Posts Tagged ‘Agenda setting’

The supermarket stabbing spree was not a terrorist act.

datePosted on 14:33, September 8th, 2021 by Pablo

Blood had not even been mopped up from the floor after the supermarket stabbing spree when the prime minister strode to the parliamentary theatre podium and declared it to be an act of terrorism committed by an individual following an extremist ideology. Within minutes of her pronouncement the media sped to get reaction to the event. I declined nearly a dozen interviews in the first day after it occurred because I did not want to speculate on an ongoing investigation, but the terrorism studies industry jumped into action and joined the bandwagon labeling the stabbings as an act of terrorism committed by a “lone wolf,” followed by cheerleading the official line arguing that the powers of the State needed to be expanded so as to include acts of preparation and planning along with actual crimes of ideologically-motivated violence in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA). That several of the critically unreflective media-ordained “experts” who featured over the following days are associated with research centers that receive government (including security community) funding does not appear to have given a second of pause to the media booking agents.

I have written about terrorism on and off for 30 plus years. I have written about it in professional journals and on this blog. In a previous life I was involved with the counter-terrorism community in the US as an analyst and part of contingency planning and profiling teams, and more recently have consulted with various entities about the phenomena. I believe I have a pretty good idea of what terrorism is and is not. Because of this I would like to outline some basic facts and offer a brief defense of why I do not believe that the supermarket stabbings were terroristic in nature. I am a minority voice swimming against the current of official discourse, but have confidence in my view on this matter and ask that readers please consider what I write below.

There are several forms of terrorism. These include state terrorism (the most common form), where a State terrorizes its own people or other targets; state-sponsored terrorism, where a State uses a proxy to commit acts of terrorism against an enemy or its core interests (think of the Iranian relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, or—dare I say it–the Saudi relationship with al-Qaeda); non-state terrorism, including criminal (for example, Mafia) and ideological terrorism perpetrated by non-state irregular warfare actors (al-Qaeda, Daesh, the IRA, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, Mano Blanca in El Salvador or “Triple A” in Argentina). The list is extensive and covers the entire ideological spectrum. The bottom line of non-state ideological terrorism is that it must have an explicitly political focus—it has a political end or endgame in mind.

There is also terrorism committed during war time and terrorism that occurs during peace. War terrorism is mainly a sub-set of state terrorism but is also found in irregular warfare. The fire-bombing of Dresden had little military purpose but was designed to have a psychological impact on the German population. Likewise, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done not so much because of the military importance of these targets but because of the psychological impact that a single bomb annihilation of a city would have on the Japanese. In both cases the purpose was to terrorize, not gain a military advantage per se. Likewise, beheadings and other atrocities committed by jihadists do not improve their military positions but do have a psychological impact on those who are witness or subject to them. Terrorism during peace are those that occur outside of recognized (declared or undeclared) conflicts. Again, this includes terrorism by the State against dissidents and criminal terrorism against authorities or non-compliant members of the public. As of 9/11, the focus has been on non-state ideological terrorism even if the specific ideology behind many acts of terrorism has shifted over time.

Terrorism can involve large-scale mass attacks or small cell and solo operator (“lone wolf”) attacks. The tactical logic at play is to commit acts of seemingly random and disproportionate violence against soft targets with the purpose of instilling fear, dread and a sense of powerlessness, if not hopelessness in the population. As I wrote professionally more than two decades ago, the terrorist seeks to atomise and infantilize the social subject so as to isolate and paralyze it in the face of the perpetrator’s actions. That facilitates surrender or acquiescence to the terrorist will.

Terrorism has a target, subject and an object. The target are the immediate victims of a terrorist act, the more vulnerable and helpless the better. The subject(s) is the wider audience, including the public, government and even sympathetic or like-minded groups and individuals. The object is to send a message and to bend the subject to the will of the perpetrator, that is, to get the subject(s) to do or not do something in accordance with the perpetrator’s objectives and desires.

Having said all of this, by way of illustration let us run a comparison between the Christchurch attacks and the supermarket stabbings.

