Can prison rehabilitation programs work, and is it sensible to try and rehabilitate seriously radicalised individuals convicted on terrorism charges?
These are questions not just for the UK, in the wake of the second London Bridge attack over the weekend, but for the entire world.
There are no easy answers and no simple options. As the numbers of people detained and eventually released on terrorism charges mount up around the world, so too does the question of what to do with them. Politicians find it easy to speak in terms of “lock them up and throw away the key”. But our legal systems don’t allow this and the results, even if allowed, would almost certainly be worse.
Some answers, and some difficult questions, can be found in the lives of four participants in the events in London: Jack Merritt, Saskia Jones, Marc Conway and James Ford.
All four were participating in an event organised to reflect on the first five years of the University of Cambridge’s Learning Together program. Merritt was a young graduate who was helping coordinate the program. Jones was a volunteer in the program. Tragically, their idealism and desire to give back to society saw them lose their lives to a man whom they thought they had been able to help.
Merritt’s father told the media:
Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog.
In her tribute to her murdered daughter, Jones’s mother said:
Saskia had a great passion for providing invaluable support to victims of criminal injustice, which led her to the point of recently applying for the police graduate recruitment programme, wishing to specialise in victim support.
Jones, 23, and Merritt, 25, were both University of Cambridge graduates working at the Learning Together program. They lost their lives to a knife-wielding murderer who does not deserve to have his name remembered. Their 28-year-old assailant had been released from prison 12 months earlier, having served but eight years of a 16 year sentence.
In a catastrophic system-failure, his automatic release was processed without his case ever being reviewed by a parole board, despite the sentencing judge identifying him as a serious risk who should only ever be released after careful review. He had gamed the system, presenting himself as repentant and reformed.
In fact, he had never undergone a rehabilitation program in prison and only had cursory processing on his release. Systemic mistakes and the lack of resources to fund sufficient and appropriate rehabilitation programs meant he was one of many whose risk was never adequately assessed.
Conway had formerly served time at a London prison and is now working as a policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust. He witnessed the fatal attack and rushed directly towards the attacker, joining others who sought to pin him down.
Another man participating in the offender rehabilitation event was James Ford. He too saw the attack unfolding and immediately confronted the assailant.
In a deeply tragic irony, the two victims who lost their lives to a man who made a mockery of their idealism were assisted by two others who appear to have genuinely benefited from prison rehabilitation programs. But even here, the complexities and ambiguities of this sort of difficult endeavour were played out as clearly as any playwright could ever conceive of scripting.
Ford was a convicted murderer attending the Learning Together conference on day-release. He had brutally killed 21-year-old Amanda Campion, a young women who was particularly vulnerable because of her intellectual disability. In the eyes of Campion’s family, Ford is no hero.
However, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University David Wilson, who chairs the Friends of Grendon Prison program, says that Ford underwent extensive rehabilitation initiatives, including an intensive period of psychotherapy.
On this occasion, the convicted murderer did the right thing. Even though this doesn’t make him a hero, it does give some reason for hope. For Wilson, the murderous terrorist and the convicted murderer who rushed to contain him represent a tale of two prisoners:
I know through my work that people do change and they change as a consequence of innovative but challenging regimes such as the one at HMP Grendon.
In the wake of the attack, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the cases of 74 people released early after being jailed for terror offences will be reviewed. This is certainly sensible and necessary, but much more is required. Indefinite detention is not an option in the majority of cases, and the UK is dealing with hundreds of people convicted of terrorism offences either currently in prison or recently released.
The numbers in Australia are only a fraction of this but still run into the high dozens and are growing every year. For Australia’s near neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the numbers, including projected returnees from the Middle East, run into the thousands.
Professor Ian Acheson, who has advised the government on how to handle extremist prisoners, told the BBC it was not “a question of an arms race on sentencing toughness”, but about what is done when offenders are in custody.
Acheson said his panel’s recommendations had been agreed to but not implemented due to “the merry-go-round of political replacements of secretaries of state”, and the “fairly recalcitrant and unwilling bureaucracy”. He also cited “crazy failed and ideological austerity cuts” to the police, prison and probation services.
Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were not naïve idealists. They had studied the problem closely and believed rehabilitation programs could make a difference. Their tragic deaths speak to the challenges involved. To give up and do nothing is not merely cynical, but self-defeating. Without adequate resourcing and reforms the problem everywhere will only become much worse.
Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.
This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.
The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.
It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.
The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.
There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.
The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.
Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.
Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.
Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.
Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.
Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.
The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.
Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.
It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.
It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.
Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.
Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.
A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.
Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.
One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.
Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.
The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.
If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.
Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.
As families in Christchurch bury their loved ones following Friday’s terrorist attack, global attention now turns to preventing such a thing ever happening again.
In particular, the role social media played in broadcasting live footage and amplifying its reach is under the microscope. Facebook and YouTube face intense scrutiny.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reportedly been in contact with Facebook executives to press the case that the footage should not available for viewing. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for a moratorium on amateur livestreaming services.
But beyond these immediate responses, this terrible incident presents an opportunity for longer term reform. It’s time for social media platforms to be more open about how livestreaming works, how it is moderated, and what should happen if or when the rules break down.
With the alleged perpetrator apparently flying under the radar prior to this incident in Christchurch, our collective focus is now turned to the online radicalisation of young men.
As part of that, online platforms face increased scrutiny and Facebook and Youtube have drawn criticism.
After dissemination of the original livestream occurred on Facebook, YouTube became a venue for the re-upload and propagation of the recorded footage.
Both platforms have made public statements about their efforts at moderation.
YouTube noted the challenges of dealing with an “unprecedented volume” of uploads.
In the first 24 hours we removed 1.5 million videos of the attack globally, of which over 1.2 million were blocked at upload […]
Focusing chiefly on live-streaming is somewhat reductive. Although the shooter initially streamed his own footage, the greater challenge of controlling the video largely relates to two issues:
These issues illustrate the weaknesses of existing content moderation policies and practices.
Content moderation is a complex and unenviable responsibility. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube are expected to balance the virtues of free expression and newsworthiness with socio-cultural norms and personal desires, as well as the local regulatory regimes of the countries they operate in.
When platforms perform this responsibility poorly (or, utterly abdicate it) they pass on the task to others — like the New Zealand Internet Service Providers that blocked access to websites that were re-distributing the shooter’s footage.
People might reasonably expect platforms like Facebook and YouTube to have thorough controls over what is uploaded on their sites. However, the companies’ huge user bases mean they often must balance the application of automated, algorithmic systems for content moderation (like Microsoft’s PhotoDNA, and YouTube’s ContentID) with teams of human moderators.
We know from investigative reporting that the moderation teams at platforms like Facebook and YouTube are tasked with particularly challenging work. They seem to have a relatively high turnover of staff who are quickly burnt-out by severe workloads while moderating the worst content on the internet. They are supported with only meagre wages, and what could be viewed as inadequate mental healthcare.
And while some algorithmic systems can be effective at scale, they can also be subverted by competent users who understand aspects of their methodology. If you’ve ever found a video on YouTube where the colours are distorted, the audio playback is slightly out of sync, or the image is heavily zoomed and cropped, you’ve likely seen someone’s attempt to get around ContentID algorithms.
For online platforms, the response to terror attacks is further complicated by the difficult balance they must strike between their desire to protect users from gratuitous or appalling footage with their commitment to inform people seeking news through their platform.
We must also acknowledge the other ways livestreaming features in modern life. Livestreaming is a lucrative niche entertainment industry, with thousands of innocent users broadcasting hobbies with friends from board games to mukbang (social eating), to video games. Livestreaming is important for activists in authoritarian countries, allowing them to share eyewitness footage of crimes, and shift power relationships. A ban on livestreaming would prevent a lot of this activity.
Facebook and YouTube’s challenges in addressing the issue of livestreamed hate crimes tells us something important. We need a more open, transparent approach to moderation. Platforms must talk openly about how this work is done, and be prepared to incorporate feedback from our governments and society more broadly.
