On 15 March 2019, beginning at 1.40pm, New Zealand experienced a large-scale domestic terrorism attack. A far-right activist shot 42 worshippers dead at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch before driving to the Linwood Islamic Centre and killing another nine people.
The overwhelming reaction, from the prime minister down, was one of shock that mass murder of this sort had occurred. New Zealand is not without its own expressions and acts of racism but this was of a magnitude that was unheralded in modern New Zealand.
The attack was completely unanticipated, from the authorities as much as the general public. While there has long been an extreme right which has sought to convince others of the need to oppose diversity recognition – and to act in the interests of white (Pākehā) New Zealanders – their membership is small and their influence minor.
The Christchurch mosque attack unsettled New Zealanders. How could someone hate to such a degree that they would kill? Why didn’t the authorities monitor these sorts of politics more closely? Could we have done anything to stop this attack?
The shooter, a 29-year-old Australian, was arrested and charged. He first appeared before a judge in March 2019, and promptly confirmed his white power beliefs with a hand signal as he entered the dock. In June 2019, he denied the 51 accounts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one charge under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, but changed this plea to guilty in March 2020.
The last stage of the judicial process began on Monday. The court hearing is set down for four days, with a summary of the facts, 66 victim impact statements and sentencing.
New Zealand has avoided a long, drawn-out hearing of the sort that occurred in Norway when the Christchurch shooter’s inspiration, Anders Breivik, was charged. But there is still some nervousness concerning the trial.
Will the accused use the courtroom to voice his white supremacist views – and what will the judge do if he tries? Will the process of allowing the Muslim community voice in the court re-traumatise or heal? Will the local and international media who have been accredited to the trial abide by the protocols that have been agreed to?
One particular challenge is that we still know very little about what motivated the shooter to act in the way that he did and why he chose Christchurch to carry out the killings. With the guilty pleas, the very strong security surrounding the killer and the possibility that the court might not allow him to speak, we might never know.
There has been a significant investment, both immediately after the event and over the longer term to try and rebuild public trust and goodwill. The Muslim leadership in New Zealand has played a very impressive role in this. Farid Ahmed lost his wife in the shooting but has been the voice of forgiveness towards the shooter.
New Zealand’s far right has been subdued since the shooting, in part because they have come under much greater scrutiny from the police, and partly because they have realised that there is considerable public antagonism towards the shooter.
That has not stopped the shooter being venerated globally in the dark corners of the web. He influenced others such as the Walmart shooter in El Paso in August 2019.
The Labour-led government moved quickly to pass legislation supporting a ban on automatic guns, with the support of 119 members of parliament (out of 120), and to resource agencies in monitoring the extreme right. But legislation concerning hate speech has been delayed to the frustration of those targeted.
More broadly, there is now a much greater awareness – and sadness – that New Zealand is not exempt from such extreme politics and terrorism. Unfortunately, this awareness and concern is compromised by developments of the last few months.
It is election year in New Zealand and some of the responses prompted by the Christchurch shootings have become politicised, especially by fringe conservative political parties. The New Conservatives, the New Zealand Public party, Vision New Zealand party and the New Zealand Outdoors party variously oppose gun control, see evidence of the deep state in the current government (conspiratorial views of Chinese communist influence), are free speech fundamentalists and express concern about Muslims and Islam. QAnon beliefs about conspiracies buoyed by the anxieties prompted by a pandemic have taken root.
New Zealanders are still trying to come to terms with this country as an unwilling participant in the politics of a contemporary far-right terrorism. There remains sympathy for the Muslim community (“you are one of us” as Jacinda Ardern said soon after the shooting) but time and a political election have frayed the edges of this sympathy.
The question now is whether the sentencing trial reminds New Zealanders of the need to confront racism and extremism – or whether the QAnon conspiracy theorists will see a very different agenda in play and convince other New Zealanders. The results of the election will help answer this question.
Professor Paul Spoonley, Massey University, has been researching the far right in New Zealand since the 1980s. He is currently updating an earlier book on these politics.
Originally published: 2020-08-24 00:35:46