The Christchurch killer meticulously planned over at least 18 months an act of mass murder, stockpiling weapons and ammunition in order to do so. He did so in secrecy and without drawing attention to his actions (or so the Royal Commission of Inquiry would like us to believe). He displayed cunning, situational awareness and observed operational security as he counted down to the attack date, which was chosen for its historical significance (the Ides of March). He wrote a lengthy manifesto detailing his ideological views and reasons for committing the attacks. As believers gathered in houses of worship on a day of prayer, his targets were highly symbolic and chosen after considerable observation and research. The acts of mass murder were carried out in a cold blooded, calculated, methodical manner, live streamed on social media and eagerly shared by his co-believers world-wide. After capture, he was determined to be sane if narcissistic in personality and interviews with those who knew him prior to March 15 said he exhibited no signs of mental illness. In fact, even though a foreigner, he had friends and socialised normally (I use the last term neutrally as opposed to differentiating between so-called “normal” and “abnormal” or “unusual” conduct).

Now consider the supermarket stabbings. By way of a broad summary, let’s note the following. The perpetrator—I will refer to him by his suppressed identity “Mr. S”– had been granted refugee status in NZ after leaving Sri Lanka in 2011 (he was Tamil) and yet for years had publicly spoken of his desire to kill infidels and his hatred of the West. He was said to be lonely and homesick, with few social contacts in NZ. After being arrested in 2015 he was assessed as being depressed, subject to wild mood swings, prone to violence as a result of having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from experiences as a Tamil in his homeland. He had come to the authorities’ attention by openly posting jihadist supportive rants online, making threats to others (including muslims) on social media, and for seemingly preparing to wage jihad in NZ or abroad. When searched his flat contained violent extremist literature and videos and hunting knives. After being arrested while trying to leave NZ on a one way ticket (which the authorities believe was to be a journey to the killing fields of Syria), he was bailed and promptly went out and bought an exact copy of a knife that had been confiscated from him, apparently from the same store that he had bought the first one. He was then re-arrested and charged with possessing an offensive weapon (charges later dropped) and with posessing objectionable materials in the form of jihadist literature and videos. 

When in court he railed against the injustices done to him, threatened the judge and openly spoke about his desire to do harm to others. But, because his refugee status was being disputed, further cases against him were pending and he had served three years already while waiting for and then during trial, he was sentenced to community supervision for a year, then released on July 16 and bailed to a mosque that, as it turns out, did not have its own Imam but did have a bed. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation but refused to do so and was never forced to comply. Then came Friday Sept 3.

Rather then the culmination of months of meticulous planning and preparation, that day we saw a spontaneous act of white hot rage (which makes suggestions that strengthening the TSA to include acts of planning and preparation would have prevented the attack utterly ludicrous). He grabbed a knife off a shelf and started stabbing other shoppers (who, fortunately, were observing social distancing rules during the Level 4 pandemic lockdown). His targets were chosen opportunistically and at random–they were simply close enough to attack. He ran through the aisles yelling and shouting, thereby alerting other potential victims to impending danger. He ran from victim to victim rather than pause to finish them off in deliberate fashion. He had no manifesto and he he did not video his actions or communicate or transmit his attack to others. He had no subject other than his immediate targets and he had no object other than to satisfy his own bloodlust and sense of being wronged by society.  His message was to himself.

He had no connections to any jihadist network because even if he once did (and that has not been alleged, much less proven) his internet access was cut off after his arrest and he was largely isolated within the Sri Lankan and Muslim communities because of his notoriety. He had no affective relationships to speak of since his family remains in Sri Lanka and he had no partner or romantic attachments. Described as normally behaved before he arrived in NZ, he descended into personal and political darkness in the years after, linking the two in his public and private utterances. In fact, although he glorified ISIS violence and fetishised bladed weapons, it is unclear how deeply rooted he was in the Salafist world view that underpins ISIS’s ideology.

