Did the Christchurch attacks change how we view anti-Muslim bigotry?

CJ Werleman

The attacks on mosques in New Zealand made it impossible to deny the threat from right-wing terrorism.

“My boy’s dream was to be an international goalkeeper for Manchester United,” said the father of a 15-year-old boy who was shot and killed at point-blank range, along with his mother, inside a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand a year ago today.

The man’s wife and son would count among the 51 Muslim worshippers whose lives were violently cut short shortly before Friday prayers began on March 15, 2019.

It wasn’t only the scale of violence that so deeply shocked the world and traumatised a small South Pacific country, one unfamiliar with acts of armed conflict and terrorism, but the manner in which the gunman, an avowed white nationalist, carried out his dastardly deeds, live streaming each and every kill on his social media feeds.

Having to report the attack for TRT World, and then later debate the root causes of right-wing terrorism on Newsmakers, the cable television network’s flagship program, I made a personal decision to watch video footage of the entire attack, a decision I instantly regretted, and one that haunts me still.

The images of men, women, children and families huddled in groups together, pleading for mercy in the final seconds of their lives will remain with me forever.

Moments after watching the footage, I wrote the following for TRT World:

Tarrant recorded every second of his 17 minutes of horrific mayhem via a camera attached to his helmet. You see him drive his car up the mosque, retrieve a semi-automatic weapon from the trunk, where you see multiple guns, ammunition, and jerry cans. He then walks towards the mosque and begins shooting. When he burst through the front doors, you hear the cries and screams of panicked and huddled worshippers, and that’s when the slaughter starts, with one-by-one executed at point blank range.

Whatever doubts remained regarding the arrival of a right-wing terrorism wave, they were most certainly extinguished with the lives of 51 Muslims that terrible day.

 Were the events of March 15 not horrific enough, then they have been compounded by the fact that in the 12 months since, the live streaming of attacks on mosques, synagogues, black churches and anywhere else targeted minorities gather has become a calling card or “blue ribbon event” for similarly like-minded, violently racist individuals.

“Attacks always spark reactions from different extremist communities, but when it comes to the far-right, there was never anything like the response to the Christchurch attack,” Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

She added that Tarrant’s targeting of Muslims, coupled with his “deadly execution” and live streaming of the attack has generated an “unprecedented response”, describing it “like nothing we’ve ever seen thus far from the far-right across the globe.”

This week, The Saturday Paper published a classified report produced by Australia’s top spy agency – Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) – that revealed how far-right extremists and white supremacists are drawing inspiration from the Christchurch attack to carry out similar attacks in hope of “accelerating the race war.”

“The Christchurch attacks will have an enduring impact on the extreme right-wing community… and will contribute to the radicalization and inspiration of future attackers for at least the next 10 years,” according to ASIO.

This warning sprung to life in the form of a threat made against the al-Moor mosque in Christchurch last week, with New Zealand police announcing they were investigating a post made on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which featured a hooded man posting a photo of himself in his car outside the mosque along with a gun emoji and threatening text.

The fact Christchurch has been cited as a source of inspiration for the maniac who murdered a Jewish worshipper at a synagogue in San Diego; the gunman who slaughtered 21 mostly Hispanic Americans at a mall in El Paso, Texas on August 3 of last year; the Norwegian terrorist who attacked on a mosque in Norway on August 10, and the right-wing extremist who shot up a cafe frequented by immigrants in Hanau, Germany last month, leaving 11 mostly Turkish immigrants dead, serves as a deadly reminder that the same kind of “toxic combination of political polarization, anti-immigrant sentiment and modern technologies that help spread propaganda online” that helped produce the Christchurch terrorist continues to produce more like him throughout the Western world.

The attack has not only “fundamentally changed” New Zealand, as stated by the country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, but also the way we’ve come to visualise the right-wing terror threat.

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