A good place to start is the Santa Clara principles, generated initially from a content moderation conference held in February 2018 and updated in May 2018. These offer a solid foundation for reform, stating:
A more socially responsible approach to platforms’ roles as moderators of public discourse necessitates a move away from the black-box secrecy platforms are accustomed to — and a move towards more thorough public discussions about content moderation.
In the end, greater transparency may facilitate a less reactive policy landscape, where both public policy and opinion have a greater understanding around the complexities of managing new and innovative communications technologies.
In the aftermath of the tragic loss of life in Christchurch on Friday, the focus needs to be on supporting those who have lost their loved ones and on fostering a sense of national unity in the face of an heinous act of terrorism.
At this early stage we know the perpetrator of the most devastating terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history was a white supremacist. We know he accessed and stockpiled firearms over a long period of time, and that his racist beliefs motivated his actions.
But there are other lessons and important points to make about the attack. These should shape the longer-term response by the New Zealand government.
The first is a more sustained governmental and societal focus on right-wing extremism. It may turn out that the extremist who committed this attack acted alone, but the ideology that motivated him has spread around the globe and is infecting our politics and discourse.
We know right-wing radicals have committed atrocities before. The most notable perhaps was an extremist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. But this is part of a long history of extremist violence on the right.
According to research by the Anti-Defamation League, over the last decade, 73.3% of all extremist-related fatalities in the US could be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4% were attributable to Islamist extremists. We should pay attention to these statistics in New Zealand. The fear that jihadist terrorism will occur sometime in New Zealand is real, but we haven’t adequately recognised the threat from neofascist ideology.
It is a tragic footnote to this story that globally Muslims have been by far the most victimised group by terrorism in the post-9/11 era. In a 2011 report, the US government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), said:
In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82% and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.
Clearly, we need to do more to protect Muslim communities from acts of violence and to focus more tightly on the ideology of fascism, which underpins both right-wing groups and those who commit violence in the name of Islam.
A second lesson relates to the process of radicalisation. We need to better understand why people who commit mass murder fall into a set of hateful beliefs. This is clearly a serious social problem caused by many variables, including demographic change, inequality, poverty and lack of education.
The latest research on radicalisation suggests many of those responsible for “lone wolf” acts are socially illiterate and have fallen out of the mainstream of society. They often indicate these beliefs via social media, suggesting we could do more to report these viewpoints to authorities.
Radicals also tend to share a set of psychological or cognitive traits that underpin their actions. According to recent reports by the European Institute for Peace these include grievances that are galvanised by a unifying ideology, a process of cognitive “de-pluralisation”, in which they tend to focus on a very limited set of ideas to interpret the world, and confirmation bias, where events are re-packaged into existing beliefs and assumptions.
Other research shows radicals climb a “staircase” to violent acts involving a series of incremental steps over a period of years. This suggests earlier intervention will be the key to having people back away from violence.
Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalisation.
A third lesson is that global communications technology is providing a breeding ground for extremism and hatred. In this sense “lone wolves” aren’t acting alone. They are connected to a structured and well-financed global neo-Nazi ideology that uses the internet to propagate its beliefs.
According to a recent report by the Data & Society Research Institute, far-right actors are regularly spreading white supremacist thought, Islamophobia and misogyny on the internet through sites such as 4chan and 8chan.
Right-wing groups have regularly circulated propaganda within social media channels and have sown racial and ethnically charged divisions within society through memes and disinformation. This was a tactic of the far right in the US elections in 2016, and has been used regularly since, including in the Brexit debates.
These websites aren’t easy to take down. As recent efforts by Google show, neo-Nazi sites that are blocked or banned “go dark” behind encrypted platforms that are out of reach of tech companies and security services.
Timothy Snyder, a renowned holocaust historian, notes this form of “mass manipulation” is based on appealing to emotions rather than reason. The spread of fake news and propaganda on the internet creates a perfect platform to increase fear, anger and anxiety. These are the psychological conditions from which acts of violence are committed.
