Selwyn Manning and I have created YouTube channels under our respective business names in order to promote the “A View from Afar” podcast series. The latest episode examines recent problems of global supply, production and exchange, using a micro-to-macro lens to discuss the interplay between economics, policy and politics in creating and hopefully ameliorating the failures of the pre-pandemic system of trade. You can find it here.
I am glad to report that the “A View from Afar” podcast is now available on the 36th Parallel Assessments YouTube channel. As a teaser, the first video is taken from an interview done in Karekare with German TV about the scourge of white supremacism/right-wing extremism.
Recently I was approached by a major media platform to help them develop story lines and questions on some terrorism related topics. These focused on the SIS Report of the Internal Review conducted in the wake of the March 15 terrorist attacks and news that a younger generation of extremists are being radicalised on-line. I ended up spending an entire afternoon talking and corresponding with two reporters and a producer about possible leads, only to find out that my research and work (about four hours worth) would not be compensated and instead would be used to frame interviews with and guide questions to others.
In my opinion, this is not acceptable. Sure, there are plenty of people who will jump at the chance to have their faces on TV or voices on radio for free. There are those in salaried positions who can afford to offer free commentary as a sidebar to their “real” jobs. But that is not me. I am not an academic who can share expertise as a form of community outreach that looks good on my performance reviews. I am not a member of a interest group that may have a cause to promote. I am not a charity. I am a political risk and strategic analysis consultant, which means that I have to earn a living based on my supposed expertise in various fields, which I use to engage in targeted research and analysis based on client interests and needs. When I get called by someone asking for advice or comment, I take it as a professional call, not a courtesy. In this instance I should have known better but I decided to help out anyway and in the end was reminded that wasting four hours of my time on a subject that is not billable is just that–a waste of time and energy.
Think of it this way: if someone has a plumbing problem that s/he cannot fix on their own, they call a plumber. Do they expect the plumber to do the fix for free? If not, then why, lacking in-house expertise, would a media outlet call a subject expert and ask him to stop his own work, address their subject of interest, help them develop story lines or questions for interviews about that subject, offer the possibility of appearing in person to explain the topic, but then take his responses, cancel the interview and act surprised when payment is mentioned? Beyond the matter of compensation for services rendered, there are issues of journalistic ethics at play as well.
In any event, I decided to collect the analyses that I worked on and organise them into a blog post. The first part deals with the SIS Internal Review. The second part address the issue of younger people being radicalised on-line, in particular the impact of gaming on extremist recruitment and radicalisation.
I. The Immediate Past.
The SIS released a heavily redacted version of the internal review of its systems and processes in the lead up to the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The Review, whose Executive Summary was released last year, parallels that of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Christchurch attacks but is limited to the SIS itself. Unsurprisingly, there is much commonality and overlap between the two Reports, which also share the attribute of not holding any agency or individual to account for anything–be it acts of commission or omission–that happened in the lead-up to the attacks. Apparently everything worked as it was supposed to given the operational parameters then in place, but the operational parameters were disoriented. There were no institutional failures because all systems worked fine. It was just that the institutional gaze was fixed in such a way that the attacks could not have been prevented.
The findings are as we already know: the components of the SIS worked as they were supposed to under the pre-March 15 system but the system as a whole was set up and focused in a way that made impossible detection and prevention of an attack of the sort carried out in Christchurch (by a self-radicalised lone wolf from the ideological right-wing). It recommends various reforms and overhauls, including more emphasis on strategic analysis because the SIS was/is too focused on immediate operational (monitoring and collection) tasks given the then identified and established agency priorities. This prevents the SIS from seeing more long-term, broader and “weak signal” threats emerging before they materialise, including those emanating from domestic rather than distant shores. For an agency that has domestic human espionage as one of its three main areas of responsibility (along with counter-espionage and foreign human espionage) that is a telling admission. In fact it is worth some serious inter-textual analysis because sometimes what is left unsaid is worth more than what is said.
The Report specifically says that there was a lack of information and data sharing with other agencies, particularly the Police. The SIS and Police both have domestic counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering functions but they apparently do not coordinate operations or share information and data (in fact, the SIS is not able to access 2 of 9 government data bases, both of those under the control of the Police). In stating that, the SIS implies that the Police might have known about or had the Christchurch killer on its radarscope during the course of its investigations, but its emphasis on “criminality” rather than ideology and the siloed nature of its intelligence operations meant that anything it might have known about the killer and other violent white supremacists was kept to itself. The SIS goes on to say that even with better data and intelligence sharing they still might not have been able to connect the dots enough to detect and prevent the terrorist from acting, but the implication is two fold: other agencies with more contacts “on the ground” might/could have known about him if their priorities were different; when it came to counter-terrorism, even after eight years of white extremist mass murders dating back to the Norway killings in 2011 and repeated warnings about the rising use of the internet as a conduit for radicalisation of all types (be it jihadist or white supremacist), the NZ security apparatus discounted, ignored or simply did not care to invest more than rhetorical resources on the non-jihadist menace emerging from within.
The Report also recommends that the SIS increase its proactive role in identifying and preventing threats, especially so-called “weak signal” or low-level rumblings that could eventuate into real dangers. As a “leads-based” monitoring and collection (as opposed to enforcement) agency under the pre-March 15 “business model,” it acted reactively to known threats within the assessment parameters of the day. That means that it did not look, much less think outside of the box or look over the immediate and accepted (status quo) threat horizon when it came to the domestic threat landscape. In other words, it saw what it wanted to see and ignored what it did not want to see or hear (such as the repeated warning by Islamic organisations they they were being targeted for individual and collective harassment, including violent threats and assaults) based on the threat scenario assumptions in vogue after 9/11.
The recommendations also suggest that the SIS work with the Police to promote legislation that criminalises a range of terrorist preparatory activity (say, explosive precursor purchases, weapons and ammunition stockpiling, social media postings etc–all of these based on the Australian counter-terrorism approach) so that the Police and SIS authorities have legal grounds to engage in preventative or pre-emptive actions currently not allowed under the law. This may eventually include designating neo-fascist groups as terrorist entities if advocating or inciting violence is included along with committing violence in future anti-terrorist legislation.
There is a lot more in the report if you read as much between the lines as you do the lines themselves. IP addresses noted but eventually not followed up on that turned out to be those of the killer (making racist comments and buying ammunition in bulk, among other things). Hints at resistance to and obstruction of the former Inspector General’s attempts at tightening oversight, transparency and accountability. Reports of his use of a drone to surveil the mosques, again not followed up on in any significant measure. Prolonged travel to conflict zones amid tourist spots by a resident foreigner with no job. And yet no organisational failures–that is, of people, processes, procedures or perspective–were found. The system worked as it was supposed to. That is troubling.
