Roundtable – Christchurch Shootings

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on March 18, 2019.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

On March 15, a 28-year-old Australian man filmed himself committing a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. More than 50 people are dead and as many wounded. Today we’d like to talk about the shooting and its political implications, particularly in terms of the rise in alt-right and white nationalist violence. Let’s begin with the question of what makes this shooting different and more talked about than the many that seem to happen more and more frequently in the US.

 

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

This has been described as New Zealand’s 9/11 combined with the Port Arthur Massacre (a gun massacre in Australia that caused that nation to tighten it’s gun laws. Guns are not banned there, you just can’t have them lying around the house without extremely good reason.) From what I understand a per capita comparison would be about 5000 dead in the U.S. it is a horrific act by a vicious racist, and we need to understand the perpetrator is not a lone wolf, and his ideology is international. I would request we do not use the assilant’s name, because while his motivation is different than, say, a school shooter, fuck the guy.

 

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

 As mass shootings go, the death toll was large even by U.S. standards. The U.S. has had them more frequently, and the numbers keep growing, but fifty dead and forty or more wounded we still can view as tragically large in this country, thank goodness. I think a big difference here is how the shooter did not leave us to question. He published a manifesto and then live streamed his actions. That made everything more graphic, more visceral, and left little doubt that this was racially motivated hate.

 

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

Honestly, what I find most infuriating about this is this guy was an absolute tool. This may seem to minimize his crimes, but I’ve read his “manifesto”, and his position is basically “people who aren’t white keep moving around the world to where there are white people who aren’t boinking enough, so I’m going to kill some random brown people in a country I don’t even come from because I’m butthurt about future Europeans being browner.”

 

Christo

The thing is, that’s essentially what Hitler was complaining about as well, except targeting Jews instead of Muslims. These people are that small and petty, that’s why they need to do so much damage, to make themselves feel big,

 

Josh

Were you expecting the manifesto of a bigoted mass murderer to be intellectually rigorous, compelling material?

 

David

No, but this goes beyond the banality of evil. It’s basically a tantrum that ruined the lives of hundreds of not thousands of innocent people. And he explicitly tried to pump up the readers of his little whiny essay to go around shooting other people.

 

Christo

Living in your own head means you don’t have an editor, so the stuff that makes sense and sounds awesome to you can easily turn out to be vile nonsense.

 

Josh

I think a lot of these guys are trying to rile up a race war. Dylann Roof, for example.

 

Christo

This is one reason why echo chambers like 8chan are so dangerous. They amplify your thoughts without meeting any resistance or motivation to change them. Meeting opposition, even if you disagreed worth it, at least forced you to subconsciously acknowledge it. Now no one has to do that.

 

Ann

What also helped this shooting get noticed was New Zealand’s response. The police and the prime minister did not hesitate to immediately call it a terrorist act, when in this country we’d still be wringing our hands about whether it should be called that days later. That meant, in this country, the media was free to call a white nationalist’s attack on brown people terrorism, and that helped keep the dialogue focused and prevented us losing sight of the big picture for the minutiae as tends to happen with the coverage of own mass shootings. It was white nationalism; it was a terrorist attack; it was against a religious group while they were peacefully worshiping.

Another huge factor was the solidity and strength of New Zealand’s response to this. The prime minister made it clear that the people attacked were New Zealanders. Period. She also made clear that white nationalism as zero place in New Zealand. She stared straight in the face of the ugly ideals of the shooter and turned them on their head, essentially saying, “No. You’re the one who’s an invader and an outsider, not the Muslims. You’re the one with no place in society.” That kind of leadership we rarely see so clearly, concisely, and coherently conveyed in this country, especially of late. Yet in New Zealand we saw from the top on down through the entire society a unified strong stance against this act and all the vile, toxic thought processes that motivated it.

And from what I have heard about the video he streamed, the shooter didn’t just spray bullets and leave. He made sure to finish off wounded people, at least at the first mosque. That detail of brutality in shootings is rarely made so obvious to the public, even it is only some recounting to the rest of us. So we find ourselves caring more and able to talk more freely about what really matters in this story.

 

Josh

I think this discussion speaks to what is perhaps a meaningful transition that has taken place–the difference between hateful, violent acts in the past and the current spate of hateful, violent acts, which are perhaps more attuned to the internet age and committed by slightly different unhappy men in a slightly different style. Here’s a shooter who killed impersonally, in a country chosen impulsively, who filmed his shooting to share on Facebook, who quoted memes before killing. What do we make of this? Is it really a difference or just a new flavor on what is really not dissimilar from the acts of McVeigh or the Columbine shooters?

 

David

The difference I see between McVeigh, Columbine, and many other killings and this one is that the other attacks were generally directed at specifically chosen targets. Columbine were killing classmates for perceived revenge. McVeigh was attacking a government entity that he believed was part of an actively malign force (conspiracy theory, see?).  But this asshat basically just wanted to reduce the number of brown people. The individuals targeted were just who happened to be convenient. This fits in with a few of the recent shootings.  Instead of targeting specific perceived threats, paranoid though those perceptions may be, they are essentially attacking demographics, cultures, and other abstractions, and the specific choice of victims is almost incidental.