The final lesson is a wider, political one for New Zealand. There has undoubtedly been a tendency in some quarters of New Zealand politics to assume we are living in a largely benign international environment. This is part of a troubling isolationist tendency in New Zealand politics that contributes to us not taking security seriously and investing in it accordingly. The Christchurch attacks have shattered these illusions.
The right-wing problem in New Zealand has historical roots. White pride marches have taken place in Christchurch on numerous occasions. A far-right candidate who was convicted of firebombing a marae (Māori meeting place) stood for mayor three times in recent years, most recently in 2013 when he received a small but significant number of votes.
On the international stage we need to stand up against the beliefs that underpin right-wing extremism. Jacinda Ardern’s call to Donald Trump to be compassionate to Muslims was a good start and reminds us racism at the top of society can create a permissive environment for extremism.
We also need to reorient our foreign and security policy towards de-radicalisation processes both domestically and internationally. The UK’s Prevent programme, which has seen a big increase in efforts to prevent right-wing extremism, may be a good model to follow.
New Zealanders now know the fear and chaos that follows terrorism. But the goal of terrorism is to use that fear to undermine our democracy and way of life. So we need to channel our response in a way that protects our values.
We must be aware of the perils of over-reacting, but nevertheless need to redouble our efforts to create multi-level, evidence-led strategies to target radicalism, recognising global and local drivers of extremism.
Two basic rules of media ethics apply to the coverage of terrorism: avoid giving unnecessary oxygen to the terrorist, and avoid unnecessarily violating standards of public decency.
The way to do this is to apply a test of necessity: what is necessary to publish to give the public a sufficiently comprehensive account of what has happened?
Significant elements in the Australian media – mainly commercial television, the online platform of News Corp and that company’s broadsheet, The Australian – failed to adhere to these basic rules in their coverage of the Christchurch massacre.
The television channels were particularly culpable.
They broadcast segments of the footage supplied by the terrorist showing him getting his gun from the back of his car and then firing as he walked towards the front door of one of the mosques. The backs of three men were visible in the doorway. Scenes from inside the mosque after the killings were also shown.
Sky News, also owned by News Corp, showed some of this footage repeatedly.
It came from a camera mounted on the terrorist’s head and was obviously designed for propaganda purposes: to glorify this act of barbarism, to inspire weak-minded people to copy it, and to sow fear in the community.
The test of necessity would have been satisfied by showing the first minute, where the terrorist is getting his gun from the car and where white supremacist slogans can be seen written on his equipment.
A voice-over drawing attention to the fact that the terrorist was using a head-mounted camera and promoting white supremacy was all that was needed to give the public a sufficient idea of this aspect of the atrocity.
It made clear the cold-blooded planning involved and it explained the motives: racial hatred and the glorification of bloodshed as a means of expressing it.
Beyond that, the use of the footage was obscenely voyeuristic and gave the terrorist the propaganda dividend he wanted.
It also grossly violated standards of public decency. It is getting on for 200 years since civilised societies treated the killing of people as a public spectacle.
Not content with exploiting the violence, some media outlets, notably The Australian, published substantial extracts from the terrorist’s manifesto. Once more, it handed the terrorist a propaganda victory.
It is enough to know that the manifesto suggests the terrorist was radicalised during his travels in Europe and seemed determined to take revenge for atrocities committed there by Islamist terrorists.
Publishing his words of hate was not necessary to an understanding of that.
An influential factor in how this story unfolded was the interaction between the professional media and social media.
The atrocities were designed for social media. The camera footage was uploaded there and so was the manifesto.
The professional media took this material from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which, as usual, had published them in full without any regard for the ethics involved.
The significance of this for the way the story unfolded was that the propaganda supplied by the perpetrator was available to the professional media, even as the story was breaking.
This naturally placed the perpetrator at the centre of the story from the start.
Only when footage of victims started to become available some time later did attention switch to them.
Comparisons have been made between the way the professional media covered the Christchurch atrocity and the massacre by Islamist terrorists at the Bataclan theatre in Paris in 2015, where 89 people were killed.