Seen through cynical eyes, the SIS Report is a way to engage in some polite fence painting and rear-end covering while discretely shifting blame onto the Police (who have yet to issue their Report, if there is any). After all, if all of their systems worked as they were supposed to be and no one is at fault in the SIS for failing to detect and prevent the massacre under the organisational priorities of the day, then the ball must have been dropped by some other agency or the entire domestic security community. The latter would be an admission of institutional incompetence or myopia on grand scale. More pointedly, if we consider that the only other agency with domestic counter-terrorism functions is the Police, then the onus appears to be on them. However, as the RCI Report noted, the Police focus on criminality, not on ideological extremism. That means that, hypothetically speaking, even if they in fact stumbled upon some skinheads talking about attacking a mosque during the course of a drugs investigation, it is possible that they failed to pass on that information to the SIS because a) that was not their operational concern; and b) they were “siloed” in their approach to information and data sharing in any event. As for other agencies helping the SIS detect extremists in a partnership role (say, Immigration) they too were siloed and silent when it came to this particular type of terrorist threat.
The major take-aways from the Report are the failure of the SIS to be proactive and failure to two-way information share with other domestic security agencies under a individual and collective “business” model that simply was not cognisant of, much less focused on emerging threats from the extremist Right even eight years and dozens of right-wing mass murder events subsequent to the 2011 attacks in Norway (which were the inspiration for all of the white supremacist mass murders that followed, including March 15). Left unknown are all of the redacted parts of the report (other than the killer’s hidden name) and who, exactly, the “independent” reviewer was (I may have overlooked this so if anyone can point me to his or her identity that would be helpful).
II. The Immediate Future.
Recent assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and various European intelligence shops point to the growing trend of young people, including teenagers, becoming radicalised on-line. What used to be problem with regard to would-be jihadists appears to now have morphed into a problem of white supremacy and/or neo-Nazi ideology. The bottom line is that the issue of younger (mostly male) people being inclined towards ideological extremism and/or recruited into extremist groups is very real. But there is a good and a bad side to the phenomenon.
On the bad side, younger people are being desensitised and drawn into using violence as a means of conflict resolution via an increasingly sophisticated and interactive gaming world. Virtual reality (VR) interactive games not only involve multiple players but increasingly contain highly sophisticated graphics of combat and other violent scenes, many very dark in nature (including grotesque violence against women). Players can choose their villians and heros, putting themselves in one camp or the other in highly realistic real-time action scenarios that are often as ideological as they are gory. All of this can be done as if in person. One can be a modern Crusader slaughtering jihadists or vice versa. One can be a US Gi wiping out Japanese troops in WW2. One can be a torturer, prison guard, mass murderer or violent criminal targeting women of color. One can be the Christchurch terrorist streaming his murders to a live audience. And so forth–the range of violence and characters is limited only by the player’s and game creator’s imaginations. To this can be added violent pornography, again often with explicit misogynistic imagery.
Advances in personal telecommunications technologies–mobile phones, apps, etc.–have made it easier for younger people to access all aspects of the internet. While they are a feature of modern life and a symbol of the conveniences afforded to modern societies, they also bring with them readily accessible pathways into the darkness of violence and hate. In the measure younger people are afforded access to these instruments and recognizing the tremendous benefits that they bring, avoidance of or exposure to the dark side of the web is now a feature of teenage life. Add in the natural attraction of realistic games in virtual settings, and the stage is set for youth radicalisation via gaming even in places where they are not subject to socio-economic deprivation and political oppression.
It can be argued that people attracted to highly realistic and hyper-violent on-line gaming and porn already exhibit psychopathic and sociopathic personality traits. We are not talking about FIFA2020-style sports games here. We are talking about mayhem and degradation. These types of forums now attract millions of players, some of whom may be working off stress but others who may be descending into dark violent fantasies. That includes so-called “Incels,” as in “involuntarily celibate:” men who cannot find or hold physical relationships with women and who in many instances believe themselves to be too pure or righteous to pay for sex. This leaves them very sexually frustrated and very angry, often violently so. More generally, abuse of female players is a well-known pathology in the gaming community. On VR interactive gaming platforms people with these tendencies and/or other anger issues intersect and engage with racists, bigots, violent psychopaths, animal abusers and assorted other degenerates, leading to what we might call a “nexus of hate.” It is there where white supremacist recruiters, as was the case with jihadists before them, are now regularly launching their appeals to increasingly younger audiences.
It is bad enough that younger generations of (again, mostly male) people are using violent interactive games as a form of entertainment, stress relief and fantasy fulfilment. It is worrisome that the age threshold of these people, as well as those who habitually use extreme porn, appears to be lowering. These forums can be highly addictive for certain personalities, and the obsession can be detrimental to the individual as well as those around him. Some obsessions become political and ideological–fixations on who is to blame for one’s personal ills as well as the world’s problems; and on how to fix them. Now we must factor into account that both jihadists and white supremacists (and others) use interactive gaming as a recruiting device, luring people to be more extreme in their character stereotyping and urging them to carry over their on-line personas into real life. This is, to say the least, not good when imparted on impressionable teenage minds (or anyone else, for that matter, but it is the young who most often get sucked into the vortex). From there it is a short leap onto extremist forums like 4 Chan or 8Chan (and others), and from there the pathways to the dark web and serious planning of violence are just steps away–yet discoverable when one has interactive skills and some coded advice on how to get there. One can only hope that intelligence agencies know how to get there as well.
Like many other social media platforms and content providers, the gaming industry is reluctant to move beyond basic guidelines for usage such as R18 warning labels. It zealously guards the privacy of its customers. Like the porn industry it is an early adopter of new audiovisual technologies, including VR and AI, in the construction of its consumer ranges. That puts it ahead of security-intelligence agencies, which like the old military adage notes, are playing technological catch-up while preparing to fight last century’s wars with mid-century (however updated, such as with 3rd generation warfare) tactics. As I have written in more professional settings, the problem of institutional lag is very real in the NZ intelligence community (see part I above), but also world-wide in specific areas of concern such as on-line right-wing extremism.
The problem of younger people getting radicalised into extremism online and acting violently as a result is indisputably real. Other forms of radicalisation remain (say, in churches or via criminal gangs, drug networks, etc.), but these are increasingly superseded by the on-line process because the latter does not expose the recruiter or recruitee to outside scrutiny. The interaction (or what might be called the dialectic of radicalisation) occurs in a bedroom or a basement rather than a church or a private clubhouse even though the latter remain as physical spaces for the larger community and therefore may include people of more extreme persuasions within them. But physical space is more and more a secondary site for extremist radicalisation and recruitment. Gaming is the most recent but not the only source of on-line radicalisation and recruitment, which also occurs in discussion groups, political fora, video channels, twitter threads and any number of other social media.
The good news is that the young are by and large easier to catch, particularly so with this TikTok/Instagram generation. That is because teens and twenty-somethings like to boast and be recognised as a form of affirmation and self-worth validation. This makes them careless on-line as well as in person, which in turn helps security authorities to distinguish between those who talk and those who act, those who are doers and those who are not, those who are leaders and those who are followers. There are plenty of psychological profiles in the intelligence community with which to develop individual and collective threat assessments from what is canvassed on-line.
