“We were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we’re an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things, because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those that share our values, a refuge for those who need it.”
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, spoke with enormous dignity, and with the sympathy of the whole world, in reacting to the terrorist atrocity in her normally tranquil country. We already know enough about the motives of those involved in the murder of at least 49 innocent people to conclude that this barbaric act was a product of hate, pure and simple.
The condolences of every right-thinking person on earth is with the families, friends and communities affected. Once again, the civilised world finds itself under assault, and having to renew its vows of tolerance and freedom in the most tragic of circumstances.
The immediate priority is to protect Muslim people from further assault, and to reassure them. Sadiq Khan, mayor of London and a personal emblem of the success of a multicultural society, has moved swiftly to makes sure there is a high-profile police presence at mosques.
The Christchurch massacres are a reminder that, like Islamist terrorism, far-right terror is becoming global, in the sense that there is no corner of the earth that is immune from its threat, no society that can deem itself safe.
The attacks in New Zeeland are strongly reminiscent of the ones perpetrated in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik, who shot dead 77 people, many of them teenagers, in cold blood in 2011 – a sense that “it could not happen here”.
In Britain too, few could believe before it shocked a nation that an MP could be assassinated on the street, as Jo Cox was when Thomas Mair shot and stabbed her to death in 2016. Or when the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was targeted last year: the Shabbat morning services were being held when 11 people were killed and seven were injured. It was the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States, a land they might have considered in every way far from the pogroms of their past.
According to the last report by the Global Terrorism Index, right-wing groups and individuals killed 66 people between 2013 and 2017, with 17 deaths and 47 attacks in 2018.
The UK suffered 12 far-right terror attacks last year, including that carried out by Darren Osborne when he drove a van into Muslim worshippers at Finsbury Park mosque in London, killing one person and injuring nine others.
As that report concluded, the majority of such attacks were carried out by “lone actors with far-right, white nationalist or anti-Muslim beliefs”. The Christchurch attacks may have been better planned than most, with more of an eye to propaganda, but it followed much of the existing template.
What these disparate attacks have most strongly in common is that they are inspired and incited by the same global sources of fake news, conspiracy theories, insane racial theories and, far more insidiously, some supposedly “mainstream” and respectable politicians. It is no coincidence that the name of Donald Trump figures in the thoughts of the Australian who went on his murderous mission in New Zealand.
Those media outlets (mainstream or otherwise) that demonise refugees and migrants, who deride democratic politicians and who promote the idea of a mysterious, malign “global elite” should look again at their journalism (such as it is) and their values. They would be the first to claim they stand for democracy and tolerance, for the rule of law and the security of the population – but the bile that spills forth from their websites and pages, and from certain politician’s speeches, seems sometimes at odds with such calm ambitions.
There is a rightist, authoritarian, populist climate of opinion prevailing in the west. It has its roots in the financial crisis, the subsequent recession, the eurozone crises and the longer-term impact of globalisation on living standards and employment. Legitimate worries and grievances are exploited by cynical politicians, digital “personalities” and media organisations, and amplified by social media until they grow into a cacophonous echo chamber of unhinged, poisonous evil.
We know that no free society can entirely protect all of its citizens all of the time from terror attacks, when all that is needed is, say, a van and a driver with enough fanaticism to drive it into a crowd outside a synagogue or a church, or a pub, for that matter.
The struggle against terror can only be prosecuted successfully two ways. The first is by strong, intelligence-led efforts that can thwart attacks before they happen – and, by all accounts, the police and the security services in this country especially have had some success in their efforts.
The second is the long hard slog to counter hate and racism. At moments such as this it can seem a hopeless fight; and the rise of fascistic violence on a scale not seen since the Second World War is a dispiriting phenomenon. All we can do, though, is to reflect on the millions who live in harmony with their fellow citizens in multiracial and multicultural societies across the word, and remind ourselves of just how far we have come since racial prejudice and abuse was commonplace, and racial discrimination legal.
Racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia can, in other words, be restrained and pushed into retreat, and their violent proponents caught, given a fair trial and, where guilty, jailed. New Zealand is a western society with a strong sense of community and a robust democracy. It is an example to the world.
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