WHEN GOVERNMENTS EXTEND the state’s power to monitor their citizens’ ideas and activities, we should all be on our guard. Even when such extensions are introduced in response to a terrorist atrocity, we need to ask ourselves: would these new powers have prevented it?
For better, or for worse, this is no longer a moot point. Earlier this week the Justice Minister, Kris Faafoi, announced a raft of changes to our counter-terrorism laws.
Responding to the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shootings, the Minister gave notice of the Government’s intention to: alter the definition of a terrorist act; criminalise planning and/or preparing for a terrorist attack; further criminalise terrorist weapons and combat training; criminalise international travel for the purpose of carrying out a terrorist attack; further criminalise the financing of terrorism to include broader forms of material support; and broaden the scope of ‘Control Orders’ to include convicted terrorists who may have served their prison sentences yet remain, in the judgement of the state, an ongoing terrorist threat.
The Minister further justified his strengthening of New Zealand’s anti-terrorism legislation by drawing attention to the way the Christchurch attacks “mirrored how the nature of terrorism has been changing internationally, involving lone actors rather than organised terrorist groups. We need to ensure our laws can respond to that.”
But will these changes produce the intended effect? More pertinently, had they been in place in the year immediately preceding the mosque attacks, would they have led to the early apprehension of the Christchurch shooter?
The answer to that question, sadly, is: almost certainly not.
Brenton Tarrant inhabited a Manichean moral universe in which the forces of Good were engaged in a never-ending struggle with the forces of Evil. Geopolitical events led him to the conviction that, as in the Middle Ages, this struggle was manifested principally in the conflict between Christendom and Islam. Following the death of his father, Tarrant inherited a sum sufficient to fund overseas trips to battlefields where holy armies of crusading Christian knights had thrown back the Ottoman invaders of Eastern Europe. Fortified by his ever deeper immersion in anti-Muslim propaganda, Tarrant’s fanaticism gradually morphed into the cold-blooded mindset of the “Lone Wolf” terrorist. With great care he set about planning an “inspirational” massacre worthy of his hero, the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik.
It is extremely difficult to see how any of the legislative changes proposed by Minister Faafoi could possibly have deflected Tarrant from his murderous mission.
The state can hardly prevent citizens (or Australian visitors) from watching the news, surfing the Internet, or taking books on Medieval History out of the local library. Nor can it criminalise the intellectual tradition bound up with what writers and political activists have, for more than century, characterised as the “Decline of the West”.
The idea of Western civilisation under pressure is related to, but not quite the same as, the “white supremacist” beliefs attributed to Tarrant. This twisted individual was radicalised by, of all things, his tragically “wrong” reading of Europe’s past. Is Minister Faafoi proposing to criminalise history?
It would also be interesting to know how the Minister plans to prevent people from spending their inheritance. Does he propose to confiscate all legacies lest they be put to terroristic purposes?
Nor would the criminalising of terrorist weapons and combat training have stopped Tarrant. He purchased his weapons lawfully, on the basis of a firearms licence issued to him by the Police. His “combat training” involved attending – alongside many other firearms enthusiasts – a rifle-range about twenty kilometres from his Dunedin residence. Does the Minister propose to shut down all gun-clubs and rifle-ranges?
Though bitterly contested by those firmly convinced that the Christchurch Mosque Shootings represent something more than the crime of a Lone Wolf terrorist, the Royal Commission’s finding that no state agency could have prevented Tarrant from carrying out his deadly intent – except by chance – is correct. He understood that, for his “mission” to succeed, he must do nothing to draw the attention of the authorities – and, God help us all, he didn’t.
Against such careful and pitiless premeditation, all the laws on our statute books are powerless. The state can punish Lone Wolves, but it cannot stop them. In attempting to minimise the terrorist threat, however, the state can eliminate our freedoms.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 April 2021.