In effect, the younger they get, the more likely ideological extremists will trip up and be discovered because they are psychologically unable to maintain the level of security required to carry out successful irregular warfare operations such as terrorist attacks. This is not 100 percent the case but the odds in favor of their pre-emptive detection by security authorities increases dramatically when compared to say, a 35 year old ex-military veteran with 10 years of service and knowledge of weapons and explosives, a serious grudge against somebody (be it a group or government agency), on-line masking skills, knowledge of basic operational security, tight lips, few friends and a murderous eye on a mall or transportation hub. THAT is a real and palpable threat.
So there is a silver lining in the move towards younger extremists, but only if security authorities are literally on top of their games. Given what the SIS Internal Review discovered, that appears to be far from being the case.
Let’s be clear: if Trump is not politically killed off once and for all, he will become a MAGA Dracula, rising from the dead to haunt US politics for years to come and giving inspiration to his wretched family of grifters and thousands of deplorables well into the next decade. So what is needed now is a stake in his black heart, or a silver bullet, so long as whatever the means employed, it kills the beast.
The process of doing so is more akin to cancer surgery than supernatural intervention, but before proceeding to the discussion let me explain why Trump’s political death sentence is recognised as necessary.
The Democrats know what he is so I shall not discuss the logics by which they came to the conclusion that he needs to be extirpated from the body politic. It is the Republicans who are decisive here. They–by that I mean the Republican National Committee, US congressional delegations, state governments and legislatures, and the corporate interests that influence and fund Republican causes and candidates–have to come to grips with simple facts.
Trump was never a “true” Republican. Not only is he not a blue-blood old monied elite with stakes in traditional Republican ventures like oil, automobiles and finance. He was not a member of the party until he switched allegiance in 2010. From the get-go, his politics have been more of the George Wallace meets Barry Goldwater type rather than of the Nixon-Reagan-Rockefeller variant. His victory in the 2016 presidential primaries was a slap in the face by an upstart vulgarian to the Republican establishment, which he then proceeded to eviscerate by using their own opportunism against them. He offered the GOP “family” tax breaks, deregulation, a return to Anglo-Saxon heterosexist patrirachical Christian values and shirt-sleeve patriotism. They responded with political support. That support was contingent on his staying in his lane and understanding the limits on his authority and the boundaries of his power.
He did not. Instead, he picked needless fights at home and abroad over matters both inconsequential and important. He alienated allies and he cultivated American enemies. Rather than work to heal old wounds he picked the scab of racism and bigotry until it festered and burst into the public square in places like Charlottesville, Portland and Kenosha (the last two where he joined rightwing conspiracists in claiming that Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of unarmed black men by police were an Antifa-Socialist plot).
Meanwhile, he drove a wedge within the GOP by forcing out non-MAGA types and replacing them with national-populists who would do his bidding. That fractured the Republicans, and yet the marriage of convenience between the GOP establishment and Trump continued until 2020. However, at that point his erratic behaviour and incompetent, some might say delusional approach to the Covid-19 crisis turned a bad situation into a world-leading case study in governmental dysfunction. He turned a public health crisis into an internecine ideological war about masks and lockdowns. He refused to listen to scientists and increasingly relieved on conspiracy theorists for advice on the pandemic and more. In doing so he became bad for business even as the financial markets remained optimistic that at some point he would come to his senses.
He did not. He ran a dog-whistling re-election campaign marked by Covid super-spreader rallies. He impugned the integrity of the electoral process months before the vote was held. He tried to manipulate votes by filling the US Postal Service with partisan hacks who attempted to suppress absentee (mail-in) ballots by reducing collection points and sorting facilities. He urged Republican state election officials to challenge minority voting rights and to limit access to voting facilities in areas that traditionally went Democratic on Election Day. He did everything in his power to tip the scales, skew the results and delegitimise any outcome other than his win.
He lost anyway. Not by hundreds of thousands or a few million votes. He lost by nearly 8 million votes. It is true that he garnered 74 million votes himself, but that was on the back on the highest voter turn out in over a century (60.66 percent). Joe Biden won close to 82 million votes, so in the end even with those 74 million votes cast for Trump, the race was not close.
Rather than concede gracefully, Trump well and truly jumped out of his lane. He denounced without evidence fraud in the electoral system and specifically those in contested swing states. He spoke of dark forces operating behind the scenes to cheat him out of his rightful victory. He decried foreign (but non- Russian) interference. He mounted over sixty specious legal challenges to the results in several states, losing all but one of them. And then he crossed the biggest line of all: he incited a seditious insurrectionary attack on the US Capitol in order to prevent the Electoral College results from being certified by Congress. People were killed and injured in the mass assault and occupation of the Legislative branch. Politicians were forced to flee for their lives and take cover as the mob swarmed the debating chamber and halls baying for blood. And rather than appeal for calm, Trump watched it unfold on TV.
Whether they recognise it or not, that was the point when he crossed a Republican bridge too far. The assault on the Capitol was aimed not just at Democrats but at Republicans as well (people chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” among other niceties). In the days leading up to, during and after the siege, Republican lawmakers were harassed and threatened in public spaces, social media and via personal communications (including Mitt-Romney (R-UT) and Lyndsey Graham (R-SC), as were Democrats (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) were singled out for particularly violent misogynistic abuse). The attack may have been originally driven by partisan rage stoked by Trump and his minions, but became a broad-brushed assault on an institutional pillar of the American Republic.
Because many of the insurrectionists were wrapped in body armour and armed with blunt and other street-level weapons like Mace and bear spray (there were also firearms and explosives cached near the Capitol), which they used to fight sworn law enforcement officers defending the complex, the assault was an attack on the sovereignty of the US government itself. That is because one of the foundations of sovereignty–the core of what it is to be a “sovereign”–is legal monopoly over organised violence within defined territorial limits (the definition is from Max Weber but the origins of the notion of sovereignty as having a coercive core dates back to Thomas Hobbes).
It has now been established that, cloaked by the larger crowd who attended the Trump “Stop the Steal” rally and then walked to the capitol after Trump urged them to, members of various militias were acting in a coordinated fashion to the extent that some used walkie-talkies and their phones to organise aspects of the attack such as blocking the underground tunnels below the Capitol that are used as escape routes for congresspeople in times of crisis. Once they violently engaged the Capitol and DC Police on the steps and interior of the legislature, they challenged the sovereignty of the Federal Government and the components parts of its repressive apparatus.
For any nation-state, much less a supposed superpower, that cannot stand. Regardless of partisan orientation, no individual is above the Institution. As the saying goes, the Nation is one of laws, not people. Sovereignty cannot be contested because if it does, the Republic is at risk. The State is sacrosanct so long as it performs its core functions.
That is why Trump must be excised. He has undermined the basic foundations of the constitutional Republic and thereby challenged fundamental notions of the US as a sovereign State. He has divided the Nation and manipulated his supporters into becoming a riotous seditious mob. He has put himself before God, Flag and Country even while wrapping himself in them.
If not in public, in their hearts Republicans know this.
