We must examine the mindsets of terrorists—and of those who follow them
20 Mar 2019|

Yet another terror attack. In this case, though, quite a lot is different.

It is the first such attack suffered by New Zealand—a hitherto relatively peaceful multicultural society far from the usual ‘hotspots’ of terrorist attacks. Australia had the Lindt Café siege in December 2014 and the murder of NSW Police accountant Curtis Cheng—but nothing (thankfully) on the scale of the Christchurch massacre. Larger-scale attacks were planned but they were thwarted by the authorities before they could be carried out.

In addition, this massacre was live-streamed on social media by the perpetrator, Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian citizen, who may well have chosen New Zealand for his evidently well-planned and horrifyingly well-resourced rampage because of Australia’s stricter gun controls.

While relatively little is known about Tarrant’s personal background, especially his early life and psychological development, more will no doubt come to light.

Given the paucity of information available at this time, I’m reluctant to speculate on Tarrant’s mindset for fear of muddying the waters for future appropriate professional and forensic assessment of his reasons for committing this atrocity.

And while those such as the Islamic State terror group have used the internet to broadcast beheadings and other atrocities, the live streaming seems to be something new in this region. So, too, is the wakeup call it is offering to our leaders about the too-ready availability of the internet for propagation of hateful material of many kinds.

It’s not news to us that the internet is an anarchic zone. But has it been so evident before that there’s a considerable appetite among the world’s internet users for content of this nature: murder as it is being committed? Tarrant knew he had an audience only too eager to gobble up what he was filming. It’s estimated that the video was accessed some millions of times before the social media platforms took action and prevented further viewings. Many hundreds of thousands of copies reportedly ‘escaped’ before the attempted restrictions were applied.

We can imagine that there’s a willing audience for this type of offensive material, just as there’s a willing market for the purveyors of pornography. But for millions to have sucked up, in such a brief time, this live-streamed slaughter of innocent individuals beggars belief.

We, as a society, need to try to understand the minds of the perpetrators and the minds of those to whom the perpetrators are playing. It’s pointless to supply if there is no demand. It is coming to light that, in Australia alone, there are many far-right extremist groups with, likely, hundreds of thousands of members who lean towards, if not actively support, the ideologies espoused by Tarrant in his ‘manifesto’.

That document will likely offer clues to Tarrant’s state of mind—but it will also provide clues about his intended audience.

Comparisons have been drawn with the 32-year-old Norwegian Anders Breivik, who slaughtered 77 victims in a well-planned massacre in July 2011. He, too, published a manifesto, as did the infamous ‘Unabomber’, Ted Kaczynski, in June 1995. Breivik and Kaczynski have been the subjects of extensive psychoanalytic assessment at a distance (as have many of history’s infamous mass murderers), because rarely is there a genuine opportunity to attempt psychoanalytic exploration of such individuals’ minds—they will be either unwilling participants in such a venture or dead. Nevertheless, Tarrant could afford such an opportunity if the task were to be appropriately approached.

The greater challenge is for humanity is to acknowledge that we comprise a broad range of individuals, from the compassionate, civic-minded ones who respond to these tragedies with such inclusive and caring responses as Sydney saw during and after the Lindt Cafe siege and Christchurch has seen this week, to the divisive, exclusionary, hate-filled ones who are in evidence in alt-right and other demonstrations in recent times.

And it would not be reasonable to omit to mention the parliamentary legislatures in Australia, in the United Kingdom and in the United States for examples of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, while in Middle Eastern countries it’s not uncommon to hear calls for the deaths of ‘the Great Satan’ (the US) and ‘the Little Satan’ (Israel).

Extremist hatreds abound, and they are not confined to the left or the right.

The challenge for governments everywhere is to endeavour to manage these extreme manifestations of psychological issues which affect us all but which all too often erupt into significant violence on both verbal and physical scales. The time has come to rethink the balance of civil liberties and freedom of speech in the marketplace against populations’ rights to safety.

We will need to look into our own minds, as well as those of the perpetrators, to achieve this balance.