By Andrew Lim
15th March 2019 is a date which will live in infamy for New Zealanders. On that grim day, a White supremacist and self-proclaimed “eco-fascist” murdered 50 people and wounded 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch. Fortunately, the New Zealand Police authorities acted swiftly, apprehending him and three other suspects. At the time of writing, he has been charged with murder and is facing trial. The Christchurch mosque shootings bear a stark resemblance to the 2011 Utoya island massacre. The murderer himself has stated in his manifesto that he was inspired by counter-Jihadist Anders Breivik, who gunned down 69 youths in cold blood.
Despite this tragedy, I have been impressed by the outpouring of compassion, solidarity, and resolve shown by New Zealand society. This terror attack has been condemned by a broad spectrum of New Zealand and global society including politicians, celebrities, the media, intellectuals, and religious leaders. In a time of grief, rage, and shock, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been the face of empathetic and calm, decisive leadership. There has also been an outpouring of international sympathy for New Zealand from world figures such as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Donald Trump, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Even hard-right and anti-Islamic elements such the New Conservative Party , the website Rightminds, the neo-Nazi New Zealand National Front, and French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen have publicly condemned the Christchurch terror attack.
It is unfortunate that some reprehensible individuals like far right Australian politician Fraser Anning have taken advantage of people’s grief to spout anti-immigrant, Muslim-bashing politics. Fortunately, Anning does not speak for the vast majority of Australians, let alone humanity. Two wrongs do not make a right: the atrocities of ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda (including the subjugation of women and Yazidi), Asian grooming gangs in the UK, and the persecution of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries (such as Asia Bibi and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) do not justify persecuting and killing Muslim minorities in Western countries. Islamists and counter-Jihadists alike should ponder the wise saying “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” As a Christian, I believe that it is important for us to lead lives built upon the values of love and friendship rather than hatred and fear: In the wake of tragedy, we must rise above divisiveness and focus on the commonalities that bind us.
The Christchurch terror attack has undoubtedly led to calls for the New Zealand Government to address issues like hate speech, counter-terrorism, and gun control. While it is imperative to address these issues, we need to negotiate a fine balance between preventing similar atrocities in the future and protecting hard-won civil liberties. As overseas, the Christchurch attacks will undoubtedly lead to increased security at airports, places of worships, and public places. More public funds will be diverted from badly-needed areas such as housing, education, healthcare, and social security to security measures such as checkpoints, scanning machines, metal detectors, and counter-terrorism police units. While it is undeniable that we live in an increasingly dangerous world, we should not give in to fear and paranoia. Existing counter-terrorism legislation such as the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, the 2014 Countering Terrorist Fighters bill, and the Intelligence and Security Act 2017 should not be misused by Governments to stifle dissent and to abuse the power of the state. There is a fine balance between crafting policies to protect the people and increasing the coercive powers of the state. This has led to egregious abuses of power like Trump’s Muslim Ban, “no-fly lists”, Australia’s offshore detention policy, China’s re-education camps in Xinjiang, and our own infamous Tuhoe raids. In recent times, our police and intelligence services have disproportionately targeted animal rights, environmental, and radical left groups and activists. The failure to track far right extremists is a serious black mark for our intelligence community.
Calls to ban hate speech should also be considered carefully since it would have disturbing implications for freedom of speech and reporting the facts. In Western Europe, initially muffled media coverage of the predominantly Asian sex grooming gangs in the UK and the 2016 Cologne New Year assaults have fuelled the rise of opportunistic far-right elements such as the English Defence League and the Alternative for Germany. While outright Islamophobia and racism should be condemned, combating hate speech should not be used as a pretext for stifling public discussion of controversial issues.
Closer to home, the University of Auckland has seen its own share of “hate speech” controversies: namely the White supremacist Auckland University European Students Association, the disaffiliation of the ProLife club, and opposition to conservative politician Don Brash’s participation in a public debate last year. Following the Christchurch attacks, students and faculty have received direct guidance that sharing information related to the massacre – including video, social media content, and the shooter’s manifesto – has been strictly forbidden. While there are good reasons for wanting to curtail the sensationalism that can follow events like this, these sorts of decisions can set dangerous precedents. Sometimes, the lines between hate speech and freedom of expression can become blurred. The question remains on how we can find a balance between preventing extremists from gaining a public platform and protecting free speech; a question that continues to elude intellectuals, policy-makers, and opinion-makers.
Finally, the Christchurch terror attacks has rightfully forced us to reassess our gun control laws. While New Zealand has relatively robust gun control legislation, semi-automatic rifles are still legal. It is highly disturbing that the gunman was able to exploit loopholes in existing legislation to acquire the weapons that have killed and maimed so many people in Christchurch. While gun massacres such as the 2014 Ashburton WINZ office shooting and the 1990 Aramoana massacre are rare in New Zealand, we should not delude ourselves into believing that our gun laws don’t need fixing because we lack the same level of gun violence as the United States. While most gun owners are law abiding and decent people, these attacks have exposed loopholes in our gun laws that need to be fixed. Perhaps, we could borrow a leaf from our Australian cousins. Following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, John Howard’s Coalition government created national registry for gun owners and banned civilian ownership of semi-automatics. This has helped curb gun violence in Australia over the past 23 years. Change is coming for our gun laws and we should embrace them.
The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings present an opportunity for New Zealand to show that we can still be a diverse and inclusive society. While we should combat bigotry and hate speech, we should not also trample on freedom of speech and civil liberties. Anti-terror legislation should be used for protecting the innocent rather than as a tool for curbing reasonable dissent. Our intelligence services should not ignore the threat of far-right extremism. As a country, we must keep striving toward the sort of place we want New Zealand to be, and that may well be a place without semi-automatic rifles. Difficult decisions lie ahead, and we must make these with an eye to the future and a concern for future misuse, even if the actions we take now are made with the best of intentions.
Andrew Lim is a PhD student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. The views expressed here are solely attributable to the author.
Featured image originally found here.