Removal of Trump’s malignant political presence is a three step process. One is via his Senate trial and banishment, one involves the prosecution and punishment of his seditious supporters, and one is a form of legal chemotherapy that will hopefully prevent him from returning to the political scene. This is what needs to happen. It does not mean that it will happen. We can only be hopeful.
Senate Minority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seems to understand the situation. With his bleating about “rigged” elections in Georgia, Trump contributed to the GOP losing both Senate seats in that state (to a Jew and an African-American!). That cost McConnell his majority leadership. He now has an incentive to see Trump finished off because among other things it will pull the rug out from under and bring to heel would-be pretenders to the MAGA throne like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
The impeachment charge against Trump is incitement of the attack. In asking for two extra weeks for Trump’s lawyers to “prepare, ” McConnell may in fact be giving Democrats more time to uncover irrefutable evidence that the Trump White House colluded with insurrectionists on how to storm the Capitol. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have uncovered evidence that some of the “rioters” were paid staff on Trump’s campaign and were in contact with members of Trump’s entourage, including family members and people like Rudy Giuliani. With the articles of impeachment now tabled, more evidence may be uncovered before the Senate court proceedings begin. People can be subpoenaed to testify under oath or offered immunity in exchange for their testimony. Unlike his first impeachment, Trump cannot offer presidential protection to those called as witnesses (as he did when he ordered various officials not to testify). Things are about to get real and that reality is ugly for Trump.
17 Republicans need to cross the aisle and vote in favour of conviction in order for Trump to be impeached. McConnell has said that he has whatever numbers he needs to go either way. If the evidence is compelling then it will be easier to convict on “institutions over individuals” grounds. Doing so will be the start of the de-Trumpification process. Although that is necessary, it is not sufficient. More needs to be done by way of follow ups.
If Trump is convicted he then can be banned from political life by a simple majority vote in the Senate. The decision to vote on a lifetime ban is called by the Democratic majority. Given his long-standing repudiation of Trump, Mitt Romney will gladly provide the cross-over vote but there are others who will be willing to do so as well.
In order to make the ban stick, the second step is a form of legal chemotherapy. He needs to be sued and charged in civil and criminal courts at the state and federal levels, along with family members and others, like Giuliani, who conspired with him during his time in business and government. The constant barrage of lawsuits and prosecutions will exhaust him financially and perhaps mentally and will open space for people to turn on him in order to escape or receive lesser punishment themselves. So long as he is occupied in this fashion he will have relatively little resources, time or energy to try and mount some sort of political re-birth under different guise.
The final part of this process involves the prosecution and serious punishment of those charged with offences related to the assault on the Capitol. These include murder; conspiracy to commit murder; grievous bodily harm; conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm; inter-state transport of weapons with the intention of committing crime; looting; vandalism; theft of government property; theft and distribution of classified material; rioting; affray; sedition; treason and more. The charges must be as serious as possible and the sentences must be as severe as legally permissible.
The reason for this hard line approach is not just the punitive value it has on those who perpetrated the attack on the Capitol. Its main value is deterrent. It provides a palpable indicator of the boundaries of the “no go” zone when it comes to political dissent and legitimate protest. Adopting a judicial hard-line will help deter copycats or those who think that just because some politicians, even the president, say it is OK, seditious insurrection in fact is not OK as far as the constitutional State is concerned.
The three-tiered approach to extirpating the Trump malignancy from US politics is the only way that we can be reasonably assured that the treatment will work (and yes, I recognise that I am borrowing some of that “organic” language used by the Argentina junta when referring to its victims. But if the shoe fits, then why not wear it?). In the end, Trump is an existential threat to the very notion of the US as a nation-state, and must be treated as the domestic terrorist inspiration and enabler that he is. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he is no better and more likely a bit worse than one of Osama bin-Laden’s drivers in Pakistan. If so, and those guys wound up in Guantanamo or dead for their efforts, why should he be treated appreciably differently than they were?
One can only hope that Mitch McConnell and the GOP recognise that Trump is just another data point on that anti-democratic continuum, but one that is far more dangerous to the US than any Islamicist chauffeur.
Now that he has been convicted and sentenced, including on a charge of committing a terrorist act (to which he admitted guilt), the Christchurch killer has been designated a “terrorist entity” by the government, using provisions of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Designating the killer as a terrorist entity means that his assets can be seized, his (online/other) fans can be prosecuted as terrorist supporters and creating funding platforms for his legal appeals or other reasons are now punishable offenses. No GoFundMe pages for him, it seems, and racists will need to think twice and tread carefully when they sing his praises in any forum (which should make certain NZ rightwing blogs a bit more careful when moderating comments)..
This is a smart move on the government’s part. Although the intent of the 2002 legislation was clearly directed at Islamicists and the various fronts and support networks that aided their armed campaigns, the use of the legislation in its first instance–both in successfully charging the killer with a terrorist offence and in designating him as an “entity” so that others could not easily provide support or encouragement to him or other like-minded people–is a well executed step that in principle demonstrates that the law can be applied in a balanced fashion regardless of the ideological cause being espoused.
But the test of this balance remains to be seen. Imagine if Tame Iti and his ragtag assortment of activist friends had been charged and convicted of terrorist offences because of their Urewera shenanigans (which was the original intention of the Clark government). Would they have been designated as “entities” so that others of similar mind could not legally offer them or their various causes emotional and material support? What about environmental or animal rights militants, who are often labeled as “eco-terrorists” by rightwing politicians and media and the commercial outfits that the activists oppose? What about anti-1080 activists, who have shown a penchant for intimidation and violence? Or the Sea Shepard Society, which Japan has designated as a terrorist group (and pirates) because it has used direct action tactics against whalers in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere?
The old saying “one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero” comes to mind here. The label can be applied to anyone who, under the broad definition of “national security” in New Zealand legislation, causes “harm” to the national economy, social order or reputation regardless of whether they used violence in pursuit of their objectives. Accordingly, the use of the term “terrorist” has been stretched by politicians, media mouthpieces and corporate and/or interest groups to cover a variety of non-murderous people agitating for a wide range of causes.
That is why the use of the term “terrorist” and the designation of terrorist entities must be done under strict guidelines and in the most extreme of circumstances. While international designators are helpful–say, in labelling Daesh as a terrorist entity or NZ expats clearly identified as having participated in its genocidal activities as terrorists–it remains for the Crown to rigorously scrutinise the criteria by which people and groups are placed in such categories. That must be objective, factually-based and proportionate to the harm committed. Above all, it must not be left to the government of the day, less partisan opportunism rear its ugly head in the application of justice.
The Christchurch killer made it easy on the Crown–and on the security agencies that allowed him to slip under the radar when planning and preparing the attacks–when he pleaded guilty to all charges. The sentencing was heavy on drama and pathos but the outcome was foretold and inevitable. The post-sentencing designation of the killer as an entity was an adroit touch. But one wonders if that designation should have come from the court at the time of sentencing rather than from the government after the sentence was handed down.
