Last Friday, a bone-chilling terrorist massacre took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a self-proclaimed white supremacist took the lives of fifty Muslims, including two children, and injured dozens more in the sanctity of their Friday evening prayers.
Across their country, people unified in their hundreds and thousands in shows of solidarity. Emotional vigils were held, with letters, flowers, candles, and performances of the traditional Māori haka dance extended as gestures of cross-cultural kinship. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set an example for leaders across the world by grieving alongside her citizens, embracing those affected, her pained concern framed by a hijab. The outpour of grief echoed across the world as nations extended condolences and condemnations.
However, Britain’s newspapers revealed cognitive dissonance, with story after story about the terrorist that read as hagiography. The Mirror ran a front page with a headline on an “angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer”; The Mail Online wrote how “a blond little boy turned into a far-right mass killer”; The Telegraph wrote a profile on the killer with the lede: “Clutched tightly by his adoring father, the fair-haired blue-eyed toddler was the picture of innocence.”
What does hair or eye colour have to do with virtue? The description of a white supremacist mass-murderer using the saccharine language of “blond little boy”, “angelic”, “fair-haired blue-eyed toddler”, “the picture of innocence” reprimands the violence while fuelling its ideology. It is half-hearted criticism – rather than incontrovertibly denouncing white supremacy as we ought to expect, the equation of his blonde hair and blue eyes with innate goodness reaffirms it, instead.
There was outrage when Liam Neeson spoke of searching for any black man to kill in reaction to news of his friend’s rape — as though blackness itself were to blame – but this beatifying language is its perfect negative. Black or Muslim innocents are asked to answer for all crime while, in a pattern that is tiresome, white men, no matter how heinous the crime, are depicted as guiltless at the core.
The Daily Mail blamed bullying, their Australian counterpart additionally censured video games, while The Times found his height to be a root cause for the attack – all considered greater threats than the ideology the attacker himself wrote 73 pages attributing it to. But, to admit white supremacy to be the problem would necessitate examination of foundational beliefs reflected on their own pages.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took immediate action to prevent similar tragedies by revising gun laws less than twenty-four hours later. Yesterday, she opened her special meeting with the Arabic greeting “Al-Salaam Alaikum”, meaning “peace be upon you”, then proclaimed her refusal to ever speak the attacker’s name.
In absolute terms, she stated: “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless, and to others I implore you: Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing – not even his name.”
Campaigns focused on preventing copycat mass shootings, ‘Don’t Name Them’ and ‘No Notoriety’, ask that perpetuators not be named or pictured so as not to attain the spotlight they seek. Those newspapers not only lionized the Christchurch attacker but sought backstory justification to make sympathetic and paint him as an exception divorced from historical lineage and active groups.
When the real threat of white supremacy is evidenced by the story itself, ignorance of the impact of repeating its values is near-impossible to claim. Ben Wallace, the UK security minister, has said a similar attack could happen here due to a growing threat from the far-right. Going forward, we need to follow Prime Minister Ardern’s example by immediately acting on the cultural blind spots that tacitly accommodate hate crimes, starting with the accountability of messengers.
We look to politicians and press to be the nation’s thought leaders and moral compasses, and it is no secret that anti-immigrant, white supremacist, and Islamophobic rhetoric has rapidly normalised throughout the decade. Just yesterday, twenty Conservative politicians were found to have written anti-Islamic posts on their social media accounts.
When the attacker names the U.S. President as principal inspiration, there is no longer a believable place for leaders to claim ignorance of the impact of their rhetoric. People with platforms or in power can no longer condemn the actors of violence while working as the ghost-writers of their thoughts. Leaders must be held to higher standards, immediately, with the complicity of their words considered so. Ardern acted to prove that safer countries can be built in a day, what stops us from doing the same?