The immediate focus at Bataclan was on the victims because it was they who provided the first footage – using mobile phone cameras – and because other footage was available from security cameras in the area.
Only some time later were the terrorists identified as belonging to Islamic State.
It is obvious, then, that whoever gets footage out first will have the advantage of exposure in the early stages of media coverage. The Christchurch terrorist seems to have grasped this at some level.
So Christchurch contains a new ethical lesson for the professional media.
While a story is breaking, the media can only go with the content they have to hand. But if the first footage takes the form of terrorist propaganda, then no matter how hellish or sensational it is, there is an added ethical duty to minimise what might be called “first footage advantage”.
Whether social media have published it is immaterial. Social media are an ethics-free zone; professional media are not. The weakest ethical reason for publishing something is that someone else already has.
Moreover, once the professional media have given their authority to an occurrence, the general population is much more likely to believe it actually happened. It is no longer just another mass of unverified junk swirling around the internet.
Weeks ahead of the ANZAC commemoration at Gallipoli, serious tensions erupted between Australia and Turkey, after threatening comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the wake of the Christchurch massacre.
Scott Morrison on Wednesday called in the Turkish ambassador to give him a tongue lashing. He demanded a withdrawal of the remarks and the taking down of a nationalist video featuring footage of the Australian gunman’s live stream.
The strength of the Prime Minister’s response has an eye to the emotional place of Gallipoli in the Australian narrative. But he also has to be careful not to cause the Turkish government to respond by hampering next month’s ANZAC commemoration.
President Erdoğan, electioneering at Çanakkale, just across from the Gallipoli peninsula, referred to the massacre, saying: “They test us with the messages they give in New Zealand […] We understood that your hatred is alive […] We understood that you begrudge our lives.”
He said: “Your ancestors came. […] Later on, some of them returned back on their feet, some of them in coffins.
“If you will come here with the same intentions, we will be waiting for you. You should have no doubt that we will farewell you just like your grandfathers”.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, visiting Indonesia, on Wednesday highlighted that the gunman was “a non-New Zealander, an outsider”.
Peters also said he thought Erdoğan had not known the full facts but “since he’s been apprised, or informed of the facts, he’s made a very conciliatory statement today […] which would stand in stark contrast to what he said the other day.”
In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post Erdoğan has written “all Western leaders must learn from the courage, leadership and sincerity of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to embrace Muslims living in their respective countries”.
Peters, who is going to Turkey this week, said when there he would “set any record straight that needs to be set straight as to what went on”.
Attacking Erdoğan’s original comments, Morrison told a news conference they were “highly offensive to Australians and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment”.
Morrison said he had asked for the remarks to be clarified and withdrawn. “I’ve asked for these comments, particularly their reporting of the misrepresented position of Australia on Turkish television, the state-sponsored broadcaster, to be taken down,” he said.
He would wait for the Turkish government’s response – beyond that “all options are on the table”. Asked what these options were, the Prime Minister would not elaborate.
Morrison said he did not accept as an excuse that “things are said in an electoral context”.
The travel advisory for Turkey is under review. People planning to go to Gallipoli should exercise common sense and await further advice, Morrison said. The present advice is for people to exercise a “high degree of caution”.
Morrison said Erdoğan’s remarks were “offensive, because they insult the memory of our ANZACs and they violate the pledge that is etched in the stone at Gallipoli, of the promise of Atatürk to the mothers of our ANZACs. So I understand the deep offence Australians would be feeling about this.
“The comments completely misrepresented the Australian and New Zealand governments’ very strong response to the extremist attack, he said. All Australians had condemned it.
“We have reached out to embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters in New Zealand and in Australia, quite to the contrary of the vile assertion that has been made about our response,” Morrison said.
He said he had spoken with Turkish Australian leaders on Wednesday morning. “They have expressed to me their deep disappointment about these comments. They don’t represent the views of Turkish Australians.
“I am not going to single out the comments of one person and ascribe it to a people, whether in Turkey or across Australia. I don’t think it does reflect the views of the Turkish people, or certainly of Turkish Australians,” Morrison said.