In any event, the first successful application of terrorism charges and terrorist entity designations is a salutary milestone in NZ jurisprudence and security affairs, but it is not without its potentially negative implications in future circumstances. That should be the guiding (or better said, self-limiting) principle in any future consideration of their use.
When the Christchurch murderer pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder and a number of other violent assault charges a few months ago, he effectively closed the door on what the public will know about the lead up to and commission of the event. His plea means that no evidence will be presented in court; that no witness testimony and cross-examinations under oath will happen; that no documentation will be entered into the official record; that no officials will be sworn in and questioned. We will not hear from the killer himself, not will we see senior security officials explain how his murderous plans were not detected and disrupted. Even so, the Crown did not reject the plea. That may have been convenient from the Crown’s point of view, but on the larger issue of finding out what actually happened, the NZ public apparently has no right to know.
This undoubtably suits the NZ Police and perhaps the NZSIS and GCSB (although it is likely that what failures may have occurred were in the real of human intelligence collection rather than with signals intelligence, since the latter would need to be tasked by the former to undertake domestic intercepts and the like). Now they will not have to explain whether there were systemic, institutional and something more than individual failures in the lead up to the attacks. We will never know if they had an institutional bias that blinded them to the dangers posed by violent white extremists, or whether they were aware that white extremisms posed an increasing danger to NZ society or some of its communities but decided not to act to preempt the threat because of other priorities (say, a focus on white gang drug dealing and the use of skinhead informants to that end). They may not have to explain whether they were aware (if true) that the killer had accomplices and enablers who helped him on his path. They will not have to answer as to why they ignored repeated complaints and pleas by the NZ Muslim community to do something about the ongoing and often intimidatory harassment to which many of them were subjected in the wake of 9/11. They will not have to justify why they devoted so many resources to monitoring jihadist sympathisers when in the end no Muslim has ever been charged with, much less convicted of, committing an ideologically-motivated act of collective violence in NZ both before and after 9/11.
Instead, two individuals have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms for possessing and trying to distributed offensive materials in the form of beheading videos, there are a few dozen who have ranted on social media to the point that they have caught the attention of the security services, and there are a small group who have left to join jihadists in the Middle East, some of whom will not be coming back because they are no longer of this Earth. But that is the extent of the Islamicist threat even though much money and resources were poured into the anti-jihadist effort and numerous law changes (Terrorism Suppression Act, Search and Surveillance Act, Intelligence and Security Act) were enacted to give security authorities more powers and leeway in combating them. Now we will never know why some of those resources were not directed into detecting and preventing white extremist attacks even though the NZ racist community was very visible, well-known to be violent and increasingly connected to foreign white supremacist groups via social media. Why were they not on the security services’ radar scope? Or were they?
The Police have admitted that the arms license vetting process to which the killer was subjected was deficient. Beyond confirming the obvious, this also is a classic example of scapegoating the lowest people in the chain of command. The Police also agree that the gun laws prior to March 15 were too lax, but that was a matter for parliament to resolve. When taken together with the guilty plea, what we have here is the makings of an absolution of higher level security service incompetence, negligence, maladministration and bias as contributing factors in the perpetration of the mosque attacks.
It has been announced that the Royal Commission of Inquiry has interviewed the killer. That may elicit some new information from him about his motives and planning, but it appears to be more of a courtesy to the defendant than a genuine fact-finding effort. After all, the Royal Commission should be able to have access to all of the Crown evidence by now. It has interviewed dozens of people (including myself) and supposedly has access to a trove of government documentation relevant to the case.
But therein lies the rub. The terms of reference of the Royal Commission are broad but its powers are limited. It has no powers of compulsion under oath, that is, it cannot demand that sworn witnesses appear before it (all of those who talk with the Commission due so voluntarily as “interviewees”). It cannot order the release of classified material to the commissioners; instead, it is dependent on the goodwill of the very agencies it is supposed to be investigating to provide such documents. It cannot identify any official that is mentioned in the course of the inquiry. It has no sanction powers. In truth, the Royal Commission is toothless.
I hope that I am wrong and that it will be able to answer many of the questions posed above because it has secured full voluntary cooperation from the security agencies that failed to detect and prevent the massacres. I hope that it is able to offer recommendations about review and reform of procedures, protocols and processes governing approaches to the NZ threat environment, including about the priority hierarchy given to potential, possible and imminent threats of any nature (for example, the relative priority given to gang criminality versus potentially violent political activism). It might even call for a major shake-up of the way in which Police and other intelligence agencies approach the issue of domestic terrorism. But that is just speculation, and may be no more than wishful thinking on my part.
One can only hope that in exchange for the guilty plea, the Crown and Police got something in return from the killer. Perhaps there was a quid pro quo involved whereby he offered information to the authorities that they otherwise could not obtain in exchange for better conditions in jail, sentence reduction, possibility of parole, etc. I am not familiar with the legal intricacies behind guilty pleas but I doubt that the murderer decided to do so out of the kindness of his heart, to spare the victim’s relatives further grief or to save the NZ taxpayer the costs of a trial. To my mind there had to be something in it for him.
In any event, the people who benefitted the most from the guilty plea are the NZ Police and intelligence agencies. They will not be held to account in a court of law, and instead can define the terms of the narrative constructed in the Royal Commission report so that it downplays or exonerates command and cultural failures while blaming lower level individuals, lack of resources, heavy workloads and other extraneous matters for the failure to prevent NZ’s worst act of terrorism.
Rather than a moment of honest reckoning, we could well get a whitewash.
That is not good enough.
The CV-19 (COVID) pandemic has seen the imposition of a government ordered national quarantine and the promulgation of a series of measures designed to spread the burden of pain and soften the economic blow on the most strategically important and most vulnerable sectors of society. The national narrative is framed as a public health versus economic well-being argument, with the logic of infectious disease experts being that we need to accept short term pain in the form of social deprivation and loss of income in order to achieve long term societal gain once the infection has run it course. However, some business leaders argue that a prolonged shut-down of the productive apparatus will cause irreparable harm to the national economy out of proportion to the health risks posed by the pandemic, and thereby set back the country’s development by twenty years or more.
The lockdown is a classic test of the age old philosophical question behind the notion of the “tragedy of the commons:” Should we pursue the collective good by accepting self-sacrifice in the face of an invisible threat and uncertain common pay-off, or do we pursue immediate self-interest and opportunism rather than accept material and lifestyle losses amid the same uncertainties and invisible rewards? Needless to say, it is not a straight dichotomy of choice, but the poles of the dilemma are clear.
Another thing to consider is a principle that will have to be invoked if the disease spreads beyond the ability of the national health system to handle it by exceeding bed and ventilator capacity as well as the required amount of medical personnel due to CV-19 related attrition: lifeboat ethics. If the pandemic surpasses that threshold, then life and death decisions will have to be made using a triage system. Who lives and who dies will then become a public policy as well as moral-ethical issue, and it is doubtful that either government officials or medical professionals want to be placed in a position of deciding who gets pitched out of the boat. So, in a very real sense, the decisions made with regard to the tragedy of the commons have serious follow up effects on society as a whole.
