Bryce Edwards: Playing the Christchurch terrorism blame-game is dangerous

Bryce Edwards: Playing the Christchurch terrorism blame-game is dangerous

Jacinda Ardern has led the way in how she’s responded to the Christchurch terrorist atrocity. The prime minister has emphasised the need to come together and to not allow the actions of a terrorist to divide New Zealand any further. She has laid the blame for Friday’s massacre firmly at the feet of the perpetrator, rejecting the idea that his beliefs are representative of New Zealanders (while at the same time signalling to people in this country that as a society we must question and challenge attitudes and structures that contribute to intolerance and hatred).

Ardern has won praise from across the political spectrum for her measured, compassionate approach. Others have not been so conciliatory, and the search for answers as to why the attack took place will be a difficult process, with many causes being singled out for blame.

My column on Tuesday dealt with the question of whether our political leaders have, in some part, played a role in increasing hate or intolerance – see: Politicians’ words under scrutiny after Christchurch terror attacks. Similarly, Hamish Rutherford addressed this issue in his article, Mainstream political policy may offer a home for racist views. And in Parliament yesterday Green MP Golriz Ghahraman challenged her fellow parliamentarians over having “fanned the flames of division” in the past.

There is a danger in going too carelessly down this path, however. In fact, caution is advisable. If the blame-game becomes too toxic then, not only will it become counterproductive to the search for answers, but it will poison New Zealand politics and society (something the terrorist seemed very keen to do). Knee-jerk levelling of blame has the potential to be divisive, precisely at a time when unity and harmony is required (and mostly being achieved).

In two now notorious examples of finger-pointing internationally, Australian senator Fraser Anning blamed the terrorist attacks on Muslims themselves, while in the US Chelsea Clinton copped the blame due to a recent statement she made opposing antisemitism.

At home, targets for blame have ranged from politicians, intelligence services, rightwing and leftwing commentators (everyone from Mike Hosking to Chris Trotter), free-speech advocates, firearm sellers, social media and the prejudice of the New Zealand public, but rarely is evidence offered to support the contention of culpability for this atrocity.

Debates over all of these issues, and many more, need to be had. We need answers for why this attack took place. And we must address the fact that racism and religious intolerance is a daily reality in New Zealand.

But caution is also needed. It’s worth taking heed of the warning issued by Kenan Malik, one of Britain’s leading leftwing public intellectuals, who wrote immediately in the wake of the Christchurch attacks that “the dead deserve better” than a rush into “name-calling and invective” – see his short Guardian column, Do not let raw anger cloud our judgment after Christchurch.

Malik argues that debate and examination is absolutely necessary: “The issues raised by the barbarous terror are many and urgent – the rise of the far right and how to combat it; how mainstream commentators talk of Muslims and immigration and whiteness; the boundaries of free speech; the regulation of social media. And so on. I will no doubt have my say on these issues in the coming days.”

However, this does not seem to be occurring in a healthy, productive manner: “What has been depressing, though, has been the way that much of the discussion has degenerated into name-calling and invective. The dead of Christchurch have seemingly become a stage on which every contemporary debate from Brexit to the politics of identity is played out. The rawness of anger inevitably clouds judgment.”

He concludes by saying, “To say that the dead deserve better is to say that we should be better in the way we engage with the living, with each other. And we should.”

Another British commentator, Maajid Nawaz, who is a Muslim and a former parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, writes in even stronger terms that “Radical Islamists and radical leftists have seized on the Christchurch tragedy to push their own hateful agendas” – see his column from The Times newspaper: The New Zealand mosque massacre blame game is out of control.

Nawaz argues that this type of politicisation risks falling into the “trap” that the terrorist set to create division, chaos, and to pit the political left against the political right. He also fears the blame-game will lead to a shutting down of debate.

Nawaz is worth reading at length: “In my youth, as an angry 15-year-old Muslim witnessing the Bosnia genocide, I once succumbed to this temptation and promoted extreme Islamism myself for a few years. I know what giving in to hate feels like, and I know the lasting damage it can cause. But that is exactly the reaction that extremists want, and exactly why it must be resisted with all our might. So it is with no surprise that I noticed, a mere day after 50 of my fellow Muslims were so publicly and tragically killed, while the blood was still wet and the bodies remained unburied, that the ideologues had circled like vultures. Opportunistic Islamist and far-left extremists began calling for a purge of people whose politics they disagree with, and started publishing McCarthyite lists of personae non grata to target.”

In another column, Nawaz argues, “Now is not the time to settle political scores. Now is the time to reflect, reach out and respond with mercy from a position of moral authority” – see: New Zealand shootings: Muslims are fearful and hurting but we must not give in to hate.

