This was originally published on 5th May, 2019, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.
Two large-scale terrorist attacks within a month of each other, one in New Zealand, the other in Sri Lanka. Both have captured the world’s attention, and arguably the aftermath of the former has affected the coverage of the latter.
With the Christchurch shooting, it was difficult to escape news coverage, public opinion, and governmental proclamations during and after the attack — though almost all of these responses have danced around the attack itself, and been more about addressing the means of and meaning behind the attack. I don’t know if you’ve read the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter, but if I had to guess I’d say not. Unless you were online during the first hour or two after the atrocity began, you’ve probably found it quite difficult to find the manifesto, if you’ve been looking for it at all. You may not have heard anything about a manifesto other than veiled references to things said within it, and you’ll certainly not stumble across it by chance like I did.
I was in the right place at the right time, completely by accident. While looking for news about the 3rd Test between the New Zealand and Bangladesh cricket teams, a reporter travelling with the visitors was contacted by them about the shooting that was taking place at the mosque they were about to enter. Through this, it became quickly clear from others comments that the shooter had actually posted beforehand about what he would do, and had uploaded a manifesto in multiple places.
As it was emerging quite quickly that this was a serious event, I thought it best to read the manifesto immediately, in order to get to grips with what would have driven someone to commit (what I could only presume at the time to be) mass murder. I figured that this would be the natural response for many people, particularly in the news media, so that we could collectively respond to whatever influence him, knowing the issues that most affected his mind and working out his logic in order to combat not only his own views, but also those of anyone with similar thoughts.
That did not happen. While there was plenty of discussion about addressing ‘Islamophobia,’ about restricting gun use, and about the role of social media in magnifying and given voice to attacks of this kind, when it comes to addressing the specified reasons for the attack and how such reasons can be combated in the future, what we’ve had instead from the media is almost total radio silence — not just the traditional media, but the online media as well.
Trying to search for the manifesto on search engines? You won’t find much. Trying to read discussions about what the manifesto says? Too bad, they’re locked and anyone starting the discussion banned. Wanting to know what the experts who have read it think about it? They’re not talking.
Even as I was writing this, I was unsure whether to even call the shooter, Brenton Tarrant, by name. With the passing of time now, it appears to be less taboo to say his name, but even the fact that his name could become a taboo at all in the aftermath says something about the way this issue is being approached.
This cone of silence has, in fact, become a topic all of its own — why is it necessary? What purpose does it serve? Will it work out for the best?
Why aren’t more people asking these questions?
Having pored over the many varied news websites that have spent some time talking about it, there appear to have been a few different justifications given for the silence. Many organisations haven’t even bothered to answer the question, simply presenting their initial non-airing of Tarrant’s name and manifesto as normal and reasonable. A couple of places, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website, have posted articles claiming to answer the question, and then not actually answered the question within. The writer spends plenty of time explaining why they didn’t post Tarrant’s livestream, which I think most people would say is entirely reasonable, but didn’t actually tell us explicitly why the manifesto, or even any discussion of it, isn’t happening on their platforms.
A second argument, as suggested in this article, is that the manifesto is unlikely to tell us anything we don’t already know. This seems much less believable — how many would’ve known that Tarrant was a self-described ethno-nationalist and eco-fascist, or been able to explain all that that entails? How wide would the finger of blame be, had we not known the shooter’s motives beforehand, from his own mouth? (That’s pretty easy to answer, just see here and here.) How much speculation would there have been over his motives beforehand, and how much potential for misinformation? This is especially dangerous in the current political climate in western nations (although, ironically, Tarrant might not have minded that, as one of the stated purposes of his actions was to cause further division and conflict within these nations).
A third, and more common, argument is that the manifesto is “easy to misinterpret,” “designed to troll,” and “not intended for us.” This is hard to believe, quite frankly. Reading through the manifesto, it seemed fairly evident which parts were real and which were enmeshed in meme culture. Tarrant signposted the memes relatively consistently, and did not really attempt to confuse the reader by giving answers that blurred the line between the two. Even if some people get confused by them, there should be enough internet cultural literacy going around in media organisations for it to not be an issue.