One thing that has not been mentioned too much in discussions about the pandemic and the responses to it is the serious strain that it is placing on civil society. Much is said about “resilience” and being nice to each other in these times of “social distancing” (again, a misnomer given that it is a physical distancing of individuals in pursuit of a common social good). But there are enough instances of hoarding, price-gouging, profiteering–including by major supermarket chains–and selfish lifestyle behaviour to question whether the horizontal solidarity bonds that are considered to be the fabric of democratic civil society are in fact as strongly woven as was once assumed.
There is also the impact of thirty years of market economics on the social division of labour that is the structural foundation of civil society. Along with the mass entrance of women into the workforce came the need for nanny, baby-sitter and daycare networks, some of which were corporatised but many of which were not. Many of these have been disrupted by the self-isolation edict, to which can be added the shuttering of social and sports clubs, arts and reading societies, political and cultural organisations and most all other forms of voluntary social organisation. Critical services that rely on volunteers remain so rural fire parties, search and rescue teams, the coastguard and some surf lifesaving clubs are allowed to respond to callouts and maintain training standards. But by and large the major seams of civil society have been pulled apart by the lockdown order.
This is not intentional. The government wants the public to resume normal activities once the all clear is given. It simply does not know when that may be and it simply cannot spend resources on sustaining much of civil society’s infrastructure when there are more pressing concerns in play. The question is whether civil society in NZ and other liberal democracies is self-reproducing under conditions of temporary yet medium-termed isolation. The Italians hold concerts from their balconies, the Brazilians bang pots in protest against their demagogic populist leader, Argentines serenade medical and emergency workers from rooftops and windows. There is a range of solidarity gestures being expressed throughout the world but the deeper issue is whether, beneath the surface solidarity, civil society can survive under the strain of social atomisation.
I use the last term very guardedly. The reason is because during the state terror experiments to which I was exposed in Latin America, the goal of the terrorist state was to atomise the collective subject, reducing people to self-isolating, inwards-looking individuals who stripped themselves of their horizontal social bonds and collective identities in order to reduce the chances that they became victims of the terrorists in uniforms and grey suits. The operative term was “no te metas” (do not get involved), and it became a characteristic of society during those times. At its peak, this led to what the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell labeled the “infantilisation” of society, whereby atomised and subjugated individuals lived with very real fears and nightmares in circumstances that were beyond their control. Their retreat into isolation was a defence against the evil that surrounded them. Today, the threat may not be evil but it is real and pervasive, as is the turn towards isolation.
I am not suggesting that there is any strong parallel between state terrorism in Latin America and the lockdown impositions of democratic governments in the present age. The motivations of the former were punitive, disciplinary and murderous. The motivations of the latter are protective and prophylactic.
What I am saying, however, is that the consequences for civil society may be roughly comparable. Many Latin American societies took years to reconstitute civil society networks after the dictatorial interludes, although it is clear that, at least when compared to advanced liberal democracies, the strength of democratic norms and values was relatively weak in pretty much all of them with the exception of Uruguay and Costa Rica. Yet, in places like NZ, democratic norms and values have been steadily eroded over the last thirty years, particularly in their collective, horizontal dimension.
The reason is ideological: after three decades of imposed transmission, market-driven logics vulgarly lumped together as “neoliberalism” are now a dominant normative as well as structural trait in NZ society. The country has many, if not more hyper-individualistic self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the population as it does those with a commonweal solidarity orientation. Lumpenproletarians populate both the socioeconomic elite as much as they do the subaltern, marginalised classes. Greed is seen by many as a virtue, not a vice, and empathy is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.
The ideological strength of the market-oriented outlook is seen in business responses to the pandemic. In NZ many want bailouts from a government that they otherwise despise. Many are attempting to opportunistically gain from shortages and desperation, in what has become known as “disaster capitalism.” Some try to cheat workers out of their government-provided wage relief allowances, while others simply show staff the door. Arguments about keeping the economy afloat with State subsides compete with arguments about infectious disease spread even though objectively the situation at hand is first a public health problem and secondly a private financial concern.
The importance of civil society for democracy is outlined by another political scientist, Robert Putnam, in a 2000 book titled “Bowling Alone.” In it he uses the loss of civic virtue in the US (in the 1990s) as a negative example of why civil society provides the substantive underpinning of the political-institutional superstructure of liberal democracies. Putnam argues that decreases in membership in voluntary societies, community associations , fraternal organisations, etc. is directly related to lower voter turnouts, public apathy, political disenchantment and increased alienation and anomaly in society. This loss of what he calls “social capital” is also more a product of the hyper-individualisation of leisure pursuits via television, the internet (before smart phones!) and “virtual reality helmets” (gaming) rather than demographic changes such as suburbanisation, casualisation of work, extension of working hours and the general constraints on “disposable” time that would be otherwise given to civic activities as a result of all of the above.
The danger posed by the loss of social capital and civic virtue is that it removes the rich tapestry of community norms, more and practices that provide the social foundation of democratic governance. Absent a robust civil society as a sounding board and feedback mechanism that checks politician’s baser impulses, democratic governance begins to incrementally “harden” towards authoritarianism driven by technocratic solutions to efficiency- rather than equality-based objectives.
The current government appears to be aware of this and has incrementally tried to recover some of the empathy and solidarity in NZ society with its focus on well-being as a policy and social objective. But it could not have foreseen what the pandemic would require in terms of response, especially not the disruptive impact of self-isolation on the fabric of civil society.
It is here where the test of civil society takes place. Either it is self-reproducing as an ideological construct based on norms and values rooted in collective empathy and solidarity, or it will wither and die as a material construct without that ideological underpinning. When confronting this test, the question for NZ and other liberal democracies is simple: is civil society truly the core of the social order or is it a hollow shell?
Given the divided responses to this particular tragedy of the commons, it is hard for me to tell.
More complaints have been aired about the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCICh) into the Christchurch terrorist attacks. These have centred on the perception that the RBICh has not paid enough attention to the Muslim community who were the targets of the attacks and the sole victims of them. Even though the Terms of Reference for the RCICh specified that it would establish liaison ties with representatives of the NZ Muslim community, many are unhappy with the way in which those have been put into effect. This is in spite of an initial outreach to the community via the Christchurch Muslim Liasion Group and then formation of a Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG, via the RCICh’s Head of Community Engagement) that is scheduled to begin work this month.
The main objection appears to be that the Muslim community, as victims of the attacks, are not the central focus of the inquiry and therefore feel marginalised by the process even if organisations like the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) and Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), as well as several prominent Muslims, have been consulted. This is a delicate and thorny concern that is difficult to resolve. What follows is an explanation of why that is so.