 

Christo

I think another part of it is that you can voluntarily remove yourself. While the social ostracization was awful, you can now do it to yourself in ways you couldn’t before, unless you were very, very sick. And you can also speak to other such isolated people, transmit ideas, and thus you also paradoxically have the echo chamber effect.

 

Josh

I admit I’m weirdly jealous of New Zealand’s strong response to this, including their pledge to reform their gun control laws in the next 10 days. We seem stuck with nothing but thoughts and prayers here.

 

Ann

I too am very jealous. I happened to see at around 2 am EST on Friday, March 15, the live broadcast of one of the prime minister’s press conferences, and I realized that years of Trump had conditioned me to expect a tepid response.

 

David

This is where Trump’s perceived disinterest in the recent decloaking of militant white supremacy (I won’t call it rise or emergence, as it never died after the civil rights movement, it just hid) is utterly destructive. Even if Trump just doesn’t care, every force for oppression of minorities sees it as open season. Very few countries in the developed world have gone as far downhill on this stuff recently as we have just by having Trump doing nothing, much less his active encouragement. 

 

Ann

I, for one, am heartily sick of the refusal to call Trump’s rhetoric out for its role in encouraging this white nationalist and white supremacists garbage.

 

Christo

Trump’s continued minimization “good people on both sides”, “just a few disturbed people” is absolutely helping white supremacy

It’s all related.

 

Ann

You’re right, nothing is in isolation these days, so I agree that a combined set of factors worldwide is in play. That includes the President of the United States and supposed leader of the free world using language that aligns with white nationalist ideologies while refusing to denounce white nationalism or divest himself from connections to it. For heaven’s sake, Stephen Miller writes his speeches. We can’t be surprised that it sounds like the stuff white nationalists want, and we should be able to say that without people getting their knickers in a twist.

 

David

Here here!

 

Josh

This, I think, is a very important question to consider. How much of the rise in white supremacy and its attendant violence, Christchurch included, is a matter of Trump saying the quiet things loud, and how much is the result of other forces–like the rise of social media allowing for easier and more widespread radicalization? Is this New Zealand massacre by an Australian quoting a meme about a Swedish Youtuber and praising the American president the first truly global, internet crime of this nature?

 

David 

So, oldish-fart time here.  I’ve been an aficionado of conspiracy theory since the late 80s. This kind of crap has been readily available to anybody who was interested for decades. You had Mena conspiracy theories available on Gopher in 1993, BBSs and Loompanics catalogs before that, and I thought I hit the motherload in 1991 when I found a pile of old Populist Party newspapers fulminating about the Zionist Occupation Goverment.

The difference now isn’t ease of spread, or virulence, it’s that it can be shuffled in anywhere that asshats congregate to talk about anything. I mean, if you’d talked about {N}chan being a source of anything but dick jokes in the early aughts, it would have been mindblowing. The real change is that racist rhetoric has become just the foam on many people’s daily digital latte. And fixing that means root-and-branch cultural changes throughout white society. And we’ve been so successful with that the last 50 years… 

 

Josh

This whole situation is enormously frustrating. The right wing argues in bad faith against any attempts to label the ideology while encouraging hateful rhetoric and conspiracy theories to fester (just look at Congressman Steve King sharing a meme about a new civil war). Stochastic terrorism erupts, only to be ignored or dismissed, while the atmospheric temperature of white supremacy continues to rise in the hothouse of social media. I don’t think there are easy solutions, at least for us (New Zealand, on the other hand, may be onto something with their radical new idea of deciding who gets to have weapons of mass murder). Any final thoughts on some way forward from here, some hope for how to turn these trends around?

 

Ann

David had a valid point about where we now online. One of the most insidious things I see is how the nonsensical has been packaged as logical, valid arguments in every day conversations and thought processes. I really feel like we are on the cusp of something where we need to really expend the will and effort to change how we behave at a basic level. Our thinking has become lazy; we refuse to take the time to vet and filter things for ourselves; and it leaves us vulnerable. My usual response is change begins with people on the individual level. However, the difficulty here is in getting the people who most need to become more aware and make those changes to realize that and then expend the considerable effort it will take the alter the bad habits into which we have gotten. Sadly, that’s as far as I have managed to get to reaching a solution.

 

David

I think the basic solution is to in some ways lean into what these idiots are yammering on about.  If we have meaningful representation of our entire population in the political and economic levers of society, if we provide support to our immigrant communities to actually participate in our society through broader access to language classes and social services, if we simply embrace what these guys are panicking about, they’ll become irrelevant.  It’s one thing to stir anger at disenfranchised groups for getting “uppity”, but it’s another to get people to rage at the water they’re swimming in…

Too optimistic?

 

Christo

As a final comment, I can only agree. The greatest weapon against their sort of thinking is living well.

 

Josh

I think that’s right, in part. There are always going to be people like this; perhaps one of the ways to minimize their ability to do harm is to work to create an integrated, multicultural society where they can be more effectively deplatformed, marginalized, and deprogrammed. Whether that’s going to happen anytime soon is a question we’ll have to leave for another time. Thanks everyone for a lively discussion, and thank you for reading.

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