Here are some of the things we know about Brenton Tarrant.
He was a loner. He didn’t draw support from a New Zealand cell of right-wing extremists. He was more influenced by Anders Breivik and You Tube.
He came to New Zealand because it was a place where he could fly under the radar. He didn’t move here because he saw New Zealand as having a far-right network that could help him carry out his plan. If anything, probably the reverse was true. As a country with no history of right-wing extremism, New Zealand enabled him to develop his murderous plot without attracting attention.
The only way in which we unwittingly abetted him was through sloppy administration of loose gun laws that asked him (how incredible is this?) to declare that he wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone if he owned a gun, that took his word for it when he wrote “I’m a responsible person” and “I don’t have any enemies”, and that allowed him to name a referee who apparently barely knew him. And the only clues to his aberrant behaviour – significant in hindsight, if not at the time – were gun club sessions where he practised rapid firing and changing of magazines, and the unease felt by his mother after a holiday with him (but which she evidently kept to herself).
Much of this can be gleaned from an excellent summary of the Royal Commission’s report written by Martin Van Beynen – one of the last old-school reporters to have survived at Stuff – and Sam Sherwood.
The key thing to note here is the absence of any evidence that Tarrant was inspired or encouraged by rampant racism or white supremacy in New Zealand. The report says nothing could have been done to prevent the attacks. So why are we going through continuing paroxysms of guilt and remorse? Why are we apologising? Is it to make ourselves feel better about events which couldn’t be foreseen and over which we had virtually no control? Or is it to present ourselves to the world as virtuous and to burnish our prime minister’s global image as a paragon of compassion and champion of inclusiveness?
The March 15 massacres were an awful atrocity – a merciless, cold-blooded attack on people peacefully exercising their right to practise their religion. But we have already shown our remorse. We did that in the days and weeks following the killings. The world knows we mourned the dead and stood in support of the bereaved.
We have nothing to be ashamed of, other than that the police didn’t properly vet Tarrant’s firearms licence application. That’s the only failing that cried out for an apology. It was a crucial point at which his plan could have been derailed. Yet even then, it’s questionable whether more rigorous inquiries would have given any clues to Tarrant’s sociopathic personality. And we should remember, before making the police a scapegoat for everything that went wrong, that two heroic constables risked their lives by pulling the gunman over and halting a rampage that might otherwise have taken more lives.
Was the SIS so pre-occupied with the threat of Islamic terrorism that it didn't consider the possibility of a terrorist act by a Brievik-style white vigilante extremist? Perhaps so. But intelligence agencies act on the basis of evidence, and the evidence of the past 50 years indicates overwhelmingly that we have more to fear from jihadists than from white fanatics. We should not allow that fact to negate the right of law-abiding Muslims to live peacefully among us, but it remains a fact nonetheless.
Anjun Rahman, of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, keeps saying that her organisation’s warnings of rampant Islamophobia in New Zealand went unheeded. But verbal abuse hurled at New Zealand Muslims, reprehensible as it is, doesn’t indicate a level of hatred so all-consuming that it could be predicted as leading to the slaughter of 51 innocent people. That’s a very big jump.
And we need to keep repeating the key fact that Tarrant was a stranger among us, acting alone. Regardless of anything that a minority of disaffected Muslim agitators such as Guled Mire might allege, Jacinda Ardern was right when she said this was not us. New Zealand was not responsible for this hideous event, and it’s a calumny against an entire country to imply that it was.
Why, then, do we need to signal our regret all over again by confessing to supposed failings that reflect badly on us as a country? The obvious explanation is that it provides the government with an opportunity to advance an agenda which it knows the country would otherwise resist.
That brings us to the government’s proposals – conveniently vague at this stage – to crack down on “hate crime” and tighten the laws controlling what people are allowed to say (in public, at least).
Where is the evidence that lax hate speech laws allowed or even encouraged Tarrant to kill? There is none. To my knowledge, no one has presented any evidence to show how tighter controls over New Zealanders’ right to free speech would have prevented the March 15 atrocity. On the contrary, the Royal Commission points to You Tube, which is beyond the reach of New Zealand laws, as the most pernicious influence on the shooter.
Why, then, is the government using the massacres and the commission’s report as justification for the possible criminalisation of “hate speech”, however that might be defined? A case can certainly be made for better police recording of “hate crime”, so that we know exactly what we’re dealing with, and for religion to be added to the existing categories (race, colour, nationality and ethnicity) that are protected from discrimination under the Human Rights Act. It seems extraordinary that it was excluded in the first place.
But beyond that, the most likely explanation for the proposed tightening of laws governing freedom of expression is that it has been on the wish-list of the neo-Marxist left for a long time, and the royal commission’s report provides an excuse – albeit a wholly invalid one – to press ahead. Predictably, left-wing academics are already urging that hate speech laws should extend beyond race and religion to gender and sexual orientation. Expect fat-shaming to be criminalised next.
Where will this lead? An obvious risk is that police will be given the power to determine what people are allowed to say, as in Britain. Those who express ideologically unfashionable views may risk prosecution. That would make us a police state. It would mean the end of New Zealand as a liberal democracy.
So who might we expect to lead the political pushback? Not Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, apparently. Judith Collins has done little more than express half-hearted misgivings about Labour’s proposals. She leads a demoralised and spineless National Party that has long forgotten what it’s supposed to stand for. This is ACT’s moment – its opportunity to assume the role that National has abandoned.
Footnote: None of the above comments should be construed as criticising the families of massacre victims who have found fault with the Royal Commission’s report. Like the Pike River families, they have been traumatised by an unimaginably tragic event and understandably want someone held accountable.