He said Foreign Minister Marise Payne would be speaking to her Turkish counterpart.
The Australian ambassador to Turkey was due to speak with Erdoğan’s advisers.
When lives are tragically cut short, it is generally easier to explain the “how” than the “why”. This dark reality is all the more felt when tragedy comes at the hands of murderous intent. Explaining how 50 people came to be killed, and almost as many badly injured, in Christchurch’s double massacre of Muslims at prayer is heartbreaking but relatively straightforward.
As with so many mass murders in recent years, the use of an assault rifle, the ubiquitous AR15, oxymoronically referred to as “the civilian M-16”, explains how one cowardly killer could be so lethal.
It was much the same in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando three years ago, when one gunman shot dead 49 people in a crowded space and, though the motive appears very different, the same sort of military instrument of death lies behind the 58 deaths in Las Vegas a year later. An AR15 was used to shoot dead 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October and a similar weapon was used to kill six people in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017.
It is a credit to the peaceful nature of New Zealand society that, despite the open availability of weapons like the AR15, the last time there was a mass shooting was in 1997. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rightly identified reform of gun laws as one of the immediate outcomes required in response to this tragedy.
But lax gun laws are arguably the only area in which blame can be laid in New Zealand. Ardern, together with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, was also right to refer to this barbaric act of cold-blooded murder of people in prayer as right wing extremist terrorism driven by Islamophobic hatred.
State and federal police in Australia have long warned that, next to the immediate threat posed by Salafi jihadi terrorism, they are most concerned about the steady rise of right-wing extremism. There has been some comfort in the recognition that the most active right wing extremist groups, and there are many, are disorganised, poorly led, and attract but small crowds.
On the face of it, then, right wing extremism in Australia is nowhere near as serious as the neo-Nazi movements of Europe or the various permutations of white supremacy and toxic nationalism that bedevil American politics. In America, it is conservatively estimated that there were 50 deaths due to terrorist attacks in 2018, almost all linked to right-wing extremism.
In 2017, it is calculated that there were 950 attacks on Muslims and mosques in Germany alone. Many of last year’s attacks in America involved a common right wing extremist hatred of Islam, and a targeting of Muslims, joining a long-standing enmity towards Jews.
Almost all recent terrorist attacks have been lone-actor attacks. They are notoriously difficult to predict. Whether inspired by Salafi jihadi Islamist extremism or right wing extremism, lone-actor attacks commonly feature individuals fixated on the deluded dream of going from “zero to hero”.
One of the main reasons authorities struggle with identifying right wing extremist “nobodies” who post online, before they turn to violence, is that it’s difficult to pick up a clear signal in the noise of a national discourse increasingly dominated by exactly the same narrative elements of mistrust, anxiety, and a blaming of the other.
In Australia, as in Europe and America, mainstream politicians and mainstream media commentators have increasingly toyed with extremist ideas in the pursuit of popularity. Many have openly brandished outrageous ideas that in previous years would have been unsayable in mainstream political discourse or commentary.
Donald Trump can be deservedly singled out for making the unspeakable the new normal in mainstream right wing politics, but he is hardly alone in this. And sadly, for all of the relative civility and stability of Australian politics, we too have now come to normalise the toxic politics of fear.
No-one put it better than The Project host Waleed Aly in saying that Friday’s terrorist attacks, although profoundly disturbing, did not come as a shocking surprise. Anyone who has been paying attention and who really cares about the well-being and security of Australian society has observed the steady growth of right wing extremist and right supremacist ideas in general, and Islamophobia particular.
They have seen the numerous attacks on Muslims and Jews at prayer and worried about the day when the murderous violence that has plagued the northern hemisphere will visit the southern hemisphere. But more than that, they have worried about the singling-out of migrants, and in particular asylum seekers, African youth and Muslims as pawns to be played with in the cynical politics of fear.
