Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the twenty-eight-year-old Australian who allegedly carried out a racially motivated gun massacre, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, appeared in court on Saturday morning and was charged with one count of murder. According to a report from the New Zealand Herald, Tarrant “appeared in white prison clothing, with manacled hands, and barefoot. He smirked when media photographed him in the dock, flanked by two police officers.” He didn’t enter a plea and was remanded in custody. The court hearing, at the Christchurch district court, was closed to the public, but the judge allowed some members of the media to report on the proceedings.
As they were taking place, surgeons were still operating on some of the victims of the shootings, which occurred at two mosques, and the confirmed death toll rose to forty-nine. More horrifying eyewitness accounts emerged, and the whole of New Zealand, a remote island nation of about 4.9 million people that had only thirty-five murders in all of 2017, was in a state of deep shock. “I honestly thought somebody was carrying a water pistol—this is New Zealand, you know—or a showing of a pellet gun or something,” Omar Nabi, a Christchurch man whose father was shot dead at one of the two mosques that were attacked, told reporters. “We feel safe here because it’s multicultural. We’re accepted no matter who we are.” Tragically, it took just one heavily armed fanatic to upset this equilibrium.
Tarrant grew up more than fourteen hundred miles away from Christchurch, in Grafton, New South Wales, a small city located about three hundred and eighty miles north of Sydney. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, when Tarrant lived in Grafton, he was known “as someone who was dedicated to fitness and ran free athletic programs for children.” He lived in a modest home, and, after leaving high school, in 2009, he got a job at a local gym. “He never showed any extremist tendencies in conversations I had with him,” Tracey Gray, the owner of the gym, told the Herald. In social-media posts, Tarrant said that he quit his job in 2011 and set off to travel the world.
It’s not known yet when he settled in New Zealand, but recently he had been living in Dunedin, a coastal city about two hundred and twenty miles south of Christchurch. “This individual has travelled the world with sporadic periods of time spent in New Zealand,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, on Saturday. “This individual was not on the radar of either the New Zealand intelligence agencies or the Australian agencies.”
Somewhere along the line, Tarrant got radicalized and became a hateful racist who was consumed by alt-right conspiracy theories and historical nonsense. The manifesto he posted online showed that he was consumed with Australia’s European heritage, and it made reference to incidents that European white nationalists cite to vilify Islam and Muslims, including the long-running child-sexual-abuse scandal in Rotherham, England, and the sexual assaults in Germany, in 2015 and 2016. “It was not immediately clear whether Tarrant was involved in far-right neo-Nazi groups in Australia,” the Herald’s Michael Koziol wrote. “However, imagery from Tarrant’s now-removed Twitter profile bears striking similarity to those used by an extreme-right, anti-immigration group called The Dingoes. In his writing, Tarrant echoed views expressed by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people with a van bomb and gun massacre in Norway in 2011. He specifically mentioned Breivik by name, claiming he had ‘brief contact’ with the mass murderer and had received a ‘blessing’ for his actions from Breivik’s associates.”
So much for Donald Trump’s absurd response, on Friday, when he was asked whether he thought that white nationalism was a rising threat around the world. “I don’t really,” Trump said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.” Of course, Trump had good reason to try to minimize the threat from the extreme right. In his manifesto, Tarrant praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” while also criticizing his leadership skills. “As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no,” Tarrant wrote.
Of course, right-wing terrorism is now a very real and deadly threat in many Western countries, the United States included. Last October, Robert Bowers, a forty-six-year-old Pittsburgh man who ranted online about the threats presented by “illegals” and “the overwhelming Jew problem,” allegedly gunned down and killed eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. Just last month, federal agents arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard who had called for “focussed violence” to “establish a white homeland.” Like Tarrant, Hasson had been inspired by the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, and, according to the prosecutors, he was intending “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”
These are just the most visible recent examples of the ongoing violence perpetrated by white supremacists and other right-wing nuts. “Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018, making them responsible for more deaths than in any year since 1995,” the Anti-Defamation League noted in January. Even the Trump Administration’s own report, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” which was published last year, acknowledged that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise,” and it cited “racially motivated extremism” as one of the causes.
Another factor, undoubtedly, is the role that social media plays in cultivating the growth and amplifying the impact of extremist groups. In this case, Tarrant not only inhaled hatred and bigotry from the online world: he also live-streamed his murderous attack on Facebook, and the giant social network didn’t even know about it until they were informed by the police in New Zealand. By that stage, the gruesome video had gone viral. “The attack was teased on Twitter, announced on the online message board 8chan and broadcast live on Facebook,” Kevin Roose, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote. “The footage was then replayed endlessly on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, as the platforms scrambled to take down the clips nearly as fast as new copies popped up to replace them.”
