Who contributed to culture that produced New Zealand shooter?

Published 8:16 pm Wednesday, April 10, 2019


Contributing columnist

Who takes what from the terrorist slaughter of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last month? And who needs to learn the lessons?

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It depends on where you thought you could be safe from such terrorism. New Zealand was supposed to be “the safest place” in the words of a Muslim immigrant from Iran who worked across the street from one of the mosques and worshipped there. Muslims comprise only 1% of New Zealand’s population, yet they had largely felt safe there. In the last five years, there had been an increase of hatred against Muslims and growth of far right groups, but it was Christchurch’s welcome of diversity that made it a target for the Australian shooter. He called it a “target-rich environment.” It offended the anti-Muslim extremist.

Prime Minister Jacinda Arden observed that her country was singled out “because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values.” So if you weren’t safe in Christchurch, where could you be safe?

Hate crimes, however, don’t have to be fueled by local firebrands; internet contacts with others of like mind keeps the fires stoked. That was clearly the case with Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist who was the shooter at Christchurch; with the anti-Semitic Robert Bowers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue; and with Dylann Roof at Mother Emmanual Church in Charleston. No place is safe these days. Everybody needs to know that.

New Zealand’s prime minister not only cautions against thinking that it can’t happen here. She also responded to the massacre in an exemplary way. March 15 had “changed our history forever,” she said. Laws must change. She set to work immediately with her cabinet.

What has been worked out, subject to approval by the New Zealand parliament today, is a ban on military-style, semi-automatic weapons; assault rifles; and high-capacity magazines, with very narrow exemptions for police, defense personnel and certain legitimate business uses. Implementation will occur through buybacks, regulation, and outright bans. Resistance in parliament was negligible since the largest opposition party quickly pledged its support.

In contrast, the United States has seen no new gun control laws at the national level after a series of school shootings including latest one at Parkland with its huge outcry. 57% of our citizens think gun laws should be more strict. 97% favor universal background checks, and the House has approved a bill, but Senator McConnell refuses to bring the measure to a vote.

On the question of whether it is more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership, 76% of Republicans say it is, in contrast to 19% of Democrats. Arden and New Zealand’s Governor General Patsy Reddy are showing what government can do, while our political leadership continues to show what government won’t do to challenge American individualism’s claim that any regulation is a threat to our Second Amendment rights. New Zealand’s example is apparently lost on us. Our political leaders need to know.

Lessons can also be learned from the blame games that have followed Charleston, Christchurch and other mass killings. As with Dylann Roof in Charleston, some were quick to say that Brenton Tarrant alone was responsible for what he did at Christchurch. Others have flagged the growing influence of white supremacists, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim ideology in many nations. They have homed in on the xenophobia of the culture that shapes the shooters and the complicity of leaders that play down or condone this violence-prone tribalism.

Since Brenton Tarrant cites President Trump in his 74-page manifesto as a symbol of the white supremacist fight, he has been named as helping to create a hateful cultural climate and with failing to denounce the white nationalist ideology that motivated the killer. Remember his response regarding Charlottesville.

One study of extremism found that followers of white nationalist movements have grown 600% since 2012, and another indicated that hate crimes in the U.S. increased by 17% in 2017. Does President Trump bear no responsibility for this climate?

Our president, for his part, posits that the white nationalist threat is not a serious problem. It is limited to a few deranged individuals.

In defending him against his critics, some of his supporters shift the blame to the blamers. One example is conservative political commentator Patrick Buchanan’s recent syndicated column, “Who spawned the Christchurch killer?” Buchanan was a senior advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and a two-time candidate to be the Republican nominee for president. The author of 12 books, several of them New York Times best sellers, he has been a conservative voice on the McLaughlin Group, CNN’s Crossfire, the Capitol Gang, and even MSNBC. His riposte proceeds as follows.

In light of the inter-ethnic violence that sometimes accompanied the Irish migration and the central and eastern European migration, he applauds the halting of migrations that took place until the newcomers could be “Americanized.”

“By 1960, we were a united people,” he writes. Then we made the mistake of opening our doors to “every religion, race, culture, and creed.” Such a nation was a first, and it contradicted any previous understanding of a nation. This failed experiment accounts for the current immigration mess that we are in, according to Buchanan.

Now comes the kicker. The vision of a New World Order fostered by today’s “globalists” is what fertilized the soil that spawned Brenton Tarrant of Christchurch shame. Too much racial and religious diversity is our problem, not white nationalism. Its claimed threat is a myth.

There are valid reasons why immigration cannot be unlimited, but the American vision of nationhood at best finds unity in shared values and ideals, not in common ethnicity and uniform religious identification. Lessons from New Zealand about shared vulnerability and responsible political leadership are crucial, but a critical eye toward tribalisms that threaten our democracy is the most important lesson of all.

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.