Scott Morrison is right to say these problems have been with us for many years. But he would do better to point out that our downward trajectory sharply accelerated after John Howard’s “dark victory” of 2001. The unwinnable election was won on the back of the arrival of asylum seekers on the MV Tampa in August followed by the September 11 attacks, and at the price of John Howard and the Liberal party embracing the white supremacist extremist politics of Pauline Hanson.
Both major parties, it must be said, succumbed to the lure of giving focus groups and pollsters the tough language and inhumane policies the public appeared to demand and reward. We are now beginning to see the true price that we have paid with the demonising of those arriving by boat seeking asylum, or looking too dark-skinned, or appearing too religious.
The result has been such a cacophony of hateful rhetoric that it has been hard for those tasked with spotting the emergence of violent extremism to separate it from all the background noise of extremism.
There are, of course lessons to be learned. Authorities need to do better. We can begin with a national database of hate crimes, with standard definitions and robust data collection. Clearly, we need to pay attention to hateful extremism if we are to prevent violent extremism.
But ultimately, we need to address the permissive political environment that allows such hateful extremism to be promulgated so openly. The onus is on commentators and political leaders alike. They cannot change the past, but they will determine the future.
As an immigrant to New Zealand, I am saddened and outraged by the events in Christchurch. The apparent innocence of New Zealand has been stripped away by acts of cowardice and evil.
Police remain on high alert and authorities are still responding to events following the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch that took the lives of 50 people and seriously injured many more. Three people have been arrested, and one, an Australian living in New Zealand sporadically, has appeared in court on murder charges.
My research focuses on how members of a majority perceive a growing immigrant population, and what we can all do to keep fear and hatred in check.
The alleged gunman (whom the Conversation has chosen not to name) is a self-identified white supremacist. Before the attacks he posted an 87-page manifesto online. In his manifesto and social media accounts, he refers to the rise of Islam, and to towns and cities being shamed and ruined by migrants.
He posts photos of ammunition, retweets alt-right references and praises other white supremacists. The manifesto includes references to “white genocide,” which is likely a reference to a conspiracy theory embraced by the alt-right and white supremacists that “non-white” migration dilutes white nations.
The gunman’s motivations seem to echo those of other white supremacists who have committed similar atrocities: the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, the Charlottesville attacker, the Charleston church shooter, and attackers in Sweden, Quebec and Norway.
In each of these cases, the attackers voiced hatred toward minorities or immigrants and expressed a belief that their way of life, the “white” way, was being destroyed by these groups who were infiltrating their societies.
Over the past decade, my team has conducted research in India, France, Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, analysing how members of the dominant group perceive minorities and immigrant groups. The research has shown that many dominant group members, often white Christians in the countries studied, express fear of immigrants in their nations. In particular, respondents have voiced fear of immigrants changing their cultural, political, and economic way of life.
Normally such fears are benign and lead only to misunderstanding or lack of interaction. But as we have seen too often, they can lead to prejudice, hatred and much worse.
Recently, such fears have become more visceral with the proliferation of social media platforms. With the use of social media, individuals can easily find others who share their feelings, and therefore not feel alone. The ability to find a community that shares one’s feelings provides a sense of security and validates ones fears and feelings of hate.
In our increasingly connected world, it’s essential we take steps to combat these fears to reduce the chances of such atrocities happening in the future. First, how families talk about minorities and immigrants is critical. In work that we conducted in Finland, we found prejudicial opinions of Finns toward Russian immigrants are largely shaped during adolescence. It’s incumbent upon parents to be role models for their children and adolescents and to promote tolerance and mutual respect early.
Second, in an increasingly computer-mediated world, it is our shared responsibility to challenge racist and hateful cyber messages. If you see a YouTube clip that you deem abusive or offensive, report it.
Third, the more contact we have with each other and learn about one another, the less likely we are to fear one another. This may sound trite, but the more we know about other groups, the more likely we are to pass that information onto one another and improve overall social cohesion. In turn, we are better able to identify and challenge those bent on dividing society. It is our collective responsibility as diverse societies to recognise our diversity and to face the psychology of hate that would attack our home and us.
