“Men of every creed and race
gather here before thy face
asking thee to bless this place god defend our free land.”
To this adopted Kiwi, the March 15th terrorist attacks felt like a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions. The initial disbelief, the subsequent shock, the final abatement and sheer pain that this could be happening on our land. Our land. Our beloved land of freedom, peace, tolerance and diversity defiled by a senseless act of hate and terror. How dare they attack us like this? The indignation only momentarily yielded to give room to helplessness, and the anguish was the only constant as the day died, and the details of the attack were gradually released to the public.
In a moment like this, the words of a leader are crucial. They can bring comfort, a sense of security, and some measure of hope; they can also stir hatred, division, and a thirst for revenge. Many leaders around the world, when faced with crimes of hate and terrorism, have tried to avoid electoral punishment or sought to increase their popularity with hard-line discourses. For instance, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May stated, following the Manchester attacks in 2017, that if human rights got in the way of more strict laws, they would abolish human rights altogether. It was a speech loaded with “us versus them” references and a strong authoritarian and populist vein. And after the 2017 London Bridge attack, May emphasised that Islamist extremism was solely responsible for this wave of violence, and represented an attempt to destroy British values. “Enough is enough,” she said, and the line on the sand was then draw: it is us versus them.
Similarly, following the Paris attacks of 14 November 2015, French President Francoise Hollande delivered a discourse plagued with references to a national security threat which came from across the borders to threaten the French citizenry. In December 2015, following the Cologne Attacks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew a direct association between the attackers and North African and Middle Eastern Refugees, and called for more strict asylum laws. This had a deep impact on the population, once very supportive of Germany’s humanitarian reaction to the 2015 Refugee Crisis, now having to accept that their “generosity” had been so poorly repaid. And then, the electoral punishment: The Alternative for Germany (a far-right populist party) won 92 seats in the 2017 Bundestag Election and became the first party of its type to receive such high electoral support in Germany.
These responses are understandable, though. Hate crimes and terrorist attacks committed by foreign nationals pose a great challenge for politicians. Based on the perception that some migrant groups are more likely to engage in criminal and terrorist activities, securitism has emerged as a mentality which posits that immigrants pose a threat to the physical safety and security of the nation’s inhabitants and, as such, there should be strict control over who enters the national territory. In the past decades, and particularly following the 9/11 attacks, there has been an increase in the “securitisation of immigration” both in the political discourse as well as among the public. In this context, if a government adopts a “soft” stance, it runs the risk of being perceived as not condemning these acts enough, being accused of promoting laws which are too lenient on terrorism or being squarely pointed as responsible for the attack. As concerns over the cultural and security impact of receiving large numbers of immigrants increase among the population, communication following a terrorist attack of any kind can be thorny.
However, when leaders associate an attacker to its national or ethnic group and turn him into a stereotype of his community, they only contribute to increasing racism and ethnic violence in Western societies with only one outcome: the ongoing radicalisation of both members of minorities and native populations. As a result, the threat of international terrorism is compounded with increases in domestic terrorism in the form of “extreme right” groups and white supremacism.
Thus, the best strategy a leader can adopt following an attack of this nature is to decategorize the perpetrators while recategorising the victims. Allow me to elaborate.
A few hours after the Christchurch attacks, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the nation. Her words stressed our shared identity as New Zealanders and the complete disaffiliation of the perpetrator with any collective, ethnicity, race or religion. In other words, the complete assimilation of the victims into the New Zealand collective and the total individuation of the perpetrator as belonging nowhere and with no one:
“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting will be migrants; they will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.”
Later that night, the same message was paraphrased, this time, emphasising our shared values of diversity, kindness and compassion. Not a single reference to the perpetrator’s nationality, creed or race was made. He remains a citizen of nowhere, a parishioner of hate, a man of no land.
It is noteworthy that Jacinda Ardern was not the first politician who, when faced with an act of hatred like this, opted for the decategorisation and individuation of the attacker. In 2017, when six people were killed and many others injured in a shooting at a Mosque in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasised that the victims were Canadian Muslims, that the attack was a crime against the whole of Canada and that the perpetrator was an individual whose actions did not reflect the feelings and values of Canadians.
Many will object that decategorisation is more frequent when the attacker is a white person or a country native, and very rare when the acts of terrorism have been committed by Muslims or other ethnic minorities. However, there have been instances in which terrorist acts committed by members of Islam have been decategorized and labelled as acts of terrorism committed by radicalised individuals or members of radicalised groups. For instance, after the London Bridge attack in 2017, instead of naming and shaming the Islamist extremism as a synonym with terrorism as Theresa May did, London Mayor Sadiq Khan focused on threat management and avoided references to a specific ethnic group. As such, it is possible to condemn these acts of violence without stigmatising the ethnic or national groups to which the individual perpetrators belong to.
At a time in which racism, nationalism and xenophobia are feeding hatred and gruesome acts of violence, it is crucial for politicians to avoid the temptation to categorise attackers as representative of any group. This strategy is particularly hard to adopt when the attackers are members of radicalised groups or terrorist cells, for there seems to be a natural association in the public’s mind between terrorism and Islam. However, this is precisely when this strategy is the most important to avoid the rise in racism which will subsequently lead to white supremacist terrorism. After all, terrorism has no nationality, no race and no creed.
Natalia Bogado Hernandez 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.