Among all these is probably the most common argument of all, and the one I have some sympathy for. “If we spread the manifesto of this man,” the argument goes, “someone will read it and come to share the beliefs stated within, radicalising them and potentially turning them into another terrorist.” This argument correctly recognises the power of words, a concept that is becomingly increasingly well understood, though also — as the muting of Tarrant’s manifesto indicates — not necessarily with the right emphases.
It is certainly true that people can listen to or read the words of somebody else and become influenced by them. A powerful message will stick with the reader or listener long after they’ve first encountered them, and those words could very well change the course of someone’s life. Words can build up, or tear down. They can inspire, or they can deflate. They can destroy, and they can heal. Knowing this, we can see how the concept of ‘hate speech’ has developed over the last decade or so. Words can be used to demonstrate a hatred of another person or group which, by definition, is ‘hate speech’.
But it is not so straightforward as it sounds. Which words can be said to, without doubt, demonstrate a hatred of another person? If the offended person finds it to be ‘hate speech’, is that enough for it to be considered so regardless of which words were used? Who polices such things?
The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed in 2017 that, at least within the United States, ‘hate speech’ is protected under freedom of speech, and did so unanimously. While four justices affirmed the existence of speech that can be defined as ‘hateful’ (any “speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground”), that is simply a quality that applies to the words, rather than falling into a separate category of speech that can be regulated as ‘hate speech’, as is the case with obscenity or incitement to violence (which are both crimes).
The logic used by the Court is fairly simple: if speech can be banned because it is offensive to some, that power can be used to prevent minorities and dissenters from speaking publicly, and the government should not be entrusted with that power. This order should, logically, extend to corporations that provide a public utility service (such as search engines and social media websites), but that has not been tested yet.
Having read the manifesto, it would be unlikely to go over the high bar the US Supreme Court sets on incitement to violence. While the shooter talks at length about his own attack, there is only one short section where he encourages “white men” to “make plans” and “take action” — vague enough that it could be referring to a wide variety of “actions,” while still getting across his point.
Even if said section is classed as incitement, it probably isn’t enough to ban the document as a whole — but that’s precisely what the New Zealand government has done, on the basis that the document is “constructed to inspire terrorism”. But if this is the case, why has New Zealand not banned Mein Kampf, which is surely the prime example of such a document? Without reading Mein Kampf, we couldn’t really come to an understanding of Adolf Hitler — likewise, without reading his manifesto, we can’t really come to an understanding of Brenton Tarrant, and any allies he has.
Banning also has a habit of having the opposite effect of what is intended (ie. The Streisand Effect). In truth, if someone is committed to a course of action, or is interested enough in a particular ideology, they will find out about it through whichever means possible — doubly so if they believe they are rebels against authority. The only way to effectively combat ideas is by putting them in the light and exposing them for their faults. Otherwise, those radicals-to-be, waiting to be convinced of the necessity of violent action, will simply take these ideas on board in the dark corners of society, with no-one to convince them otherwise.
Take, for example, those responsible for the Sri Lankan bombings this week. Most of the suicide bombers responsible for these deadly attacks were from middle class, well educated backgrounds. Two were the sons of a multi-millionaire. They are now known to have been part of an organisation known as National Thowheed Jamath, who are so unknown that the media had to resort to speculating about them when trying to inform readers about who they are. From what is now known, they are in essence a Wahhabi Sunni Islamic terrorist group, sharing an ideological background with ISIS.