After he was released in July he developed, according to media reports, an obsessive focus on someone whose identity is suppressed but who was deliberately distanced from him after concerns were raised about his behaviour towards that individual in the days before the stabbings. One can only wonder if this was a case of what is known as affective displacement or transfer in which his emotional focus shifted from jihad to something more immediate and personal, and when that object of attention was removed, he snapped. If so, his ideological focus was more an opportunistic product of his mental state than of true devotion to the extremist cause. Put another way, his homicidal ideation may not have primarily been driven by ideology, which may have been more of a convenient crutch for his grievances rather than the root cause of his sociopathy.

To be clear: I am no mental health expert and defer to them on the subject, but I have learned enough over the years to believe that something more than ideological zealotry may have been at play here.

What S did have is a constant armed police surveillance presence around him because unlike the judge who released him in the hope that he could be rehabilitated, the police had no illusions that he was anything but a danger to himself and society. They therefore devoted considerable resources to surreptitiously monitoring him. As it turns out, he received no rehabilitation as well, which meant that the police emphasis on covert surveillance from a distance was certainly not designed to be pre-emptive or preventative in nature (since an intensive rehab counselor could have given them daily updates on his state of mind). As quick as the police reaction was to the stabbings, they were at a disadvantage given the nature of their surveillance technique, which apparently did not benefit from regular psychological updates. This is no slight on the police. They did what they thought best given the difficult circumstances that they were put in, and in the end they saved lives.

Even lumping Mr. S with the Christchurch killer as “lone wolves” is problematic. The Christchurch killer clearly was such a threat, quietly stalking his prey and preparing his attacks. Mr. S, however, acted impulsively and without the type of deliberation usually associated with lone wolves. Rather than “flying under the radar” of specialised and dedicated counter-terrorism units in NZ (as the Royal Commission would like us to believe with regard to the Christchurch terrorist), he was a known, clear and present danger, at least as far as the police were concerned. Likening him to the March 15 killer as a lone wolf is , again, drawing too long a comparative bow. In fact Mr. S seems closer to the May Dunedin Countdown stabber (four wounded in that attack) than the Christchurch killer, even if the demons inside the Dunedin stabber’s head were fueled by meth rather than ideology and/or mental illness.

For those who would differentiate terrorism from other violent crimes by consequences or effects, here too Mr. S’s actions fall short of the definitional threshold. The Christchurch attacks had immediate and longer-term impacts at home and abroad. While championed by white supremacists and rightwing extremists and causing wide-spread fear in NZ society in the immediate aftermath, it had a more dramatic influence on counter-terrorism threat assessments and approaches world-wide. It occasioned considerable reflection within NZ about tolerance and community and has produced numerous government initiatives to address its root causes. Its message was heard globally, albeit in different ways by different audiences/subjects. In contrast, the supermarket attacks caused a media frenzy, some political debate, assorted commentary and much questioning of how S came to be loose in public. That focused scrutiny lasted about five days, but soon the story receded on media outlets and from the public eye, replaced by coverage of the lowering of Covid lock-down levels and the usual political and social news. Beyond the victims, immediate witnesses, some politicians, pundits, activists and police, NZ society is already moving on and the consequences of the attack outside of (and arguably even within) NZ is minimal. The Christchurch attacks had long-term and wide-ranging effect; the supermarket stabbing spree has had a relatively narrow and short term impact. In other words, in consequence it does not rise to the level of a terrorist attack.

Put another way. Although the supermarket stabbings were certainly terrifying to those who were in and around the store, they were not terroristic in intent or effect.

It is interesting to consider that Andrew Little is both the Minister of Health as well as the Minister of Intelligence and Security. While this may promote efficiency in the discharge of portfolio obligations, it meant that there was no ministerial cross-check on the decision about Mr. S. Instead it presented Mr. Little with a choice when it came to Mr. S: treat him as a mental health case or as a national security threat? The institutional bias underlying the decision about him given the portfolio arrangement is now clear. National security was the priority, not Mr. S’s mental health.