In the wake of comments about the Christchurch massacre, members of the public have raised the question of whether a senator can be expelled from the Senate for making offensive statements.
It is now well known that members of parliament can have their seat vacated in the parliament due to their disqualification under section 44 of the Constitution for reasons including dual citizenship, bankruptcy, holding certain government offices or being convicted of offences punishable by imprisonment for one year or longer.
But there is no ground of disqualification for behaviour that brings a House of Parliament into disrepute. This was something left to the house to deal with by way of expulsion.
Section 49 of the Commonwealth Constitution provides that until the Commonwealth parliament declares the powers, privileges and immunities of its houses, they shall be those the British House of Commons had at the time of federation (1901).
The House of Commons then had, and continues to have, the power to expel its members. The power was rarely exercised, but was most commonly used when a member was found to have committed a criminal offence or contempt of parliament. Because of the application of section 49 of the Constitution, such a power was also initially conferred upon both houses of the Australian parliament.
The House of Representatives exercised that power in 1920 when it expelled a member of the Labor opposition, Hugh Mahon. He had given a speech at a public meeting that criticised the actions of the British in Ireland and expressed support for an Australian republic.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes (whom Mahon had previously voted to expel from the Labor Party over conscription in 1916), moved to expel Mahon from the House of Representatives on November 11 – a dangerous date for dismissals. He accused Mahon of having made “seditious and disloyal utterances” that were “inconsistent with his oath of allegiance”. The opposition objected, arguing that no action should be taken unless Mahon was tried and convicted by the courts. Mahon was expelled by a vote taken on party lines.
In 2016, a private member’s motion was moved to recognise that his expulsion was unjust and a misuse of the power then invested in the house.
The power of the houses to expel members, as granted by section 49, was subject to the Commonwealth parliament declaring what the powers, privileges and immunities of the houses shall be. This occurred with the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.
It was enacted as a result of an inquiry by a parliamentary committee, which pointed out the potential for this power to be abused and that as a matter of democratic principle, it was up to voters to decide the composition of the parliament. This is reinforced by sections seven and 24 of the Constitution, which say that the houses of parliament are to be “directly chosen by the people”.
As a consequence, the power to expel was removed from the houses. Section 8 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 says:
A House does not have power to expel a member from membership of a House.
This means that currently neither house of the Commonwealth parliament has the power to expel one of its members.
Just as the parliament had the legislative power to limit the powers and privileges of its houses, it could legislate to amend or repeal section eight so that a house could, in future, expel one of its members, either on any ground or for limited reasons.
Whether or not this is wise remains doubtful. The reasons given by the parliamentary committee for the removal of this power remain strong. The power to expel is vulnerable to misuse when one political party holds a majority in the house. Equally, there is a good democratic argument that such matters should be left to the voters at election time.
However, expulsion is still an option in other Australian parliaments, such as the NSW parliament. It’s used in circumstances where the member is judged guilty of conduct unworthy of a member of parliament and where the continuing service of the member is likely to bring the house into disrepute.
It is commonly the case, though, that a finding of illegality, dishonesty or corruption is first made by a court, a royal commission or the Independent Commission Against Corruption before action to expel is taken. The prospect of expulsion is almost always enough to cause the member to resign without expulsion formally occurring. So, actual cases of expulsion remain extremely rare.
The houses retain powers to suspend members for offences against the house, such as disorderly conduct. But it is doubtful that a house retains powers of suspension in relation to conduct that does not amount to a breach of standing orders or an “offence against the house”. Suspension may therefore not be available in relation to statements made outside the house that do not affect its proceedings.
Instead, the house may choose to censure such comments by way of a formal motion. Such motions are more commonly moved against ministers in relation to government failings. A censure motion is regarded as a serious form of rebuke, but it does not give rise to any further kind of punishment such as a fine or suspension.
The primary remedy for dealing with unacceptable behaviour remains at the ballot box. This is a pertinent reminder to all voters of the importance of being vigilant in the casting of their vote to ensure the people they elect to high office are worthy of fulfilling it.