The far-right is responsible for a huge proportion of extremist killings in the West. Yet these acts are rarely described as what they are. This must stop now
Within hours of the Christchurch massacre, a question was posed on Twitter: “What term should be used for white male terrorism?”
It sounded like an innocent enough query, a genuine attempt to name and thereby understand what had just occurred in a peaceful land previously known for its indigenous Maori culture, world-class rugby and spectacular, emerald green film locations. But the question revealed a deep and troubling bias. It suggested that violence by white men is somehow different from that perpetrated by anyone else, and that white male terrorism needs a bespoke label, a different one to that customarily used for any other hate-fuelled atrocity.
Why? The violence in Christchurch was, like any terrorist attack, barbarous, bloody, indefensible. It was meant to terrorise — both non-white Muslim migrants to a predominantly white country, as well as those who accept such migration.
A terrorist attack, whatever the ethnicity of the perpetrator, must be called by its proper name. In a speech made after the shootings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unequivocally stated: “It is clear that this can only be described as a terrorist attack.” However, such straight talking is rare.
The attack on two New Zealand mosques was terrorism just as much as that on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013; on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015; on western tourists on a Tunisian beach later that same year, or on concertgoers at the Manchester Arena in Britain in 2017.
The extremist group Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for Westgate; the gunmen in Paris said they belonged to Al Qaeda in Yemen; ISIS said it was behind the Tunisian beach assault, and the Manchester suicide bomber may have been radicalised in Libya.
No one has ever expressed doubt that the incidents listed above — and the many others before and since — were acts of pure, plain and simple terrorism. Politicians and police forces have had no problem describing them as such.
The media has written reams about those who cause bloodshed because they were inspired by radical and violent ideology. But listen carefully and note how the meaning of “terrorism” has changed over the years. After 9/11, but more particularly since the rise of ISIS, the word has become almost a euphemism, shorthand to suggest the involvement of violent Islamic fundamentalism.
Listen carefully and note how the meaning of the word ‘terrorism’ has changed over the years
Think of how we respond to news of an attack anywhere in the world now. We wait to hear if it is a “terrorist” strike, which generally signals that the perpetrator is not white and is probably linked in some perverted way to the Muslim faith. Monday’s attack in Utrecht in the Netherlands — by a Turkish-born suspect — was, for instance, quickly described as a possible “terrorist” attack.
Other ideologically inspired crimes — often against non-white people — are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, not described as terrorist acts, just a manifestation of mental illness, of temporary insanity, a crime committed in a momentary lapse.
Will Christchurch end the use of “terrorism” as a code word for acts by people who claim to speak for Muslims? Will it restore the true, broader meaning of the word, which is to say the use of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community into acceding to specific political demands?
That should be the response from the top down — by leaders around the world, starting with the president of the United States.
Donald Trump should categorically condemn the New Zealand massacre as a terrorist act. The uncomfortable reality is that the main suspect used nativist rhetoric, which overlaps with that of Mr Trump. The suspect called immigrants “invaders” and wrote that he hoped to “directly reduce immigration rates”. On Friday, Mr Trump cited an “invasion” of immigrants to justify his national emergency declaration to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Unfortunately, Mr Trump’s refusal to see white-supremacist violence as terrorism is just as inflammatory as a parallel attempt by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to use the New Zealand atrocity for political ends.
As he campaigns for the March 31 local elections, Mr Erdogan has been employing footage of the Christchurch carnage to galvanise support and castigate double standards in categorising terrorism.
There has been widespread criticism of the Turkish president’s judgement in using video that social media companies have been working overtime to remove. Indeed, it can do little more than sow communal discord and it is of a piece with Mr Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that ethno-nationalism is a terrorist problem for much of the world, including the United States.
In fact, no category of terrorist is more dangerous to America right now than its own, home-grown far right wing.
Last month, a US Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist was arrested in Maryland for plotting to kill prominent journalists and Democratic politicians as well as “leftists in general”. He had amassed a huge arms cache and like the New Zealand shooter, had detailed knowledge of the manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right Norwegian who killed 77 people in 2011.
If this were not alarming enough there is the Washington Post’s analysis of data on global terrorism. In November, it found that of 263 incidences of US domestic terrorism between 2010 and the end of 2017, the right wing was responsible for 92 — nearly three times as the 38 committed by those who subscribed to an ideology of militant Islam.
Mr Erdogan is right to have told his election rally “terrorism has no religion”. But both he and Mr Trump are wrong and dangerous in their attempts to use the perception of such acts as a political weapon.