The government says that it considered ordering Mr. S into compulsory treatment under terms of the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act, but was advised that it was not realistic to do so because he did not meet the threshold for involuntary commitment. This is presumably because even though he was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and other ailments, it did not rise to the level of a recognized clinically diagnosed disorder. Fair enough, because the bar for involuntary commitment must be set very high. But what about him being a clear and present danger to himself and society? Should that have factored into the decision as to whether he should be held for assessment and treatment? Had he not held ideological views, would have national security even entered into consideration even if the threat he presented to the public was the same? What would have been the decision then?

Because the decision was made against the mental health option, the government tried to revoke his refugee status so that he could be deported as a national security threat. That is easier said than done given international protocols governing the treatment of refugees, but what seems clear is that even though (or perhaps because) the High Court struck down prosecuting S under the Terrorism Suppression Act since “planning and preparation” is not part of the language in it, the Crown was determined to treat him as a jihadist rather than someone who was violently unwell. However coincidentally, Sept 5 fell into the government’s lap when it came to pushing under urgency amendments to the TSA that incorporated “planning and preparation” into the definition of behaviour covered by the Act, and the chorus of experts all sang in harmony the government line that the law, as it stands without the amendment, is unfit for purpose.

Three things should be noted as an aside. This is the second time that the Crown has attempted to invoke the TSA when no act of violence was committed, only to be rejected by the Court. The first was after the Urewera raids, when the not-so-merry band of activists and misfits were initially accused of being terrorists for playing Che Guevara in the bush. That attempt to lay charges under the TSA failed even though people were in fact terrorised: the innocent Tuhoe who were held at gunpoint (including children on a school bus) by Police. The second point is that even though the TSA does not allow for prosecutions for planning and preparing for a terrorist act, the Crimes Act has enough in it to do so. Just imagine if police had evidence of someone about to commit a “common” (non-ideologically motivated) murder. Would they not step in to prevent the deed by using the evidence collected under the Crimes Act? If so, what is the difference with an ideologically motivated crime that makes it only prosecutable under the TSA? As it turns out, the Crown went for six and tried to test the TSA a second time on Mr. S. And for the second time, it was given out by the Court.

The third point is that the government had a legal remedy on national security grounds that would have kept Mr. S confined indefinitely while being assessed and treated but chose not use it: issuing a Security Risk Certificate against him recommended by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and once used in the Ahmed Zaoui case (even though Zaoui never threatened or committed any act of violence). The Certificate calls for the preventative detention of an individual deemed to be a threat to NZ’s national security while legal processes are pending. Unlike Zaoui Mr. S was a well recognized threat to himself and others and yet, also unlike Zaoui, the Security Risk Certificate remedy was not explored or was rejected (perhaps because it too was “unreasonable” to do so). Which is odd given that he could have been subject to the strictures of the Security Risk Certificate during and after his trial regardless of sentence on lesser charges and therefore would not have been free on September 3 or required a constant resource-draining police surveillance presence in the weeks leading up to it. (Hat tip to Selwyn Manning for alerting me to this angle of inquiry).

In any event, rather than an act of terrorism or terrorist act (take your pick), what I saw on Sept. 5 was the commission of a hate crime. I recognize that NZ does not have a hate crime statute (as far as I know) and understand that hate crimes are usually designated as acts of violence committed against individuals or groups because of who they are (e.g. gays, Muslims, redheads). Here I use the phrase “hate crime” because Mr. S’s hatred and rage was directed at non-Muslim society in general and because of the lack of compliance with the definitions and description of terrorism mentioned above. It does not make the supermarket attacks any less heinous than those done deliberately as terrorist attacks with the same (thankfully non-fatal) outcome. But it does help distinguish between underlying motive and rigorousness of method, which in turn helps prevent us from being suckered into agreeing and complying with the agendas of security officials and vested “experts” alike.

