The terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand—the largest terror event in Australasian history—carried out against a migrant community in a place of worship has left us all in shock. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, has described this attack as an attack on all New Zealanders.
Part of the shock comes from the feeling that these types of events don’t happen here. Not in Australia, not in New Zealand. We are small, quiet countries, where people feel safe. Random violence is not a feature of everyday life, let alone on this scale.
People deal with shock and grief in different ways. Some people mourn. Others get angry. Many of the early reactions to the event have expressed legitimate anger about the lack of action taken over violent, right-wing extremism. Observers have been warning about the toxicity of online echo-chambers and their potential to foment hatred and motivate people to commit violence for some time now.
Much of the anger is directed at big tech companies who are seen as making a profit via the “rabbit hole” algorithm, which prompts people to consume more extreme content with each click. It is noteworthy that the Christchurch attack was live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on YouTube and discussed on Reddit before any of these platforms had a chance to react. The incentive structure which grants a psychopath instantaneous worldwide fame is powerful and real. And this will not be the last time that it is exploited.
Others have also expressed anger at what they view to be the inherently racist nature of Australian society—the society from which this monstrous terrorist emerged. To add to the shock of the massacre itself, an Australian Senator, Fraser Anning with extreme and racist views (who was elected via a special recount when another Senator was made ineligible on just 19 votes) has blamed the attack on the victims — describing Muslims as the “usual perpetrators” of violence—and linking the violence to immigration, not the terrorist himself.
The vileness of Senator Anning’s statements notwithstanding, it should also be noted that while the terrorist who committed this atrocity is Australian, he did not cite any Australians as inspirations for his actions. He cited Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik and Canadian mass-shooter Alexandre Bissonnette, among others. This vicious strain of neo-fascism that we are seeing emerge across the West is influenced by figures such as the Russian theorist Aleksandr Dugin, who aims to destroy Western liberal democracy itself. Somewhat ironically, extreme ethno-nationalism is a thoroughly international phenomenon and is not reflective of local communities and local concerns.
In the wake of the attack, blame has also been levelled at liberals such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris and, surprisingly, Chelsea Clinton:
Here is a pregnant Chelsea Clinton being accosted in public by NYU students blaming her for the New Zealand massacre. You are free to have your opinion, but how you express yourself matters. Note how Clinton never shuts down or stops listening, despite not deserving any of this. pic.twitter.com/V6XcC3lWCB
— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) March 16, 2019
In Australia the attack has been blamed on the Australian media, in Britain the British media, in the US on Donald Trump. The tragedy has become fuel for the fire of the internal culture wars of each country—domestic culture wars that are draining our finite reserves of mutual social trust.
The disruptive nature of the internet has been compared many times to the disruption caused by the printing press. And the frightening realisation one has when making this analogy is that the printing press precipitated hundreds of years of religious wars. We do not yet know what the long-term impact of the internet will be—obviously, it will be both good and bad, and most likely the upside will vastly outweigh the downside—but we must also be prepared for a fragmenting of our societies, and their continual fracturing along ideological and tribal lines.
While the problem of what to do about the dispossessed young male is obviously not a new one, the technologies which allow its toxic effects to be externalised onto the rest of us are. It is unclear how best to solve this problem or if it can be solved at all, without destroying the civil liberties that make liberal democracies worth living in. The best we can do in the short-term is to return again and again to the better angels of our nature and try to keep these horrific events in perspective. Ancient religious texts can guide us towards lessons that open our minds and soften our hearts, and a long-view of history can help us understand that such events are shocking because they are so rare.
We must also not jump to conclusions about the inherently racist nature of Australian society. One-quarter of Australia’s population was born overseas, one half of all Australians has a parent who was born overseas and one-fifth of Australians speak a language other than English at home. Sixty percent of migrants say they feel a great sense of belonging.
This is not to minimise the pockets of extremism that do exist—and which may be growing. But we should be precise as well as nuanced with our words. Portraying Australia as an irredeemably racist nation is not a good strategy for bringing communities together. We don’t foster cohesion by apportioning blame to others. We foster cohesion by emphasising our sameness and our shared values.
In times like this I look to leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has emphasised our common humanity. Asking for “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,” and to remember the victims who “have chosen to make New Zealand their home” she reminds us that “it is their home. They are us.”
Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon