In the wake of the horrific Christchurch shootings, we need to thoughtfully engage with the ideology which influenced it. Just before the massacre, the self-confessed killer, Brenton Tarrant, distributed what is being called a manifesto, in which he unashamedly describes what he was about to do as a “terrorist attack”, and gives an account of his ideology. We need to understand this ideology, not to give it a platform, but to learn and to equip ourselves to stand against such hatred.
I have recently been re-reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The Christchurch massacre of people at prayer took place while I was making my way through Solzhenitsyn’s history of the Soviet annihilation of millions of their own. Countless lives were flushed down the vast sewer of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn traced the Soviets’ descent into darkness as communist ideology took over people’s souls and minds, making many even half-decent people into monsters. He wrote:
To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he is doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity to natural law. Fortunately it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions. Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evil-doers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
Ideology—that is what gives evil-doing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses, but will receive praise and honours …
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.
In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn delves into and documents the outworking of a political ideology, communism, which killed on an industrial scale. As unpleasant as his task was, it was a necessary and honourable one.
The Christchurch slaughter is a textbook example of what evil ideology can achieve in a person’s heart. Like the Soviet Gulag, it needs to be understood. All terrorism needs to be treated this way: its controlling ideology should be carefully examined, considered and, where necessary, rejected. This is something we owe to the victims, and to ourselves.
This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, who has been widely praised for her handling of New Zealand’s response to the massacre, has vowed to deny Brenton Tarrant, the accused killer, any platform for his views, not even speaking his name: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing.” Taking his cue from the Prime Minister, the New Zealand Censor has banned the downloading or possession of Tarrant’s manifesto. Censorship of a document is permitted in New Zealand if its publication “is likely to be injurious to the public good” and Tarrant’s manifesto could be injurious if someone read it and was radicalised by it, as was the author’s intent. On the other hand, rejecting the ideology of the manifesto is also in the public good, but to do that comprehensively one must first understand it, and to understand it, one must read it.
In any case, Tarrant had already posted his manifesto to the web before the atrocity, ensuring its wide availability. As galling as it is that a killer could gain a platform through a hate crime, it is necessary to pay attention to the ideology of Brenton Tarrant. Why should we do this? Because there are others like him, connected to each other on the internet, and because Tarrant’s ideology has the capacity to replicate itself. It is important to understand this ideology, not least so that it can be resisted and opposed with all the strength and skill we can muster. Silence won’t achieve this. This strategy would be like trying to combat Nazi ideology by refusing to ever speak the name Adolf Hitler: I do not begrudge Hitler his long Wikipedia article.
Tarrant’s ideology is laid out in his manifesto, “The Great Replacement”, the title for which he took from French, le grand remplacement, a phrase which has come to embody fear about the demographic future of France and a looming “white genocide”. His primary concern is the demographic decline of the “white race”, by which he means people of European stock. The immediate cause of decline is the lack of will to reproduce, and the resulting low birth-rates. This needs to change, he says, but a more immediate threat to “Europeans”—among whom Tarrant counts himself—is immigration from non-white countries. Tarrant calls immigrants “invaders”, and sees his violence as legitimate “partisan” resistance to this “invasion”. His stated purpose in massacring innocent people in New Zealand was to set off a war between whites and other races. There is more to it than just that—he lays out a model of how he expects this will play out—but this is the essence of his purpose.
Tarrant chose Muslims as a target, but his hatred is directed at all non-white immigrants. It is their “race” he objects to. He has nothing to say about Islam as a religion, making no mention of Muhammad, the Koran, or sharia law. Although Tarrant nurtures a number of grudges against Muslims, for example for the history of jihad against Europe, he makes clear that his primary reason for targeting mosques is to incite white people to rise up against immigrants in general, not just Muslims. He would drive them all out if he could.
Is Tarrant a right-wing extremist, as many have claimed? He mocks those who would try to pin him somewhere on the left-wing-right-wing spectrum. He does own that he is a fascist—to be precise, an eco-fascist green nationalist—and the list of what he despises is long, including conservatives, Marxists, the “cult of individualism”, urbanisation, industrialisation, drug addiction, capitalism, globalisation, democracy, exploitation of workers, free markets, multiculturalism, diversity and free trade. Several of his pet hates are characteristic of the Left. The nation whose philosophy is closest to his own is, he says, Communist China, presumably because of their unashamed will to use all available power to dominate.
Is Tarrant a Christian? Tarrant’s manifesto makes no mention of Jesus or the Bible, and his text includes no discernible biblical allusions. In this respect it is very different from the propaganda of Islamic jihadists, which is chock full of Koranic references. Although Tarrant refers to Christianity a number of times, he equates it with white culture. He has little time for churches, describing them as “empty”. He also considers Western religious leaders to be “corrupt”.
At one point Tarrant asks himself the question, “Am I a Christian?” His laconic answer is, “That is complicated. When I know, I will tell you.” However, it is crystal clear from the manifesto that, although Tarrant identifies with Christianity as an aspect of cultural whiteness, apart from this he has no interest in the Christian faith, and his ideology has nothing recognisably Christian in it. The manifesto’s closing words are, “I will see you in Valhalla.”
In Tarrant’s fascist vision, the primary good, overriding all else, is the success and dominance of the race-nation. This is a law-of-the-jungle, survival-of-the-fittest view of morality, which considers it entirely legitimate for one tribe to dominate and destroy another to its own advantage. Those who think like him, in Nietzschean fashion, “worship strength”. For such as Tarrant, the will to dominate, exercised by any means, is necessary and noble. Tarrant’s solution to his crisis of white demographic decline is to incite conflict so that whites will be compelled to awaken, radicalise and grow strong. This is what his attack in Christchurch was all about.
The idea that one group could or should seek to replace another is not an innovation, but an ancient attitude to human life reflected in patterns of warfare attested in many societies. In The Descent of Man, Darwin suggested that sympathy for the species developed out of concern for the welfare of the tribe, according to which “actions … are good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe—not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe”.
One hardly needs to look to ancient history to find examples. Five hundred miles east of New Zealand lie the Chatham Islands. They used to be inhabited by the Moriori, a gentle and vulnerable tribe, who had abandoned the Maoris’ fiercely warlike ways. In 1835 the Moriori were brutally slaughtered and replaced by Maoris from the North Island. The conquerors banned the speaking of Moriori among the few survivors, and prevented them from marrying each other. One of the invading chiefs stated afterwards, “We took possession … in accordance with our custom, and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed; and others also we killed—but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.”
Doctrines justifying replacement of whole groups have also been developed in modern times. Communist and Nazi regimes forged their own versions, directing their destructive impulses against “enemies of the people”, whom the organs of the state flushed away in their millions.
Despite his claim to be a warrior for Europeans, Tarrant’s morality is implacably and utterly opposed to the humanitarian biblical roots of Christianity and, ironically, at odds with the spiritual and ethical foundations of the European cultures he claims to appreciate. In Tarrant’s moral universe there is nothing of “love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27), nor of care for the stranger and the alien in your midst (Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:34, “you shall love the alien as yourself”). There is nothing of the insight that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and thus of inherent worth, irrespective of their race. Tarrant owes nothing to Paul’s warning not to take revenge but to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:17–19). He would have nothing but contempt for such thinking.
Tarrant has turned his back on Christian ethics and knows nothing of the historical influence of Christian ideas on “white” Europe. In reality, Christianity led Europe away from the violent, vengeful path Tarrant has chosen. For example, the Vikings had plundered and enslaved their way across Europe serving Norse gods of war, until conversion to Christianity turned them into peaceful nations, eventually becoming the Icelanders, Danes, Swedes and Norwegians of today.
The deeply anti-humanitarian features of Tarrant’s ideology are particularly troubling, not least because Western societies’ movement away from humanitarianism is a discernible long-term trend, and not just among violent extremists. Reverence for human life is no longer as dominant a characteristic of Western people’s thinking as it used to be. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, recently reported in an interview that he left the organisation because it was turning its back on its humanitarian roots, by repositioning humans as “enemies of the Earth”. Tarrant himself aligns with this trend in environmentalism, which regards people as a blight on the earth: one of the reasons he says he hates migrants is that they come, he says, from groups that are “overpopulating” the world. He rants, “kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment”.