The terms of reference for the RCICh specify that it must do two things: determine how the killer planned, prepared and executed the attacks; and what state agencies did and did not do in the lead-up to the attacks that enabled or could have prevented them from happening. The relevant sections of the terms of reference are here (sections 2-4 of the Terms of Reference):
Purpose of inquiry and matter of public importance
The matter of public importance that the inquiry is directed to examine isâ€”
(a) what relevant State sector agencies knew about the activities of the individual who has been charged with offences in relation to the 15 March 2019 attack on the Al-Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, before that attack; and
(b) what actions (if any) relevant State sector agencies took in light of that knowledge; and
(c) whether there were any additional measures that relevant State sector agencies could have taken to prevent the attack; and
(d) what additional measures should be taken by relevant State sector agencies to prevent such attacks in the future.
Scope of inquiry
In order to achieve its purpose, the inquiry must inquire intoâ€”
(a) the individualâ€™s activities before the attack, includingâ€”
(i) relevant information from his time in Australia; and
(ii) his arrival and residence in New Zealand; and
(iii) his travel within New Zealand, and internationally; and
(iv) how he obtained a gun licence, weapons, and ammunition; and
(v) his use of social media and other online media; and
(vi) his connections with others, whether in New Zealand or internationally; and
(b) what relevant State sector agencies knew about this individual and his activities before the attack, what actions (if any) they took in light of that knowledge, and whether there were any additional measures that the agencies could have taken to prevent the attack; and
(c) whether there were any impediments to relevant State sector agencies gathering or sharing information relevant to the attack, or acting on such information, including legislative impediments; and
(d) whether there was any inappropriate concentration of, or priority setting for, counter-terrorism resources by relevant State sector agencies prior to the attack.
Matters upon which findings are sought
The inquiry must report its findings on the following matters:
(a) whether there was any information provided or otherwise available to relevant State sector agencies that could or should have alerted them to the attack and, if such information was provided or otherwise available, how the agencies responded to any such information, and whether that response was appropriate; and
(b) the interaction amongst relevant State sector agencies, including whether there was any failure in information sharing between the relevant agencies; and
(c) whether relevant State sector agencies failed to anticipate or plan for the attack due to an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources or priorities on other terrorism threats; and
(d) whether any relevant State sector agency failed to meet required standards or was otherwise at fault, whether in whole or in part; and
(e) any other matters relevant to the purpose of the inquiry, to the extent necessary to provide a complete report.
As readers will observe, there is no specific mention of a Muslim-as-a-community focus, much less a victim-centred one. Instead, attention is on the killer and the State, with recommendations deriving from the above investigation lines focused on how state agencies can work better towards preventing such a thing happening in the future. The role of the MCRG is seen by the RCICh in that light–as witnesses adding to the testimonial trail about events leading up to the attacks.
This clearly is not the reasoning of those who think that the Muslim community should be placed front and centre in the RCICh’s concerns. It was never the intention of the RCICh to make them the centrepiece, and the announcement of the terms of reference and first minute issued by the RCICh noted that the MCRG was an advisory body only, limited in numbers, with members selected by the RCICh and therefore not entirely representative of the community as a whole. At that point people had the option of agreeing to accept invitations or not.
The top-down selection process by which the MCRG was constituted was bound to raise concerns about co-optation, and the unspecified limited number of group members reinforced the notion that the MCRG is going to be used as window dressing on a potential whitewash. On the other hand, given the demographic heterogeneity of NZ’s Muslim population and the political and personal rivalries that go with exercising collective representation for this type of membership, a bottom-up MCRG selection process in which a larger number of Muslim communities are represented would have been too time-consuming to organise and hold given the six month window that the RCICh has in which to prepare and present its report (due December 10).
Because a nation-wide leadership selection process involving all organised Muslim communities cannot happen given the time constraints, as national peak associations it seems reasonable that leaders of FIANZ and IWCNZ would participate in the MCRG. Perhaps recognised leaders of the mosques that were attacked will participate, along with representatives of Muslim regional or city organisations. The importance is that numbers of representatives remain manageable and that internecine rivalries are avoided in the discharge of their responsibilities as members of the MCRG.
I am not privy as to who is in the MCRG but can only hope that they are a representative cross-section of the Islamic community in Aotearoa.
Returning to the issue of focus, it was never contemplated that the RCICh would address issues of victim compensation or other post-event consequences. The main role of the MCRG is to provide testimony about how Muslim community security concerns were managed (some would say ignored) by State agencies (particularly but not limited to the Police and SIS), in the lead-up to March 15. There clearly is much to be said here and the MCRG would be well served to bring forth compelling witness accounts of the impact that the post-9/11 social and political milieu has had on them, both in the security realm as well as elsewhere in NZ society.
I have no doubt that some interesting light can be shed by the MCRG on how NZ security agencies handled complaints about threats to members of the Islamic community and their organisations, and I am willing to bet that the complaints and requests for assistance have been more numerous than what has been publicly acknowledged by NZ authorities and the mass media. I also believe that the Muslim community can speak at considerable length about the disproportionate official scrutiny that they have endured after 9/11 even though no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of committing an act of ideological-driven violence in NZ before or since (with official scrutiny extending to acts of intimidation, extensive infiltration of mosques and sowing of distrust within targeted groups by the extensive use of informants).
Both of these backstories will be invaluable for the RCICh’s investigation into if and how, whether by acts of omission or commission, State agencies contributed to the multi-dimensional lapses–systemic, institutional and individual–that together constituted the collective “intelligence failure” that enabled the commission of this mass atrocity.
All of this assumes that the Inquiry will be conducted honestly, thoroughly and without a hidden intention to cover-up or whitewash. Some are skeptical that the process will lead to a full and truthful account of what happened. I beg to differ, at least in part. Having spoken to the RCICh myself, I can only say that those involved in conducting the inquiry acknowledge the limitations of their charter but appear committed to finding the truth and understand that their reputations would be poorly served if they were to do otherwise. I hope that I am not proven wrong.
Assuming that the process is honest, the two lines of investigation–of the killer’s actions and of state agencies’ roles in the lead up to the attacks–will establish the chain of causality that led to the murderous victimisation of over 100 people and their families. Once responsibility for what happened is established and lines of accountability (if any) determined within the State sector, then the easier it will be for those representing the victims of the March 15 domestic terrorist attack to demand redress from Crown entities whose negligence, incompetence or prejudice enabled in one way or another the commission of the event. To try and do otherwise within the confines of the RCICh confuses the process because it misplaces its immediate emphasis (which is supposed to be on the perpetrator, accomplices and potential enablers, including agents of the State) and detracts from its primary focus (which is to establish the how’s and why’s that led to the success of the attacks).
In other words, focus on the Muslim community as victims rather than as primary witnesses within the RCICh puts the inquisitorial cart before the horse and clouds the inquiry with concerns best addressed after its conclusion.
I was interviewed as part of an Al Jazeera documentary on the aftermath of the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The program is well worth watching because it addresses subjects that most of the NZ media do not want to wrestle with.
You can find it here.
Earlier versions of this essay were published by Radio New Zealand and Australian Outlook.
The terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, which resulted in the deaths of fifty people and injuries to dozens of others, is a watershed moment in New Zealand history. In the days, months and years ahead much soul-searching will be conducted about the social and political factors that contributed to the massacre. Here the focus is on two: the spread of hate speech via social media; and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to the event.
