THE SIGN said it all: “No Media Access”. Whatever was going on behind these closed doors, it was not open to the scrutiny of a free and independent media. Given the meeting’s/hui’s ostensible purpose – Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism – this was rather odd. The sheer volume of government and quasi-government noise being generated on the subject of extremism surely suggests that the proceedings of He Whenua Taurikura deserved the widest possible audience.
What were the organisers of this, the second hui called into existence by the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shootings, afraid of? Were they worried that journalists not 100 percent sympathetic to the ideals animating the hui might report something untoward? Like the truth?
Something like the Director of the NZ Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge, announcing her concern that there were New Zealanders out there at risk of developing an “Us versus Them” worldview.
What could she mean? Who could she be talking about?
Is it possible that she was thinking about the 120 members of the NZ House of Representatives? Certainly, our Members of Parliament are irretrievably enmeshed in the “Us versus Them” worldview about which the SIS Director is so concerned. One can only imagine her horror upon discovering that the House, itself, is quite deliberately divided into “The Government” (Us) and “The Opposition” (Them). The radicalising effect of the Chamber’s architecture, which forces these antagonists to confront each other from a distance traditionally expressed as the length of two drawn swords, can only be imagined.
When it comes to officially sanctioned polarisation, however, Parliament does not stand alone. Our legal system openly describes itself as “adversarial” – with the “Prosecution” (Us) doing all it can to discredit and undermine the “Defence” (Them) – and vice versa. And what about labour relations? The radicalisation of exploited workers confronted by rapacious bosses is as old as capitalism itself.
Clearly, Director Kitteridge is on to something: the “Us versus Them” worldview is everywhere!
It would certainly explain why the SIS has devoted considerable resources to producing a helpful handbook encouraging New Zealanders to “Know the Signs” of somebody at risk of succumbing to “violent extremism”.
There are no fewer than 50 of these signs, apparently, a cluster of which involve the afflicted individual deliberately seeking out opportunities for camaraderie and self-sacrifice, learning how to handle firearms and explosives, and surrounding themselves with martial and nationalistic symbols.
We must assume that Director Kitteridge has already been alerted, via the SIS’s special contact number – 0800STASI – to the existence in Aotearoa of a force of more than 5,000 such individuals, and that this violent organisation, “The NZ Army”, has been placed under round-the-clock surveillance.
Ms Kitteridge has become an easy target for this sort of satire for the very simple reason that hers was one of the few contributions to He Whenua Taurikura that received extensive coverage by the mainstream news media.
What the country didn’t hear very much – if anything – about were the contributions of other hui attendees. A cynic might suggest that the suppression of this material was deemed necessary by the hui organisers because if the average citizen was made aware of its existence there would be an outcry. Most New Zealanders do not see it as a role of their government to “guide” the thinking of the nation towards the radical, ideologically-driven goals of a tiny, unelected, elite of bureaucrats, academics and activists.
To be fair to these elite reformers, the presence of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, at the hui, could be construed as a sign that she and her government had cast the mantle of their protection over He Whenua Taurikura’s deliberations.
Indeed, since the horrific events of 15 March 2019, the Prime Minister has evinced an uncompromising determination to strengthen the country against the violent extremists of word and deed. One could almost say that she has been “radicalised” by her experiences, and that her views on matters like “hate speech” have become deeply polarising.
Ms Ardern’s and her government’s radicalisation is fast becoming electorally problematic. Precisely because radical ideas, practically by definition, are polarising, they tend to make those who espouse them politically defensive and hostile to criticism. Those citizens who oppose state-sponsored radicalism, mark themselves as “enemies of the people”.
“No Media Access” is only the beginning.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 November 2022.