Tarrant’s ideology is as chaotically self-contradictory as it is revolting. His theory of history and nations is a complete mess. He has no awareness, for example, that Christianity is an Eastern religion as much as a Western one. He imagines that China “lacks diversity”. In response to his anxiety about our rapidly changing world—changing in a direction he hates—he has latched on to a worldview driven by hatred and worship of strength, which leads down a road to despair and death.
As chaotic and counter-factual as it is, Tarrant’s ideology nevertheless has structure. His hatred of individualism drives the whole show, and goes hand in hand with his tribal morality, which subjugates the worth of an individual human being to the dominion of race and nation. His identity politics flowers into bloody genocide. He feels entitled, for example, to kill Muslim children praying in a New Zealand mosque as “revenge” for acts Muslims did centuries ago, thousands of miles away. He also wants families of immigrants who commit sexual assault to be hanged. This is the darkest, pointiest end of collectivism, a conviction that guilt and punishment are not individual, but cling to groups, even down the generations. It is a profoundly anti-biblical view of guilt (compare Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31).
Is Tarrant a psychopath? He may be. The vast majority of ordinary people could not kill in cold blood as he has done.
After the Battle of Gettysburg a clean-up operation found that most rifles were still loaded, and some had been reloaded many times. One theory is that it is psychologically so difficult to kill another person that the inexperienced soldiers just kept reloading their rifles, only giving the impression of killing. Today professional armies help recruits to overcome their innate reluctance to kill through training, including shoot-em-up computer games, to make killing an automatic, repetitive action. We know that Tarrant had a long history of playing violent computer games—he refers to them in his manifesto and styles his video of the massacre to look like one—so this could have conditioned him to kill.
One reason secular Western people look to psychopathy to explain terrorist massacres is that many have come under the grip of utopian thinking. This is grounded in the belief that people are not inherently bad, but can be perfected through social progress. By this view, the true location of evil is to be found in social structures, and sin, in so far as it exists at all, is collective, not individual. The abolition of evil structures ought then to usher in a better world: this is called “progress”.
From within this worldview, it would generate cognitive dissonance to admit that sane individuals could commit mass murder. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that they can, and do. Solzhenitsyn’s writings make it abundantly clear that ordinary, even pure people, can become agents of mass torture and murder. He writes in The Gulag Archipelago of one young man, a “selfless, dedicated boy, as fresh as spring water”, who, at great risk to himself, even spoke up for Solzhenitsyn when he was arrested. Years later Solzhenitsyn discovered that this same man had become an interrogator (that is, a torturer) for the security services, and Solzhenitsyn reflected that he himself might well have ended up doing the same, if circumstances had directed his life differently. The “line separating good and evil”, he concluded, “passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts”.
Tarrant’s manifesto and actions are bad, not mad. Driven, cold and calculating, and fully responsible for his actions, he had been captured by an evil ideology, which made him a hero in his own eyes.
It is lamentable, but only to be expected, that some have recruited Tarrant’s terror to serve their own political ends:
# Erdogan, the President of Turkey, while electioneering, incited religious hatred against “Christian” New Zealanders and Australians for the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War.
# Australia’s left-wing opposition leader, Bill Shorten, declared, “Not all right wing extremist hate speech ends in right wing extremist violence. But all right wing extremist violence begins with right wing extremist hate speech.” If he had made the same statement about left-wing or Islamic extremists, his political career would have been over. The Right, Shorten makes out, is uniquely evil.
# David Koch, an Australian television presenter, waxed lyrical on the dangers of right-wing extremism: “most of the [Australian] terrorist attacks are right-wing white supremacist. We had Hilton bombings. We had IRAs.” In fact, the Australian Hilton bombings were the work of a left-wing extremist, and Australia has never had an IRA terror incident, and even if it had, the IRA were most influenced by Marxism, so also left-wing.
# In a bizarre series of events, Chelsea Clinton was accused of causing the massacre by students at a New York vigil for the victims. “Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there,” she was told by Muslim student Leen Dweik. This was because Clinton had criticised an anti-Semitic tweet by Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Congresswoman from Minnesota.
