New Zealand is exemplarily coping with a time of trouble but firm and deterrent measures against violence and terrorism are the need of the hour
The mass shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15 have caused 50 deaths. Understandably, these have left the world shocked, grieving and angry. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Arderne, rightly said, “What has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.” Her country has seen nothing like the March 15 massacre.
Horrific savagery accompanied the crime. The gunman, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, killed in cold blood not just men but fleeing women and girls, besides shooting at piles of motionless men and boys. What explains such utter savagery? The obvious answer is hatred for Muslims arising from a White supremacist Christian fundamentalist-racist worldview steeped in Islamophobia. In the 74-page manifesto issued by him, the mass murderer described himself as a “regular White man,” and wrote that his attack was intended to “directly reduce immigration rates to European lands by intimidating and physically removing the invaders themselves.”
The manifesto reflects an obsession with White supremacy and discusses the battle of Vienna in 1683 in which a coalition of European armies, led by King John Sobieski of Poland as the supreme commander, routed an army of Ottoman Turks. To White supremacists, the battle was the juncture when Europe finally turned back the Ottoman empire’s advance and stemmed the tide of Islam. Writings on the killer’s weapons mentioned battles like the successful siege of Acre (1189) by crusaders seeking to capture Jerusalem from Muslims. It also reflects a deep interest in American politics and admiration for US President Donald Trump, who it hails as “a symbol of renewed White identity and common purpose”. There is lament over the “decaying” culture of the White, European, Western world and indignation over immigration and multiculturalism.
The growing spread of Islamophobia, a key component of the killer’s brand of inchoate extremism, has resulted from a multiplicity of factors. These include the rise of the obscurantist ideology of the Taliban as applied in Afghanistan, where it imposed a medieval social order that consigned women to virtual invisibility in public and domestic slavery, horrible terrorist acts by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda; and the perceived drift towards Wahhabism among Muslims worldwide. Its spread has been facilitated by the internet and social media.
The killer’s manifesto indicates that he drew deeply from White supremacist internet fora. Worse, he video-recorded his massacre through a head-mounted camera and circulated it through the social media for full 17 minutes before Facebook authorities, alerted by New Zealand police, stopped it. Safeguards, devised to prevent the circulation of such sordid material, could not stop the video and the killer’s statement from being transmitted not only on Facebook but on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. While Facebook and Twitter took down pages thought to be linked to him, the matter posted by him continued to circulate through other channels.
Efforts to prevent the misuse of the internet and social media for spreading poisonous doctrines and videos need to be accelerated. Simultaneously, one must examine as to why — and what kind of — people subscribe to violent and bigoted extremist thought. They ate the disaffected and alienated. Eric Hoffer writes in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, the disaffected “are most frequent in the following categories: (a) the poor, (b) misfits, (c) outcasts, (d) minorities, (e) adolescent youth, (f) the ambitious (whether facing insurmountable opportunities or unlimited opportunities), (g) those in the grip of some vice or obsession, (h) the impotent (in body or mind), (i) the inordinately selfish, (j) the bored, (k) the sinners.”
One does not yet know to which category Christchurch’s killer belongs. Meanwhile, one has to examine the psychological process that leads people to extremist ideologies and violence. Erich Fromm shows in The Fear of Freedom that children, enveloped in the security of their mothers’ world, become aware of their separateness from their respective mothers and others as they grow to become individuals. One aspect of the process, which Fromm calls individuation, is the growth of self-strength; the other is an increasing feeling of aloneness leading to a growing feeling of insecurity given the dangers the world poses.
According to Fromm, the way to overcoming a feeling of aloneness and insecurity is “to relate spontaneously to the world in love and work….” Many, unable to do so, lapse into masochistic submission to a “bigger and more powerful whole”, an individual or an entity, and deriving a sense of strength from it. The other is sadism, the essence of which is “to have complete mastery over another person, to make him a helpless object of our will, to become the absolute ruler over him…” The ultimate form of mastery is that over life and death and mass murder is the most horrendous manifestation of it.
The circumstances leading to sadism are a part of the eternal human condition and cannot be changed in the foreseeable future. Firm deterrent measures against violence and terrorism, sensitive handling of critical situations and an ideological war against all forms of extremism can help. New Zealand’s immediate response to the March 15 killings, particularly the firm, sensitive and compassionate approach displayed by Prime Minister Jacinda Arderne, has been exemplary.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)