When no name pulled the trigger over one hundred times as he sluiced his way through the congregations at two Christchurch mosques, nothing he did was new. It was bigger, perhaps more “successful”, and maybe better planned than his role models had been able to realise, but his actions were entirely predictable.
The type of perpetrator was known, his personality and personal development trajectory predictable. The likely weaponry was known. The roles that social media had played and would play in the events, apart from the new capacity offered by streaming video on facebook, were known. The social contexts that gave shape to his fantasies were known, and the political conditions that would authorise his actions were known. No name found a soft target and easy weapons; everything else has been grist for the analytical methods of social scientists for decades.
Probably since Wilhelm Reich published the Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933, and Theodor Adorno and his colleagues published The Authoritarian Personality in 1950, bookends to the rise and fall of Nazism, reflective analysts of authoritarian violence have been fairly sure about the types of people, mainly young men, who are drawn to movements of racism, fundamentalist religious militancy, and destructive assertion of personal identity.
Terrorism is a work of the imagination. The terrorist must imagine the act, the emotions (his own, his targets, his peer group’s, the startled watchers) and the various reactions that he desires to create. As a fantasist he inures himself to any negative emotions about his acts, through imagining a moral separation from the humanity that he nevertheless does share, in reality, with his prospective targets. He imagines himself within a narrative of heroism, celebrated by a band of brothers with whom he competes for glory.
The Internet feeds his imagination with its responsibility-free feedback, from his first “Call of Duty” to his lurking on “Gates of Vienna” to his fevered histrionics on 8Chan in the moments between the imaginary and the real.
His apparent hyper masculinity masks his self loathing, apparent since he was laughed at by his playmates in his chubby and self indulgent childhood, intensified by the abandonment by his absent and self-harmed father. As an adolescent his emerging sexual identity further hardens his resolve, energising his imagination with half suppressed dreams of violence and sadism. Where the focus was the forbidden male bodies his self loathing deepened, complicated by the Sunday devotions before the carved wooden and painted gaunt body of the suffering Jesus. Sometimes the figure of Jesus became all too much the flesh in the person of a predatory parish priest. He must perfect that body, order his followers to react immediately to his commands.
He becomes, in the intersection between personality and culture and opportunity, the perfect storm. His nation’s leaders vote to endorse the mantra “It’s OK to be White”. He gasps and then grasps. The pressure plate is released; the perfectly-made destroyer marches into battle…
Our 2017 book Cyber Racism and Community Resilience begins thus:
Word and deed
The cyber world and the world of action are not distinct. On 29 January 2017 a Canadian student attacked a mosque in Quebec City, murdering six worshippers. Alexandre Bissonnette reputedly a strong nationalist, joined Norwegian killer Anders Breivik as an outstanding global example of the murderous capacity of White Power. Bissonnette had apparently been turned towards White power by the visit to Canada of Marine Le Pen, head of France’s Front National and Brevik had fondly quoted Australian anti-multiculturalists in his online manifesto. Each had long histories of participating in White power online communities. On the same day the Australian media reported the case of a local Central Coast NSW “white supremacist” Michael Holt who had pleaded guilty to stockpiling weapons in preparation for a mass rampage in a local shopping mall. He was not known to have been directly connected with any White power group, but had been actively involved in online hate speech. He had also searched the web constantly in pursuit of information about what he should believe and how he should act. There is no doubt that the opportunities afforded by the online world have expanded the reach and impact of race hate across the planet.
Holt had his gun stash about 500 km from where the no name murderer of Christchurch lived most of his life – Ourimbah on the Central coast en route to Grafton on the North coast. Very similar places.
Australia has been for some time the best place in the liberal democratic west to be an online racist. Our racists and white power advocates are adept at using the Internet and social media, in the process driving out and thereby silencing many of their targets. One of their goals has been to normalise White Power hate speech as an acceptable discourse for the Web. In this they have been quite successful, reaching a crescendo of impact when the complete Coalition Senate team voted to endorse their White Racist generated slogan of “It’s Ok to be White” late in 2018. Vide thereafter Sen. Fraser Anning.
Governments of all parties have played a key part in optimising the opportunities for on-line racism. They have played down White Power racism as the fantastic imaginings of the deluded. They have refused to introduce any laws that might restrict the availability of the Internet for racist propagandising and organising. They have made it almost impossible for the targets of racism to push back without great personal suffering, apart from through the use of an archaic law on public carriage services for harassment. The law had been used against the Martin Place Lindt killer Man Haron Monis before his rampage, and successfully to seek redress for Indigenous Senator Nova Peris against a Liberal Party official for racial harassment.
The civil provisions under the Racial Discrimination Act through the Human Rights Commission have been subverted by sustained attacks from the current Government. Australia has no human rights act, making it almost unique in the “Commonwealth”, European societies, and the USA. It stands almost alone with the USA (which however has the Bill of Rights), as refusing to endorse the race hate provisions of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. When given the chance of signing onto the European Convention anti-racism protocol on Cyber Crime, the ALP government withdrew the draft legislation under pressure from the Internet industry.
No state or territory has any agency authorised to push back against cyber racism and support its targets; those targets are expected to do all the heavy lifting themselves or clear out. The last attempt to do so was MulticulturalNSW, whose initiatives were ordered to be terminated by the Berejiklian government in 2017/18.
Australia has created the perfect stage for the perfect storm. We have ignited the first flash bomb. So sadly, the murdered were living in peace in our neighbour. At least New Zealand has a law that empowers those harassed by racists on the Internet to push back. Another thing Australia could learn from across the ditch.
Andrew Jakubowicz is emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of technology Sydney.