# At the other extreme, Australian politician Fraser Anning heaped guilt on the innocent Muslim victims: “just because the followers of this savage belief were not the killers in this instance, does not make them blameless”. (Anning’s hateful comments have been heartily condemned by all sides of Australian politics.)
# Other distortions are more subtle. John Azumah, professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Seminary, voiced his fears that “radical Islam is now defining Christian witness and filling Christians with fear, hatred, and even violence”. It is true, as Azumah points out, that Christians are persecuted in Islamic contexts, so much so that Christians are many, many times more likely to be killed by radical Muslims in Islamic nations than Muslims are to be killed by Christians in the West. The recent destruction of Christian communities in Iraq and Syria is but one example among many. Yet Tarrant was no Christian, and his views do not reflect those of any Christian group. For Muslims who live as large and growing minorities in the West today, the rise of anti-Christian racist ideologies, like Tarrant’s, pose a danger far greater than resentment or fear about Islam among suffering Christians.
A shared theme of all these confused and distorting responses is that they perpetuate collectivism, by blame-shifting Tarrant’s pathology onto whole political or religious identities. Such ideological exploitations of Tarrant’s violence can rightly be seen as a victory for him.
It is necessary to explore Tarrant’s passion over the “great replacement”. He describes visiting France, and feeling grief-struck by the ebbing away of the French: “The french [sic] people were often in a minority themselves, and the french that were in the streets were often alone, childless or of advanced age. While the immigrants were young, energised and with large families and many children.” In disgust and despair Tarrant pulled over by a military cemetery, overwhelmed, and wept at the sight of crosses for soldiers who were killed fighting in the two world wars, stretching out to the horizon. He was weeping over their seemingly vain sacrifice.
By his own account, this was how Tarrant was radicalised. That was it. In front of those crosses he demanded of himself, “Why don’t I do something?” Then and there he committed himself to violence in the belief that the radicalisation of other Western young men will be inevitable.
What is disturbing about this testimony is that there will indeed be many who lament what Douglas Murray has called “The Strange Death of Europe”. The demographic transition is real enough, and well advanced. Many will find it traumatic, and as it progresses, there is potential for accelerating anxiety and distress. No group relishes the loss of its identity and sense of place in the world, and denial will not help. Attempts to forge a new multicultural identity for Europe, to replace the old national identities, have not been entirely successful. In the wake of violent terrorist attacks in France in 2016, the distinguished French social scientist Pierre Manent expressed the feelings of many when he wrote:
The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionlessly over the surface of the planet … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity.
If radicalisation is to be prevented, the crucial thing is to short-circuit the progression from lament and trauma to violence. A sense of loss is and will be unavoidable, but a descent into violence need not be. To prevent this outcome moral leadership is required.
The core challenge Tarrant represents is not that some might be incited to copycat or revenge attacks by his example or his testimony—although that risk is not to be underestimated. The greatest threat is that the option of violence might become increasingly attractive to people who have turned their backs on love-thy-neighbour morality, despising it as weakness, and who also feel deeply challenged and uprooted, both emotionally and morally, by our rapidly changing world, not only by rapid demographic shifts, but also by cultural loss, environmental degradation and all of the other ills Tarrant rails against. The greater the sense of loss, the more attractive the worship of strength could appear. What ethical alternatives will be made available to those who are tempted by this path?
Calls to suppress Tarrant’s views from being known and discussed are mistaken. As Solzhenitsyn stated, it is “ideology—that is what gives evil-doing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination”. The real struggle we face in the West is over moral worldviews which despise the value of human life. Put simply, it is the erosion of the ethic that we should treat others as we would ourselves want to be treated (Luke 6:31).
It was Tarrant’s rejection of the inherent value of each and every human life that opened the door to his raging collectivist hatred. The challenge for us all is to discern and uproot the seedlings of his deadly ideological trend, and to plant something better in its place. To do this we must understand and acknowledge such thinking, understand how such a worldview might germinate and grow, and be able to trace the paths of its influence, so that we can intervene and oppose it, lest it spread. But to achieve all this, we must take our heads out of the sand, not put them in it.
Mark Durie is an Adjunct Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology. Over recent years he has written several articles for Quadrant about Islam. He has a website at https://markdurie.com.