With the proliferation of social media platforms during the last decade there has been a steady increase in their use by extremist groups. Be it Wahabbist and Salafists calling for jihad, 9/11 conspiracy theorists or white supremacists, social media has given them global reach in a measure never seen before. This allows extremists in disparate parts of the world to instantly communicate and reinforce their views without having to be in physical contact. They can even plot acts of violence using encrypted platforms and the so-called â€œDark Web.â€ This was the case with the Christchurch gunman, who went on extremist platforms in real time to announce his intentions shortly before he began his attack, then live streamed it on Facebook. As the massacre unfolded from the killer’s perspective (he was wearing a popular sporting camera on his chest), hundreds of people cheered him on (and later debated the merits of the action. See, e.g., here).
That is what is different today when compared to twenty years ago: the threat of decentralized, even autonomous extremist violence has increased commensurate with the emergence of social media outlets that allow them to disseminate their views.
This produces both an echo chamber and megaphone effect: not only do kindred spirits find common space to vent and practice their hate against the perceived â€œOther,â€ but more moderate, mainstream outlets begin to pick and emulate some of the language used in them. Language that was once socially unacceptable in most democratic societies has crept into mainstream social discourse, be it about immigrants, minorities, sexual minorities or indigenous groups. Hate speech is increasingly normalized under the mantle of free speech, where the hate-mongerers turn the tables on civil libertarians by claiming that their freedom of expression is being trampled by political correctness gone mad. That in turn has crept into the rhetoric of politics itself, where mainstream politicians and political commentators adopt some of the language and policy positions that once were only championed by a rabid yet marginalized political fringe. One only need to remember the anti-immigrant language of certain politicians and the mysogynist, homophobic and/or xenophobic rantings of assorted radio hosts and television personalities, to say nothing of the comments section of what used to be moderate political blogs, to see how the discursive trend has evolved in New Zealand.
The problem is almost exclusively a democratic one. Authoritarian regimes censor as a matter of course and control the flow of information in their societies, so what can be seen and heard is up to the regime. Unless authorized or condoned by the State, extremists are not given space to air their views in public.
Democratic societies uphold the right to free speech no matter how noxious it may be because it is exactly the unpopular views that need defending. But the principle of free speech never reckoned with the practice of social and mainstream media outlets using business models that are at least in part founded on the idea that there is money to be made in catering to extremist views. If advertising can be sold on extremist sites and offensive speech is protected, then the bottom line advises that it is not for the media conglomerates to determine what is and what is not acceptable social discourse. That is for others to decide.
In other words, the cover of free speech gives media conglomerates the excuse to continue to pursue profit by hosting extremist sites and allowing vile content on their platforms. The more that extremist views are filtered through outlets like Fox News and talk-back radio, the more they tilt public perceptions in a xenophobic, paranoid, fear-driven direction. This is not healthy for democracies.
This is the public policy conundrum. Where to draw the line between free and hate speech? When does offensive speech become dangerous speech? One would think that the answer would be simple in that any calls for violence against others, be it individual or collective in nature, is what separates offensive from hate speech. And yet to this day democracies grapple, increasingly unsteadily, with the question of what constitutes censorable material on-line. In a world where hard core pornography is increasingly available and normalized, it is hard to argue that people expressing ugly views are any worse than what is allowed in the skin trade.
With regard to whether there was an intelligence failure. Obviously there was because the massacre occurred. But the question is whether this was due to policy errors, tactical mistakes, some combination of both or the superb stealth of the bad guy.
At a policy level the question has to be asked if whether the intelligence services and police placed too much emphasis after 9/11 on detecting and preventing home-grown jihadists from emerging to the detriment of focusing on white supremacist groups, of which there are a number in Aotearoa. Given a limited amount of resources, the security community has to prioritize between possible, probable and imminent threats. So what happened that allowed the killer to plan and prepare for two years, amass a small arsenal of weapons, make some improvised explosives and yet still fly under the radar of the authorities? It is known that the security community monitors environmental, animal activist, social justice and Maori sovereignty groups and even works with private investigators as partners when doing so, so why were the white supremacists not given the same level of attention?
Or were they? The best form of intelligence gathering on extremist movements is via informants, sources or infiltration of the group by undercover agents (who can target individuals for monitoring by other means, including cyber intercepts). Perhaps there simply are not enough covert human intelligence agents in New Zealand to undertake the physical monitoring of would-be jihadists, other domestic activists and white supremacists. Perhaps white supremacist groups were in fact being monitored this way or via technical means but that failed to detect the Christchurch gunman.
That begs another question. Was the killer, even if a white supremacist himself, not an associate of groups that were being monitored or infiltrated by the authorities? Could he have maintained such good operational security and worked in absolute secrecy that none of his friends and associates had a clue as to his intentions? Was he the ultimate â€œlone wolfâ€ who planned and prepared without giving himself away to anyone?
If the latter is the case then no amount of intelligence policy re-orientation or tactical emphasis on white supremacists would have prevented the attack. As the saying goes in the intelligence business, â€œthe public only hears about failures, not successes.â€
In his apparent radicalization after he arrived in New Zealand, in his choice of targets in Christchurch and in his ability to exploit domestic gun laws, in the fact that although he was socially active no one knew or ignored his plans, the killer was local. In the inability of local authorities to detect and prevent him from carrying out the attacks, the intelligence failures were local.
It is in this sense that New Zealand must â€œownâ€ the Christchurch attack.
PS: I have been criticised for initially claiming, before his arrest, that the gunman may have come from Christchurch. Many people, including a prominent music and pro-cannabis blogger, felt that I was “reckless” for doing so, especially after it emerged that the suspect was Australian and lived in Dunedin (on and off since at least 2014). Let me explain why I made that initial error.
Within minutes of the gunfire I received links to the 4Chan and 8Chan platforms in which the shooter announced his intentions and linked to the live stream of his attack. As I read the commentary on the extremist platforms and watched the news over the next hour a source in Christchurch called and said that given his escape and the failure to initially detect and apprehend him (it took an hour to do so), the speculation by those chasing him was that he was a local. I repeated that live on radio as events unfolded, using the qualifier “apparently.” It was a mistake but not a reckless one, and in the larger scheme of things it simply does not matter.
I also made a mistake when I said that the weapon used was likely sourced on the black market from organised crime and may have been a modified hunting weapon with a suppressor on it (that much was clear from the video). As it turns out it was a legally purchased weapon by a licensed gun owner. My bad.
Finally, for thoses who keep on insisting that because the killer is Australian that absolves NZ of any complicity or guilt in the event–get real. Christchurch is the epicentre of South Island white supremacism and for all we know the killer may have chosen his targets not only because the Muslim population is fairly large in that city but also because he could show off to his mates on their home turf. If reports turn out to be true that he had kindred spirits at his gun club, then perhaps he was not as “alone” as is currently believed when planning and preparing for the attacks.