By John Cassidy
March 16, 2019
Renton Harrison Tarrant, the twenty-eight-year-old Australian who allegedly carried out a racially motivated gun massacre, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, appeared in court on Saturday morning and was charged with one count of murder. According to a report from the New Zealand Herald, Tarrant “appeared in white prison clothing, with manacled hands, and barefoot. He smirked when media photographed him in the dock, flanked by two police officers.” He didn’t enter a plea and was remanded in custody. The court hearing, at the Christchurch district court, was closed to the public, but the judge allowed some members of the media to report on the proceedings.
As they were taking place, surgeons were still operating on some of the victims of the shootings, which occurred at two mosques, and the confirmed death toll rose to forty-nine. More horrifying eyewitness accounts emerged, and the whole of New Zealand, a remote island nation of about 4.9 million people that had only thirty-five murders in all of 2017, was in a state of deep shock. “I honestly thought somebody was carrying a water pistol—this is New Zealand, you know—or a showing of a pellet gun or something,” Omar Nabi, a Christchurch man whose father was shot dead at one of the two mosques that were attacked, told reporters. “We feel safe here because it’s multicultural. We’re accepted no matter who we are.” Tragically, it took just one heavily armed fanatic to upset this equilibrium.
Tarrant grew up more than fourteen hundred miles away from Christchurch, in Grafton, New South Wales; a small city located about three hundred and eighty miles north of Sydney. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, when Tarrant lived in Grafton, he was known “as someone who was dedicated to fitness and ran free athletic programs for children.” He lived in a modest home, and, after leaving high school, in 2009, he got a job at a local gym. “He never showed any extremist tendencies in conversations I had with him,” Tracey Gray, the owner of the gym, told the Herald. In social-media posts, Tarrant said that he quit his job in 2011 and set off to travel the world.
It’s not known yet when he settled in New Zealand, but recently he had been living in Dunedin, a coastal city about two hundred and twenty miles south of Christchurch. “This individual has travelled the world with sporadic periods of time spent in New Zealand,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, on Saturday. “This individual was not on the radar of either the New Zealand intelligence agencies or the Australian agencies.”
Somewhere along the line, Tarrant got radicalized and became a hateful racist who was consumed by alt-right conspiracy theories and historical nonsense. The manifesto he posted online showed that he was consumed with Australia’s European heritage, and it made reference to incidents that European white nationalists cite to vilify Islam and Muslims, including the long-running child-sexual-abuse scandal in Rotherham, England, and the sexual assaults in Germany, in 2015 and 2016. “It was not immediately clear whether Tarrant was involved in far-right neo-Nazi groups in Australia,” the Herald’s Michael Koziol wrote. “However, imagery from Tarrant’s now-removed Twitter profile bears striking similarity to those used by an extreme-right, anti-immigration group called The Dingoes. In his writing, Tarrant echoed views expressed by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed seventy-seven people with a van bomb and gun massacre in Norway, in 2011. He specifically mentioned Breivik by name, claiming he had ‘brief contact’ with the mass murderer and had received a ‘blessing’ for his actions from Breivik’s associates.”
So much for Donald Trump’s absurd response, on Friday, when he was asked whether he thought that white nationalism was a rising threat around the world. “I don’t really,” Trump said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.” Of course, Trump had good reason to try to minimize the threat from the extreme right. In his manifesto, Tarrant praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” while also criticizing his leadership skills. “As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no,” Tarrant wrote.
Of course, right-wing terrorism is now a very real and deadly threat in many Western countries, the United States included. Last October, Robert Bowers, a forty-six-year-old Pittsburgh man who ranted online about the threats presented by “illegals” and “the overwhelming Jew problem,” allegedly gunned down and killed eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. Just last month, federal agents arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard who had called for “focussed violence” to “establish a white homeland.” Like Tarrant, Hasson had been inspired by the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, and, according to the prosecutors, he was intending “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”
These are just the most visible recent examples of the ongoing violence perpetrated by white supremacists and other right-wing nuts. “Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018, making them responsible for more deaths than in any year since 1995,” the Anti-Defamation League noted in January. Even the Trump Administration’s own report, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” which was published last year, acknowledged that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise,” and it cited “racially motivated extremism” as one of the causes.
Another factor, undoubtedly, is the role that social media plays in cultivating the growth and amplifying the impact of extremist groups. In this case, Tarrant not only inhaled hatred and bigotry from the online world: he also live-streamed his murderous attack on Facebook and the giant social network didn’t even know about it until they were informed by the police in New Zealand. By that stage, the gruesome video had gone viral. “The attack was teased on Twitter, announced on the online message board 8chan and broadcast live on Facebook,” Kevin Roose, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote. “The footage was then replayed endlessly on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, as the platforms scrambled to take down the clips nearly as fast as new copies popped up to replace them.”
What can we do about all this? In the face of all the hatred, the violence, and the enabling digital technology, it is easy to feel helpless. But some things can be done. To begin with, as Simon Clark, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, argued in a recent analysis, politicians from all parties, the President included, need to openly acknowledge the scale of the threat represented by right-wing terrorism, and to commit to tackling it in a number of different ways. One obvious step is to beef up the law-enforcement resources devoted to tracking right-wing extremism and investigating possible plots to carry out threats. In addition, the Trump Administration “needs to understand how overheated rhetoric—including the president’s own words—can lead to violence,” Clark wrote.
In addition, the Republican Party must face up to the responsibility it bears for refusing to accept that lax gun laws are another enabling factor for domestic terrorists of all ideological stripes. When Australia tightened its gun laws some years ago, following a gun massacre, New Zealand chose not to follow suit. That was a terrible error. On Saturday, New Zealand’s Attorney General, David Parker, said that the government would now ban semi-automatic weapons of the type that were used in Friday’s attack.
Parker also pointed a finger at the U.S. technology giants, saying, “How can it be right for this atrocity to be filmed by the murderer using a go-pro and live-streamed across the world by social media companies? How can that be right? Who should be held accountable for that?” At the very least, the big tech enterprises—such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter—must redouble their efforts to monitor hate speech on their platforms, take it down rapidly, and ban the people and groups who are spreading it. But, at this stage, it is too dangerous to leave this task to the companies, which, ultimately, are motivated by the desire to maximize traffic on their platforms. It is time for some collective action, also.
Perhaps, as my colleague Evan Osnos suggests, part of this could be a collective decision on the part of all of us to deny the terrorists the publicity and attention they crave. But how would that work in practice? Like it or not, it is big news when some embittered human shell goes out and kills fifty or a hundred innocents. People demand to hear about it. Perhaps refusing to name the shooter and blacking out his or her face in news photographs will discourage some future attackers, but that seems like a lot to hope for. Even if it had some effect, there would still be an urgent need to crack down on racial incitement and right-wing extremism generally. Only governments have the power to do this effectively.
Around the world, we are being confronted with the rise of a murderous and hateful ideology that targets minorities, glorifies violence, and thrives on modern communications technology. The response needs to be commensurate with the threat, which is spreading ominously, and to the most unlikely of places. Even bucolic New Zealand, a place where Silicon Valley billionaires are buying personal retreats in case it all comes down closer to home, couldn’t escape the plague.