Disclosure: After a day of thought and research into the case, I agreed to selective media interviews in which I outlined the views expressed above. That included raising the question as to whether invoking the Mental Health Act was considered. That was not well-received by some in the mental health community who felt, to quote someone, that I “had strayed from my lane.” I was surprised by that comment because I did not realise that I was in a lane, much less that I was “supposed” to stay in it. I still think that it was a legitimate question to ask and as it turns out the government answered it, however vaguely, shortly after I posed the question to a reporter. A few days later it turns out that I was on to something.

Capital punishment

datePosted on 09:23, July 6th, 2011 by Lew

Do yourselves a favour and listen to this morning’s debate between Chris Trotter and Deborah Coddington on Morning Report. This is (or ought to be) the agenda for this year’s election, and this is (or ought to be) how the national debate runs.

The leak of Labour’s purported capital gains tax (by former One News deputy political editor Fran Mold, now Labour press secretary, to her former colleague Guyon Espiner) is undoubtedly Labour’s play of the year to date. It takes an issue of great public interest and thrusts it into the national debate at a time when the electorate is preoccupied with less directly political considerations. As Maxwell McCombs famously said, what the voters think isn’t as relevant as what they think about, and this is a great example of taking the initiative and giving the electorate something to think about.

But not just the electorate. Everyone is thinking about this, because it is — finally — a genuine flagship policy from Labour. John Key’s comments on the topic take up two-thirds of the Vernon Small’s Stuff article yesterday. The property investment lobby are predictably livid about it. David Farrar has come out swinging, despite having been cautiously supportive of considering a CGT earlier in the term. Deborah Coddington, in the linked discussion above, saw fit to analogise CGT to child prostitution laws. Seriously.

The announcement has riled ’em, and it’s not even official yet. They’re scaremongering furiously, and if Labour have an ounce of sense the pitch of the official policy announcement (tomorrow next Thursday) will be to allay the worst of these fears. It should be framed as “redirecting investment to more productive sectors in theeconomy” and “paying our fair share”, with Phil Goff and Labour MPs (many of whom own investment properties) laying down a challenge to others: “we’re prepared to suffer a bit for the good of the rest of the country: are you?”

And then there’s the class-consciousness, demographic wedge, which Chris Trotter got pitch-perfect: property speculators are “landlords”, and the object isn’t to win back disgruntled National voters, but to engage the 20%+ of the electorate who didn’t vote last time because they felt none of the parties spoke for them, and the thousands of people who were too young to cast a vote in 2008 and are now even further from the possibility of home ownership because even the worst recession in half a century has failed to bring sanity to real estate markets.

This is positive-sum, strategically sound and tactically smart politics. Now what remains to be seen is whether Labour can win the battle of ideas over it.


Firearms, no debate

datePosted on 08:23, July 15th, 2010 by Lew

I generally agree with r0b’s reasoning on the police need — or lack — for firearms. This is a mostly-empty moral panic.

But how things have changed for Greg O’Connor of the Police Association. This from 1 June 2009:

Mr O’Connor, who is currently studying policing in Scandinavia, did not support all police carrying guns but said the matter had to be looked at. […] “We said the debate should take place outside the emotion of Len Snee’s death and it’s disappointing to see that now there’s not going to be any debate there needs to be.”

A year ago Greg O’Connor was careful to frame the Police Association response in this way. He repeatedly said he didn’t want to arm all officers, he just wanted “a debate”, and one which would take place in the cold light of reason rather than as a knee-jerk in the aftermath of a police shooting. That’s a mature and responsible position. But even though the debate has not really occurred in the intervening year, his position has congealed — or perhaps he now just feels more at liberty to express it — into “all guns, all the time”.

What’s changed in the past year? The agenda has changed, that’s all: how firearms are framed in the public discourse about policing. Any time a firearm is used — regardless of the outcome — it’s a big media deal. Recent events such as the Urewera Terra raids of October 2007, the retrial of David Bain, the story of a large number of dogs being “massacred” using a firearm, and of course a number of police shootings have imprinted the prominence of firearms as public menace on the public consciousness. This has progressed alongside a police and crime-reporting discourse which has as its basic theme the notion that our plucky boys and girls in blue are under constant attack from all sides. Contrary to O’Connor’s noble aim, there has been no meaningful debate about arming police. This fact suits his arm-the-cops purposes, and it’s now clear that those cries for a debate, and the appearance of a debate within the Police, were made with the primary purpose of simply keeping the issue primed and on the public agenda. It’s lurked there, undebated, for a while, and with these most recent events it’s moving rather rapidly closer to actually happening. That’s a dangerous way to set policy.