Also in Britain, Claire Fox has written that “One of the most distasteful aspects of this was the casual way that within hours of the outrage, various conservative commentators were being openly named as indirectly responsible for the New Zealand massacre” – see her column in The Telegraph: Why I am so disturbed by how the Christchurch massacre is being used for political point-scoring (paywalled).

Fox says that there’s nothing wrong with debate and analysis, but this should not be motivated by pre-existing political agendas: “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect a moratorium on politics as we mourn. I am political and appreciate that we want to make sense of what seems such a senseless act, especially as the killer himself framed his actions in a rambling ‘political manifesto’. But a rush to use the event to push one’s own political agenda surely displays bad faith.”

After condemning the “white supremacism” behind the terrorism as well as “scaremongering about refugees” and other xenophobic ills, Fox implores that our responses don’t just lead to the suppression of debate and ideas: “I also hate the tendency to use a massacre to slander opponents or demand particular opinions are censored. Whatever comes from the New Zealand atrocity, we should be better than that. After all, the underlying message of the terrorist was that he intended to fracture political debate and divide opinion to cause a toxic virus of hostility. Let’s make sure he doesn’t succeed.”

Similar points are made by Brendan O’Neill at the Spiked-Online website. He himself points the finger at various political commentators and activists: “The blame game they’ve been playing in the aftermath of the racist mass murder in New Zealand has been ghoulish and deeply disturbing. The bodies of the 50 murdered Muslims were barely cold before various observers, activists and leftists were naming and shaming those people who they think ‘laid the ground’ for this atrocity. And it apparently includes everyone from alt-right agitators to any mainstream newspaper columnist who has raised so much as a peep of criticism about radical Islam” – see: New Zealand’s ghoulish opportunists.

Writing for The Australian, columnist Janet Albrechtsen suggested that Fraser Anning was far from the only political actor exploiting the tragedy for their own “narrow-minded, illiberal political agendas” – see: Be wary of blame and let’s not shut down debate (paywalled).

Albrechtsen argued that rightwing voices were being unfairly targeted, and political freedoms threatened: “Those playing blame games with politics are trying to paint as mainstream what happens on the fringes of politics. That attempt to tar the centre-Right with the lunacy of the far-Right is wicked, politically driven and wrong in fact. Working in reverse, the blame-gamers are also trying to present entirely legitimate debates about immigration, integration, the self-evident clash of cultures and the rise of political Islam as fringe discussions that must be shut down. The day after terrorist attacks in Christchurch, an editor at The Saturday Paper called for laws to ‘penalise media outlets, and figures that consistently promote fear and hatred’ and ‘robust laws against the spread of hate speech’.”

Here in New Zealand, Herald columnist Jon Stokes also observes that in the wake of the terrorist atrocity, “There is a move to shut down the voices and ideas of others, to try to homogenise ideas and perspectives” – see: Ideas should be challenged not shut down.

Stokes argues against suppressing too much of the information about the terrorist event and even the terrorist himself, and he also says that we need wider and healthier political debate in general: “The evil unleashed on Friday, March 15 showed me that those silenced or suppressed voices will always find a home, and an outlet to ensure they are heard. The way forward is light, not darkness, it is away with anonymity and facelessness. It is a time of ownership of our ideas and views, and embracing tolerance and understanding.”

Writing today, Karl du Fresne finds it difficult to reconcile two very different narratives that have emerged about New Zealand and the terrorist attacks. On the one hand “New Zealand reacted with a genuine and overwhelming outpouring of shock, grief and anguish”, but according to an “alternative narrative, we are a hateful nation of racists, white supremacists and Islamophobes” – see: Some would paint us as a nation of hateful racists – that’s not the real NZ.

Certainly, there are politicians and activists elsewhere who will attempt to paint a picture of hate in New Zealand for their own ends – something we are seeing in Turkey at the moment.

In this regard, it’s worth reading the views of Massey University’s Rouben Azizian, who is a professor in the Centre of Defence and Security Study: “It is very dangerous when they use this rhetoric of us against them and them against us. They have to be very careful because they can indeed incite the feelings of a clash of civilisations, when this is a clash involving one idiot, a crazy, brainwashed person against innocent Muslim people” – see Rob Mitchell’s Christchurch shooting: Erdogan comments endanger bond built on blood and battle.

Finally, there’s a case to be made that finger-pointing is almost entirely redundant given that there was a sole terrorist involved, and he was “not one of us”, echoing Jacinda Ardern’s “This is not us” refrain. The case is put by Chris Trotter, who says “What happened at the Linwood and Al Noor mosques was horrific, but it wasn’t our doing. As we begin the long journey towards recovery, it is vitally important that we keep that fact squarely before us. New Zealand is a good place. New Zealanders are good people. We are not responsible for Brenton Tarrant’s dreadful crime. This is not us” – see: What Happened Here?