When the terrorist is “one of us”
Millions of words have already been written or spoken about the horrific terror attack that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March 2019. The media and now the courts have poured over every details of the terrorist’s upbringing, his manifesto, his use of social media, and the indelible pain and loss his actions have inflicted on his victims and their families.
Over the past eighteen months, Australians have had to confront the uncomfortable fact that this man, this terrorist, is one of us — if by “us” we mean the white Australian majority.
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Brenton Harrison Tarrant was born 29 years ago and raised in Grafton, New South Wales — a regional town that has produced many brilliant scholars, musicians, activists, sports stars, and even a short-lived Prime Minister. He played rugby league (albeit, apparently, not successfully), overcame weight issues (over which he was apparently bullied) and the loss of his father by suicide. Some locals and family members recall that Tarrant played violent video games and had trouble with women — though, again, such descriptions could apply a large percentage of Australian men. He became a successful personal trainer, earning respect from his clients. He was, by some accounts, an avid consumer of heavy metal music.
Many young Australian men in Tarrant’s position might have chosen to settle into married life locally or maybe move to the city for tertiary education and to pursue a career. Tarrant used funds left to him from his father’s estate to invest and to travel — again, common pursuits for many young Australians.
We do not yet know at what point this young man started to engage with the dark world of far-right extremist narratives and why these narratives resonated with him so deeply. We do know that these narratives claim that we are in the midst of a “white genocide” and that white people are simultaneously being bred out of existence and are complicit in their own destruction through the adoption of multiculturalism.
Whether Tarrant first became radicalised in France, after seeing high levels of immigration and living in the same region when jihadist terror attacks occurred, as he claims, or whether it was at home, prior to going overseas, we do not know. Indeed, a number of commentators have argued that any attempt to understand Tarrant’s origins and the potential impact of bullying serves only to pathologise him, rendering him psychologically “abnormal” — as not one of “us” — thereby excusing a wider culture of endemic racism, hostility, and hatred directed toward Australian Muslims for two decades.
While I believe it is important to understand the individual, these commentators, many of whom come from Muslim communities, have a compelling point. This individual was not raised in a bubble, and he was exposed throughout his teenage years to a high level of vitriolic political sentiment directed against Australian Muslims. Yet, as we so often note in relation to Muslim communities, the vast majority of white Australians do not become terrorists or join far-right extremist groups. Perhaps, given the normalisation of anti-Muslim sentiment, those who might be sympathetic to such sentiment don’t feel the need to do so.
This individual is clearly, unequivocally, a white nationalist terrorist, born and raised on our shores; and we have a profound collective obligation to reflect on how our society produced such an individual. An egg to the head of an incendiary far-right politician or the act of voting out that same politician months later might be cheered on by many, but it does not act to absolve wider society ― “us” ― of our collective responsibilities. These acts are no substitute for deep reflection on the depth of hatred and distrust of Muslims that continues to exist in our society. To provoke the kind of reflection we need to engage in after the Christchurch terror attack, it is instructive to consider our response to another Australian terrorist.
Two sides of the same coin?
Neil Prakash, unlike Brenton Tarrant, has never really been seen as one of “us.” Born in Melbourne to a Fijian-Indian father with whom he did not associate, and a Cambodian mother, and raised in Springvale South, a highly multicultural suburb in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs, Prakash was bullied at school before dropping out and becoming an apprentice mechanic. He was an amateur rapper, used illicit drugs, and was involved with a local gang. Prakash then converted to Islam, and was associated with a local radical bookshop; after just six months, in 2013, he travelled to Syria.
On Friday, 15 March 2019, the same day as the Christchurch terror attack, Prakash was convicted in Turkey of belonging to the Islamic State. The previous year, Prakash was stripped of his Australian citizenship. Prakash had gained notoriety as a prolific recruiter: Australians were known not only to be among the best represented (per capita) of any Western nation in the Islamic State movement, but to be involved in many atrocities — including the sexual enslavement and genocide of the Yazidi people, public executions, and torture.
Prakash incited acts of terror across the West from New York, where he was linked to a failed Statue of Liberty terror plot, to Melbourne, where he is linked to Numan Haider, who attacked two police officers in Melbourne’s South Eastern suburbs, and the failed Anzac Day terror plot. Asked about Prakash in late 2016, then Attorney General George Brandis stated, “if you wanted to describe him, as Australia’s number one terrorist you wouldn’t be far off the mark.”
