A video of the deadly assault, which New Zealand’s prime minister described as “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence,” appeared on the internet along with a manifesto.
Here’s the unpleasant truth: What happened in New Zealand was not an isolated incident. The terrorists were part of a transnational far-right movement that has reared its ugly face in other places – from Anders Breivik in Norway to the National Socialist Underground in Germany. Nor was it necessarily unprecedented. Muslims around the world endure the same kind of demonization, hatred and discrimination that informed the New Zealand attacker’s twisted ideology.
Nor are Muslims the sole object of hate for right-wing terrorists. The killer’s manifesto makes it clear that he thought along the same lines as some Western politicians, who have been spreading anti-Turkish sentiment for years. People like Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s far-right leader, still get to be treated as respectable members of the European family.
Here’s another inconvenient truth: Many Western governments still believe that anti-Muslim terror falls within the scope of freedom of expression. In most cases, advocacy of violence is not considered a crime if white people (as opposed to people of color) engage in it. Today’s toxic environment could not have existed without the West’s tacit complicity in the spread of racism and Islamophobia around the world. The systematic alienation, marginalization and exclusion of immigrants and Muslims by Western societies creates the illusion that they can be targeted – in their homes, at their offices or during prayers – without actual consequences.
In other words, the world failed to stop Friday’s terror attack because we did not try hard enough.
There are several issues that we must address without further delay:
First, the media needs to act more responsibly in its reporting. It was not a coincidence that many leading news organizations described Friday’s massacre as a shooting. This implicit and arbitrary distinction between acts of terrorism (which is how many reporters would describe a violent act by persons of color) and shootings (which, simply put, is what white people do) is a serious and largely unaddressed problem. The same goes for the distinction between white terrorists (who are almost always insane) and non-white terrorists (who are almost always rational, calculated, radicalized killers). The media’s language defines how society perceives reality. We cannot fix the problem at hand without meaningful change in this area.
Secondly, national security organizations around the world seem to be suffering from a shortage of bandwidth. According to media reports, the perpetrator of Friday’s terror attack had been signaling his intention to harm others. He appears to have shared such views and plans with like-minded radicals. Why the national security apparatus could not identify the threat in due time and prevent the bloodshed is an important question if we want to stop future tragedies.
Finally, it will take a comprehensive policy change in the West to address the root causes of right-wing radicalization. Western governments must prevent anti-Muslim terrorists from abusing freedom of speech to radicalize others, stop downplaying right-wing terrorism as isolated acts of violence or deeds of madmen and raise awareness about the ills of hatred against specific groups. In addition to those steps, European governments must take necessary measures to prevent potential terror attacks against Muslim places of worship and community centers.
Sadly, there was nothing “extraordinary” or “unprecedented” about the mass murder that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. Those talking points and media reports and perspectives must change if the world wants to stop the bloodshed for good.