What can we do about all this? In the face of all the hatred, the violence, and the enabling digital technology, it is easy to feel helpless. But some things can be done. To begin with, as Simon Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argued in a recent analysis, politicians from all parties, the President included, need to openly acknowledge the scale of the threat represented by right-wing terrorism, and to commit to tackling it in a number of different ways. One obvious step is to beef up the law-enforcement resources devoted to tracking right-wing extremism and investigating possible plots to carry out threats. In addition, the Trump Administration “needs to understand how overheated rhetoric—including the president’s own words—can lead to violence,” Clark wrote.
In addition, the Republican Party must face up to the responsibility it bears for refusing to accept that lax gun laws are another enabling factor for domestic terrorists of all ideological stripes. When Australia tightened its gun laws some years ago, following a gun massacre, New Zealand chose not to follow suit. That was a terrible error. On Saturday, New Zealand’s Attorney General, David Parker, said that the government would now ban semi-automatic weapons of the type that were used in Friday’s attack.
Parker also pointed a finger at the U.S. technology giants, saying, “How can it be right for this atrocity to be filmed by the murderer using a go-pro and live-streamed across the world by social media companies? How can that be right? Who should be held accountable for that?” At the very least, the big tech enterprises—such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter—must redouble their efforts to monitor hate speech on their platforms, take it down rapidly, and ban the people and groups who are spreading it. But, at this stage, it is too dangerous to leave this task to the companies, which, ultimately, are motivated by the desire to maximize traffic on their platforms. It is time for some collective action, also.
Perhaps, as my colleague Evan Osnos suggests, part of this could be a collective decision on the part of all of us to deny the terrorists the publicity and attention they crave. But how would that work in practice? Like it or not, it is big news when some embittered human shell goes out and kills fifty or a hundred innocents. People demand to hear about it. Perhaps refusing to name the shooter and blacking out his or her face in news photographs will discourage some future attackers, but that seems like a lot to hope for. Even if it had some effect, there would still be an urgent need to crack down on racial incitement and right-wing extremism generally. Only governments have the power to do this effectively.
Around the world, we are being confronted with the rise of a murderous and hateful ideology that targets minorities, glorifies violence, and thrives on modern communications technology. The response needs to be commensurate with the threat, which is spreading ominously, and to the most unlikely of places. Even bucolic New Zealand, a place where Silicon Valley billionaires are buying personal retreats in case it all comes down closer to home, couldn’t escape the plague.
If you think you’re angry now, wait till you read the court documents.
Not that the summaries of a college cheating scandal so massive it briefly bumped Donald Trump from the “Breaking News” chyrons were not enough to make a nun cuss. Indeed, the story offered a perfect storm of outrage: the wealthy, well-known and well-connected gaming the system, lying, fixing tests and paying bribes to get their kids into prestigious colleges. It didn’t hurt that two of those arrested were famous actors: Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” fame and Lori Loughlin, who played “Aunt Becky” in that masterwork of saccharine banality, “Full House.”
But there is something about the tawdry details found in the affidavit by FBI agent Laura Smith that is truly infuriating. In its 204 pages, you get William “Rick” Singer, the scam’s mastermind, coaching his clients on lies they can tell to get a different ACT or SAT test site or some accommodation the testing services reserve for kids with learning disabilities. You get him soothing parents whose kids have entered school as purported athletic standouts and now worry that those kids will be asked to actually do something athletic. You get him scheming with parents who want their kids to think they did well on tests, when actually, one of Singer’s confederates secretly substituted his correct answers for their wrong ones.
And you get attorney Gordon Caplan, as captured on an FBI wiretap, fretting about what might happen if his daughter gets caught. “To be honest,” he says, “I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”
I am an alumnus of the University of Southern California, one of the schools — Harvard, Yale and Georgetown are among the others — Singer helped people like Caplan cheat their children into. Me, I got in because my mom and my counselor, Mr. Isaacs, moved Heaven, Earth and all the precincts in between to get my application approved and my tuition paid.
So forgive me if I am unable to dismiss “the moral issue here” as airily as Caplan does. Forgive me if I find these people and their scheme disgusting. But there is an object lesson here beyond disgust.
We live in a nation where equality is the official creed, but hardly the lived reality. To the contrary, people are jailed here because they cannot afford justice, ignorant here because they cannot afford learning, hungry here because they cannot afford food, dead here because they cannot afford health.
And the worst thing is, we accept that as somehow preordained, beyond our capacity to fix. Meantime, Forbes reported last year that the average CEO pulls down a salary 361 times more than his workers. In the 1950s, he earned “only” about 20 times more. How well do you live on your salary? How well could you live on your salary, times 20?
Yet when working-class people demand a wage large enough to simply sustain themselves — $15 an hour — it’s regarded as a radical idea and an existential threat. As perhaps it must be in a nation where poverty is structural, where the routes up and out are increasingly constricted and workers are kept distracted from their own plight by fights over race, religion and sexuality.
So this should be a wake-up call. While poor people fight internecine wars, while they choose between lights and food, while their services are cut and their industries disappear, rich people — some, at least — are writing large checks to lie their children into college. Every advantage in the world, and they take more.
If that’s not a moral issue we all should worry about, I don’t know what is.