One would think that Brenton Tarrant and Neil Prakash, both aged 29, represent opposite ends of the spectrum of experience for young Australian men: one from the heartland of river country in the northern New South Wales town of Grafton where 87 per cent of the population were born in Australia; the other from multicultural, suburban Springvale South where just 37 per cent of the population were born in Australia. Yet both were socially marginalised with complex family issues. Both shared a deep-seated anger and hatred, and found meaning by positioning themselves as warriors, as defenders of women and children, and as protectors of their faith against an aggressive enemy “other.”
For example, in an Islamic State propaganda film shot in 2015, Prakash stated:
You must start attacking before they attack you. Look how much of your sisters have been violated. All I hear on the news in Australia is that this sister was hurt. This sister was hurt, hijab was ripped off. But no, you see the brothers sitting. And I ask you brothers. When is the time you are going to rise up and attack them for them attacking you … So kill this disbeliever, this one that denies Allah, this one that makes shirk [practice of idolatry], bid’ah [innovation], the one that associates idols with Allah. You kill him.
In a remarkably similar frame, Tarrant, referencing attacks on European women by Muslim men, would state in his so-called “manifesto”:
Finally I would like to send a message to the perpetrators of these attacks, and their families. You will hang. If you are released we will find you and kill you, if you are in prison we will reach you there, if you try to hide these rapist scum we will kill you as well. For the disgrace you have heaped upon the European people and the distress you have caused to European women, you will die.
KILL THE RAPISTS, HANG THEIR FAMILIES.
There are many more similarities between the two men in the way they frame their perceived “battles”; these similarities will continue to emerge through ongoing peer-reviewed research. For now, the salient point that should give us pause is this: how was it that two young men seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum of Australian life could have arrived at such similar convictions and go on to commit acts of terrorism that shocked the world — and whose histories of violence came to a head on the same day, 15 March 2019, a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer?
The demands of justice
The national outpouring of grief and empathy for Muslim communities in New Zealand in the aftermath of the terror attack was unprecedented. From Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to wear a hijab as she met, and mourned, with victims; to the hijab-wearing police women who stood guard at the funerals of victims; to performances of the haka throughout New Zealand as a display of solidary with the victims; to offers from the Mongrel Mob to stand guard at mosques during Friday prayers by the Mongrel Mob — it was clear that New Zealand was standing behind its Muslim communities in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
It did not take long, however, for critics to argue that the national response to the attack was somehow going too far. Jacinda Ardern’s pledge to ban semi-automatic weapons was supported in the New Zealand parliament by a vote of 119 to 1, and yet the move angered many gun advocates, some of whom pledged to keep their weapons. Attempts to change the name of the Christchurch’s “Canterbury Crusaders” (the most successful provincial rugby club in the world) were met with hostility by many in the wider public; as a result, the club settled for changing the logo from a knight wielding a sword (presumably, to slay a Muslim during a medieval crusade) to a Māori Tohu, emphasising the natural landscape of the region.
In August 2019, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques was urged by the New Zealand Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt to improve inclusion from the Muslim community, not least because several early hearings of the inquiry were scheduled for Fridays. Furthermore, Tarrant’s trial was originally scheduled for May 2020, coinciding with Ramadan, which indicated a profound lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity in key institutions, including the justice system. It soon became clear that, despite the initial outpouring of grief and the empathetic national response, significant social divisions were emerging in the aftermath of the terror attack — and hence that there was an urgent need finally to bring Brenton Tarrant to justice for his crimes.
This brings us to the court appearances of Tarrant, beginning with his initial conduct. Shortly after his arrest, Tarrant expressed regret that he had not killed more victims. He made an alt-right “OK” symbol, commonly associated with white supremacism, while standing in the dock in his first court appearance. Follow up investigations by the media revealed that Tarrant had donated to the United Patriots Front, a now defunct far-right group based out of Melbourne, that he had exchanged correspondence with far-right extremists in Australia, and that he had praised a number of far-right figures including Blair Cottrell. Tarrant stated that he planned to plead “not guilty” in order to use his trial as a platform to air his views.
In August 2019 it was revealed that Tarrant had sent a handwritten letter to a supporter in Russia likening his political views to those of British fascist Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), stating his belief in a near “great conflict” and urging the reader “do not forget about your duty to your people.”
