Attacco in Nuova Zelanda 3 – First comments on the perpetrator, the dehumanization of victims, social and legal responses – by Maria Alvanou

The attacks in New Zealand have shocked the country and also the international community with their barbarity.  The authorities are still looking into the events and their research concerning the surrounding facts is still under development. As the initial judicial phase has started with the indictment of the perpetrator to face the court charges on April 5, the following are some first comments:

  1. Dehumanization, both as a process and a result, ends up with striping off the victims of any human characteristics that could cause empathy to the perpetrator. The New Zealand attacks are a tragic example that dehumanization theories find their application in extremist and terroristic violence. The perpetrator not only showed lack of empathy, did not just exhibit hate toward his victims (we are used to terrorists hating and blaming their victims), but he treated them as videogame figures. From the video it is evident that he is seeing just “targets” that he needs to bring down. This level of radicalization to violence is most disturbing, as it shows complete detachment from the reality of the value of human lives. The attacker treated pain and death like a game.
  2. Although the above mentioned level of lack of empathy shows without doubt severe anti-social behavior, characterizations of the perpetrator as “mad”, “crazy”, “lunatic” should be avoided, unless there is medical evidence to suggest that there were indeed pre-existing mental health issues. Lack of sanity means lack of the ability for the perpetrator to stand for trial. Such attacks end in a courtroom, where the criminal justice mechanism will apply the law. It must be understood that terrorism is not just a perplexed phenomenon that many scholar fields try to explain from their own perspective, it is also a crime. Moreover, it is as a crime that it gets punished, so we must make whatever possible within the rule of law for justice to be served.
  3. There is present one charge the perpetrator faces for his attacks and this is murder. This has puzzled some people, as they wonder why he is not charged with terrorism. After all, New Zealand does have a law criminalizing terrorism (“Terrorism Suppression Act”[1]) and clearly these murderous events show intention to induce terror in civilian population and had as result the death of people (both some of the prerequisites of the relevant law). Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that there is the procedural opportunity for more criminal charges, so nothing it definite yet. Apart from that, sometimes it is easier to convict a person for murder than for terrorism, where the intention and motive to be proved in the courtroom could be more difficult to achieve. Plus, as the police research is still ongoing, more evidence could bring more charges and even more accused persons (we really cannot exclude at this stage the possibility of other actors supporting or organizing the attacks). Although the New Zealand case seems easy to describe as a terror one, we will have to see how the trial will develop and probably this initial prosecution for murder (at least for now) was a wise choice.
  4. It is important to note the choice of the attacker to make public and circulate terror actions in the social media, live. It remains to be analyzed whether this action was just a strategic one, aiming to create more fear by taking advantage of the communication power of social media, or in the context of “Herostratic fame” (or even both). We know that terrorism craves for publicity (it is its oxygen) and terrorists try to make use of any possible means to achieve it. We also know that some criminals try to earn fame and even identity and existence in social reality through becoming known for their crime. So in this case, this criminal/terrorist could be using online/live publicity to serve both goals.
  5. The judge presiding the first hearing of the attacker took measures so that in the photos of the defendant taken by the media the face was blurred, so that fair trials would be preserved. This safeguarding of the principle of fair trial in such a case (and with so little time distance from the horror that took place) is not a detail. It is actually a sign that despite the death, the pain, the losses, this terrorist act has not managed to defeat the society of New Zealand. The rule of law, the principles that govern the criminal justice system and the legal civilization of the country remain intact, despite the evil of terrorism. We are aware how terrorism has changed legal principles and even challenged human rights in many countries, especially when faced with the experience of a terror attack. But it is exactly in challenging and critical times that “fair trial” and the rights of the defendant exist for. New Zealand is giving to the rest of the world a strong lesson on democracy and refusing to let terrorism change its values.
  6. The response by the New Zealand government and security services should be also highlighted. The attack has been treated as one targeting the general security of the country and the Prime Minister has called it a terror one without hesitation. This position is important, because there is often the (fair) criticism that attacks against Muslims are not labeled nor treated as terrorism and this signifies discrimination against Muslim communities as their victimization is not perceived as equally important or detrimental.
  7. The choice of locations and time of the terror events served both the aim to have Muslim victims and to generally offend Muslim population by killing faithful during prayer time. It was an attempt to divide society and feed the circle of violence by creating justification for revenge (a standard playing card in the rhetoric of violent Islamist extremist). This tragedy with innocent victims and the violation of respect to a sacred ground and time for Muslim believers like mosques during prayer time will with certainty be taken advantage by groups of the Islamist violent extremism network. It is a gift to their communication policy and a framework for attacks in New Zealand (or to people, enterprises and businesses from New Zealand worldwide). Furthermore, for some Muslim individuals living in New Zealand, the wound from this tragedy can be the starting point of the path to radicalization, ending to more violence.
  8. Islamophobia uses as main argument the “protection from the Muslim threat” and prior attacks by Islamists are cited as a (lame) excuse for taking action. New Zealand has not been targeted by Islamist terrorists up to now. Not only this, but actually this attack can even work against protecting the country from Islamist violent extremism. Islamophobia is not just a word. It is a menace for society. We have to understand that the dynamics of fear can have disastrous effects on society and at the end they can foster hate. Some of those people filled with hate will eventually proceed in taking action. Behind violence, behind those who choose to kill, there are also those who won’t carry and shoot a gun, but in a way they have accepted the loaded gun or even- from a moral point of view- loaded this gun. Creating and perpetuating an “enemy” is not a game and without consequences.

The appalling attacks were the work of fanaticism and express values that do not belong to the society of New Zealand, or any other society that respects human dignity. Although it is difficult to do so with such a toll of victims, now it is the time for people to show solidarity to one another despite different religions and refuse dangerous polarization. We must not give further victory to those who want death, hate and division of societies to reign. The best way to win terrorists is to undermine them ideologically, show to them we do not fear them and that their violence and hate cannot change, break nor divide us.