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'It brings everything back': Christchurch despairs over white supremacist attacks

Fresh atrocities in El Paso and Norway bring back the pain of New Zealand’s worst mass-shooting

'It brings everything back': Christchurch despairs over white supremacist attacks
A police officer stands guard outside al Noor mosque in Christchurch a week after the mass shooting in which 51 people died. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

It’s just gone lunch time at al Noor mosque in central Christchurch and a handful of men gather to pray. They bend down on a thick blue carpet, newly installed, and sit up to face walls gleaming with fresh plaster and paint. In the corner, one young man appears to be quietly crying.

“We’ve replaced everything, everything,” says worshipper Murray Stirling, 52, gesturing around the main prayer room, now serene and bathed in winter sunshine. “There’s no physical trace left of what he did to us.”

“He” is the white supremacist shooter who gunned down 51 people at al Noor and Linwood mosques on 15 March. The suspect is currently held in the maximum security wing of Paremoremo prison in Auckland awaiting trial.

Away from New Zealand, the massacre he is accused of carrying out has inspired white supremacists around the globe.

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“Saint [Brenton] Tarrant” is how the Norwegian mosque shooter – who injured a man during an armed attack on al Noor Islamic centre near Oslo – referred to him in his manifesto over the weekend: “My time is up, I was chosen by Saint Tarrant after all”.

The El Paso shooter – who is accused of killing 22 people in a mass shooting targeting Mexicans at a Texas Walmart – offered his support for the “the Christchurch shooter” in his manifesto, and a gunman who killed one person at a synagogue in California used language similar to Tarrant’s own in posts online.

‘We expected copycats’

Shamsideen Iposu, 50, escaped through a side door of al Noor mosque when the attack began, just after lunch during Friday prayers. He wasn’t hit, but he later saw himself running for his life in the livestream, amidst a room thick with gunfire. Describing himself as a “realist”, Iposu says he had long been expecting an attack on his community – even in New Zealand.

“We expected copycats after the Christchurch shooting, and in some ways I am indifferent, it just reinforces the fact that this problem is worldwide – it is not localised,” says Iposu, whose faith has given him the courage to return to the mosque, though others in his community have sworn never to come again.

“No one is immune from this violence, not us, not anywhere. They [white supremacists] are emboldened now. Some world leaders are still making statements that embolden these individuals and make them feel they have tacit support for their hate crimes. In my view they [white supremacists] are mad. Simply mad.”

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On a recent visit to Christchurch, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told New Zealand television that such attacks are increasingly connected “because they use each the other as inspiration and they refer to each other in the different manifestos”.

But for the people of Christchurch trying to rebuild their lives, each new shooting citing their home town – once known for its large gardens and gentle waterways – brings back fresh memories of that horrific day, and makes peace seem ever more elusive.

The Christchurch attacks also sparked gestures of solidarity, such as this gathering in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Photograph: Muslim Institute Handout/EPA

“It is quite disheartening and sad that this has become the inspiration for other attacks. But it’s probably not surprising, given the success – to put it in horrible terms – given the results of the attack here,” says Stirling, his voice heavy with grief.

“It brings everything back for us. You sort of despair really that they’re just not stopping, that this sort of thing is just continuing. What can we do to stop these senseless attacks?”

Stirling, like other worshippers at al Noor, says he doesn’t feel scared about coming to pray. Christchurch – he says uneasily – “has been done”.

“One of the reasons he chose New Zealand was because of the impact it would have – a country previously considered to be quite safe and peaceful. So it increased the ‘value’ of this attack and the impact it had. Obviously, it worked.”

A touchstone for white supremacists

Geopolitical and strategic risk expert Paul Buchanan says there are three key reasons why Christchurch has become the “touchstone” for extreme white supremacist action worldwide.

One, the attacks took place “in houses of worship”, giving them higher status and value than random attacks in areas such as shopping malls. Two, the attacks were livestreamed – the first ideological attacks to reach the internet generation in real time. And three – the high body count.

As the gunman stormed through the mosques dressed in fatigues and wielding a semi-automatic machine gun emblazoned with neo-nazi slogans, a small camera recorded his attack in real time, livestreaming the murders around the globe. Buchanan was monitoring far-right website 8chan as the shooting occurred, and witnessed users urging the gunman on.

“This was the first livestreamed mass murder done for ideological reasons. And to this generation of sociopaths that really rung a bell because they are an audio-visual generation. You saw him kill people. If you were of that mindset it was better than a video game – the screams were real. The panic was real. It was horrifying, but it wasn’t a video game.”

Mourners lay flowers on a wall at the Botanical Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the shootings. Photograph: Vincent Thian/AP

Five weeks after the Christchurch mosque attacks, terrorists detonated bombs in Catholic churches and hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing 259 people. Initially the perpetrators claimed they were taking “revenge” for the mosque shootings – but Dr John Battersby, a teaching fellow at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, says the attacks were months in the planning, and referencing Christchurch added “some justification, but not determinative”.

“These people are separated and remote, with nothing in common bar their prejudice. Possibly feeling their isolation they reference others in an effort to pretend or portray they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Lone actors often do this, the anarchists of 100 years ago did it, the jihadists more recently do it, and white supremacists do it, too.”

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