now it’s time to act like it.
Unlike Norway, however, New Zealand should not swiftly hide the issues that led to this attack. Breivik was obviously influenced by fascist ideology, but he was also the product of “a childhood that a child shouldn’t have,” according to journalist Åsne Seierstad, just as Cesar Sayoc was victimized by Steve Mnuchin’s illegal foreclosure practices before he mailed bombs to Trump’s political foes. People are right to call for government action in response, but state power will be most effective in attacking the material conditions — whether social dislocation, poverty, or whatever else — that have suddenly given far right ideas renewed appeal.
Already there are attempts to shift responsibility out of the country, with Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel claiming that “this sort of extremism is not something that we’ve seen here.” This is nonsense. Christchurch has been ground zero for white supremacist movements in New Zealand for decades, regardless of where this particular individual was raised and educated. Kiwis who want to combat this ideology without the help of the state might look to the grassroots anti-racist organizing during the 1980s Klan revival in the US as a model.
The New Zealand government, meanwhile, should raise its pathetically small refugee quota past the 1,500 it upped the number to last year. There has been much talk of New Zealand’s culture of tolerance and inclusivity in the wake of the attacks, with the prime minister stressing that “we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.” What better way to prove these words than to substantially increase the amount of the world’s desperate, fleeing people we take in, as the Green Party and activist groups have been calling for? And while we’re at it, let’s overhaul the discriminatory policy put in place by the previous government that slashed the proportion of refugees taken in from the Middle East and Africa and threw added obstacles to their ability to be accepted.
The events in Christchurch are yet another reminder that there are no “two sides” to the political violence engulfing the world today. There is only one side that has spent decades using murder as a political tool, and it has been flirted with by one segment of the mainstream political spectrum in country after country; it showed its face yet again on Friday.
By contrast, its opponents spent that afternoon peacefully organizing around the world in vastly greater numbers for a better tomorrow, with tens of thousands of school kids in New Zealand alone protesting government inaction on the looming existential threat of climate change. Remember them, because they will win, and the fascists will lose. Kia kaha.