In March 2020, however, he changed his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty.” As the sentencing judgement makes clear, after having sacked his lawyers in July, Tarrant claims to have renounced his beliefs. He says that he was in a “poisoned emotional state,” that he was “terribly unhappy” and acted on “delusional beliefs.” He acknowledged that “nothing good” came from his crimes, and stated that they were “abhorrent” and “irrational.” Tellingly, it was submitted by Tarrant that the change of plea and his claim to have renounced his violent ideology raised prospects of rehabilitation. This was a proposition that was immediately crushed by Justice Cameron Mander, who labelled Tarrant “a highly dangerous criminal who demonstrably has no regard for human life and who represents a very high risk of harm to others.” Justice Mander sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole:
Your crimes … are so wicked that even if you are detained until you die, it will not exhaust the requirements of punishment and denunciation …
As significant as the life-sentence given to Tarrant is, it was the summary outline of victim impact statements prepared by Justice Mander and the subsequent personal reading of victim impact statements at the sentencing hearings that proved most compelling, and cathartic. These statements presented an opportunity for the Muslim victims of Tarrant’s terror, and their families, to bear witness to their loss and grief before the terrorist. They expressed, with courage, dignity, and a moral authority born of unfathomable pain, the magnitude of the damage done to their lives, and to their community, by this young Australian man.
The media’s reporting of the sentencing hearings, and of the sentencing of Tarrant himself, was muted, bordering on feeble. No longer deemed to warrant “front page” news, it was largely relegated to a secondary story in the Australian and, more broadly, Western media. Despite being convicted of an act of terrorism — an outcome that demands the satisfaction of elements outlined in New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 — there was a notable failure on the part of the media to refer to Tarrant as a “terrorist.” He was instead framed variously as a “mosque gunman,” a “mosque shooter,” a “mosque attacker,” the “Christchurch gunman,” and a “killer.” Similarly, the act was described as the “mosque shooting,” “mosque attacks,” and as a “massacre.”
Words matter and, in this case, they enable the Australian community to distance themselves and the pervasive ideological currents in mainstream political discourse — including anti-Muslim racism, xenophobia, and the acceptability of violent language — from what is plainly an act of terrorism.
Questions that remain
It is an uncomfortable reality that Brenton Tarrant comes from the majority white culture which predominates in Australia (though this is hardly surprising news to Indigenous, Muslim, and other communities who are affected by racist rhetoric and violence on a daily basis). As numerous studies have shown, Tarrant had, by virtue of his race, a range of peculiar opportunities and benefits afforded to him ― including improved access to education, employment opportunities, and, it seems, the ability to evade the kind of blanket surveillance that has been focussed on Muslim communities in Australia and New Zealand over the past two decades. And yet he chose to act with extreme violence against innocent worshippers and to inflict terror on Muslims more generally.
If Neil Prakash, now imprisoned, can be described as “Australia’s number one terrorist” and have his citizenship revoked, then what avenue can the Australian federal government take in relation to Tarrant — a foreign fighter in a self-proclaimed war against Muslims? Is he now Australia’s “number one terrorist”? Can his citizenship to be revoked? Should Australia seek to extradite him to somewhere in Europe? Most recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has expressed his openness to transferring Tarrant to an Australian prison. Should this be extended to all terrorists — including Prakash?
Furthermore, if Australian Muslims are expected to distance themselves from terrorism and to renounce extremist political sentiment as part of the compact of social cohesion, then should Australian society as a whole be expected to renounce extremist political discourse and behaviour? Doing so would require a paradigm shift in the way we understand terrorism — in this case, that it has come from the majority culture, and the majority culture has to dig it out by the roots. Do “we” take responsibility for Tarrant’s act of terrorism in the way that we ask Muslim communities to do? If we fail to do so, do “we,” as Scott Stephens has suggested, become complicit in evil?
These are all questions that the United States, which is experiencing a rapid increase of far-right extremist terrorism, has failed to ask, much less answer, and we can see the result there in the form of increased momentum far-right extremism has gained.
Amid the tsunami of information to which we are all exposed, it is easy to get lost in detail and for the broader issues to be missed — or, worse, dismissed. In the aftermath of the sentencing of Brenton Tarrant, Australia has a responsibility to ask the difficult questions: not only about how we have managed to produce a cohort of angry young men capable of such violence that we invite the world’s attention; but also about what we, as a society, stand for when the terrorists look, sound, and speak like “us,” the cultural and racial majority.
Joshua M. Roose is a Senior Research Fellow in Politics and Religion at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University.