Although I accept this is a contentious position, I generally believe that we need to trust the operational discretion and instincts of frontline police staff, as long as we have tough and independent disciplinary oversight as to their policy, and conduct in implementing that policy. On this basis, I’m not categorically opposed to the notion of police vehicles containing a lock-box with firearms in it, which police can use in accordance with firm and well-documented policy in light of the tactical circumstances in which they find themselves. But I would say that this isn’t very different to the current status quo, and the use of firearms must not be left to the sole discretion of an individual officer. The deployment policy and tactical decisions to deploy must be matters for which police command can be held accountable, for which the police as an organisation are responsible.

But what I’m more interested in is a public debate on this, and other policing matters. We really need one.


Agenda setting

datePosted on 14:43, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

While I don’t intend to post on the substance of what has become known as the Napier siege, this sort of event happens rarely and has profound consequences for NZ’s political-media agenda. Maxwell McCombs’ view (based on a study of the 1968 US Presidential campaign) was that it wasn’t so much that the media tell you what to think as what to think about. Currently there’s only one game in town. How might stakeholders respond?

Under the radar: With wall-to-wall coverage (good commentary on its ghastly nature at Ethical Martini), now is the ideal time to sneak out news which must be released but which the releaser doesn’t want to receive wide coverage. Good comms managers will be instructing their minions to air all their dirty laundry this afternoon, before the black hole that is this weekend, and while the media agencies’ resources are stretched. Watch the Scoop wires; there might be some interesting releases.

Police image rehabilitation: Not that it’s intentional, and certainly not to imply that it’s somehow a beneficial thing to lose an officer in the line of duty, but this event and its coverage is manna from heaven for a police force beleaguered by public image problems and allegations of incompetence and corruption. From the facts which are available, it seems the police are 100% in the right here – they arrived unarmed and without intention to provoke any sort of conflict on a mundane policing matter and were met with deadly force. All their dealings with gunman, media and the public have been calm, patient and disciplined. If they succeed in their stated objective of ending this situation without further loss of life (including the life of Jan Molenaar) then they will rightly enjoy a huge resurgence of public sympathy.

Crime and punishment lobby: This looks to be a case which doesn’t tick too many hang’em-flog’em boxes, in that it’s a drug crime but (apparently) not a high-level drug crime; there is no gang involvement; committed by a middle-aged white man in a nice middle-class suburb. It may be difficult to turn this into an iconic crime case, although there are some ready angles: gun control for instance. That won’t stop the usual suspects from trying to make political capital of it – some commenters around the ‘sphere already are.

The future of NZ policing: This will undoubtedly have enormous implications for police doctrine and practice. It seems likely that, at a minimum, it will result in the Police Association calling for police to be better-armed and equipped, at least when conducting any sort of invasive operation. It will probably provide a basis for a more militaristic, less community-based approach to policing – in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture.

(Update 19:20: Stuff’s opinion poll has been updated to ask “Do you think all police should be armed?”, surprisingly not overwhelmingly in the affirmative (screenshot). Smart opportunistic stuff by the Fairfax Digital editors, in contrast to the Herald, who’re still asking for predictions on the Rugby League. Comments on the article are a fairly predictable mix of outrage, condolence, disbelief and armchair expertise.)

Whatever the case, we’re in for interesting times. I hope, as the police do, that the situation is resolved quickly, cleanly and without bloodshed.

There are plenty more possible issues in play here – feel free to discuss them in comments. But I won’t allow this to descend into ideological arguments about the specifics of the case, so please don’t try.