A significant number of Sri Lankan Muslims are Sufi, a mystical branch of predominantly Sunni Islam who Wahhabis see as an enemy within. Sufis in the island nation have been warning about a Wahhabi terrorist threat for years, but they have been allowed to recruit and radicalise on their own without any real oversight from government authorities, or really any open discussion with the Sufis, as lamented by a leader from the mosque one of the bombers belonged to. However, the leader, Hilmy Ahamed, also states that “We are always worried that they (his children) might be radicalised through the internet,” which is the same argument used to block the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto.
But it should be pointed out that there are two problems with this. Firstly, it assumes that people cannot be deradicalised via the internet, and secondly, it assumes that people making use of the internet to form their radical ideology did not already hold to such an ideology beforehand. This fundamentally misunderstands what the internet is, and how it functions. ‘Radicalisation’ and ‘deradicalisation’ are really just two sides of the same coin, that being the coin of ideology.
Shifting one’s ideology can happen through any means of gaining information, whether reading a book or a news article, watching a video or an event in person, listening to a podcast or to a live speech. The internet has multiplied the capacity for these things to happen, and extended the reach of ideological groups, but it has no special ‘radicalisation’ quality to it. It wasn’t the internet that put speeches of Osama bin Laden into a Colombo mosque.
Interestingly, the Sri Lankan government bought into this idea of the internet being a source of ‘extremism’ to some extent. They placed a curfew on the country, and temporarily cut social media access in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. This, they stated, was to prevent the spread of misinformation and also to prevent further communications between members of the group. As this article demonstrates, though, governments have the potential to use this for the very reasons the US Supreme Court warns about in the quote above. As such, information has dribbled out of the country over the fortnight, with ministers contradicting each other, and names being unofficially-yet-officially dropped, taken back, then openly proclaimed — in other words, the spreading of misinformation.
The media coverage of the Sri Lankan attacks reflected this muted reaction from on high. After dominating the news for a couple of days, the trickle of information and general apathy towards understanding the intricacies of continued Islamic terrorism meant that coverage petered out, with half an eye to limiting the likelihood of copycats or reprisals. You would think that the backgrounds of the bombers would make the attacks worthy of investigation, but very little has come of it. Unfortunately, this silence also doesn’t really help anyone.
The lack of discussion about the Christchurch shooter’s ideology and beliefs, symbolised by the blocking of his manifesto, will only further frustrate and aggravate those who sympathise with his views in some way, just as the silencing and lack of interest in the shooter’s views pushed him into a position where he felt he had to take drastic action.
Likewise, the inevitable lack of discussion about the Wahhabi Islamic views of the Sri Lankan bombers will forment further unrest and distrust of Muslims and from Muslims. Both will suffer from misinformation doled out around them, and the community will be no more aware of the differences between white supremacists and white nationalists (the shooter was the latter), or Wahhabis and Sufis, nor of why these differences matter, how they affect the views of people holding them, and, most crucially, how to combat them in reasoned discussion.
We‘ve already had an example of the ineffectiveness of speech censorship too in the form of a John T. Earnest, who went into a Californian synagogue and opened fire, after posting a manifesto online stating that he had drawn inspiration from Tarrant. One could also argue that the Christchurch shooting was the result of something similar, as Tarrant claimed Anders Breivik as his inspiration for recognising that voices like his were not being listened to. Breivik stated in his own manifesto that he had noticed what he saw as the problem of Islamic immigration in the 1990s, and wanted to peacefully address it by entering politics. However, he and his message were so shut out of the political system in Norway that he eventually decided that the only thing that could be done was to be violent, thereby forcing people to listen.
No matter how much censorship is put in place, these manifestos and teachings will continue to be accessed by those who are already in a position to be influenced by them and by the actions of their writers. No matter how much banning and limiting of public discussion goes on, there will always be ways for ideas to be expressed within private communities, even if those communities are ignored or driven deep underground. If you want to stop attacks like these, the first step is to investigate and think through the ideologies that drive them, allowing their adherents to speak publicly, and giving their opponents the freedom to argue back. For without discussion, we are destined to lose each other to our own ideologically-gated communities.