He was taken to court handcuffed and in prison uniform, but with a grin on his face. He said nothing before the judge, but made a sign with his fingers for the cameras that was similar to the sign for “OK,” an alt-right white supremacist sign that originated online.
Brenton Tarrant, who stormed two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday morning (late at night in Europe), killing 50 people and wounding another 50, was remanded to custody and scheduled to appear before the High Court on April 5. The authorities are piecing together what happened. According to the latest statements by New Zealand police, Tarrant is believed to have acted alone.
New Zealand is a country that is going through a difficult and tense moment. Here, the level of public alarm about terrorism is quite low, and in this sense Tarrant’s plan was a calculated move. He wanted to prove that a massacre like this could happen anywhere, even where it seemed the most unlikely. Now, the country is still on high alert, both at the border and at the airports.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, after describing Tarrant’s attack in no uncertain terms as “terrorism,” has announced that she intends to change the laws on the possession of semiautomatic weapons. Tarrant, who was armed to the teeth, obtained its weapons legally, buying semi-automatic rifles and ammunition in stores where their sale is largely unregulated.
Tarrant struck without warning, announcing what he would do only a few minutes beforehand through emails and online posts. But his plan of going on a killing spree seems to date back to at least two years, when he visited France, Spain and Portugal, and was particularly struck by the news of a terror attack in Stockholm, when a man with ISIS ties killed five people by running them over with a truck. Furthermore, according to The New York Times, a man by the name of Brenton Tarrant also visited Pakistan last October.
Tarrant is 28 years old and grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Australia. He had a childhood that he described as normal and “without any great issues.” He didn’t go to college, got by with occasional odd jobs and made some money online thanks to cryptocurrencies. It was there, on the dark outskirts of the Internet, that Tarrant’s political opinions were formed—in forums like 4chan and 8chan, where the alt-right is working around the clock, producing memes, fake news and ethno-nationalist ideological screeds, which claim to support the cause of white men against all their (imagined) enemies.
In this sense, the Christchurch terrorist fits the profile perfectly: white, male, around 30, angry because he thinks society is marginalizing him, going on rants online against blacks, Muslims, women, and the more or less radical and more or less liberal left. He even wrote a manifesto, entitled “The Great Replacement,” which contains what you would expect. After short remarks about his own biography, it is structured as a set of questions and answers on his main beliefs, which—as one could guess from the title—mostly revolve around the supposed “replacement” of European peoples (or those of European origin) by Muslims, who, according to the tropes of this worldview, are coming in like an invading horde via migration.
Among the figures Tarrant idolizes, one can find Anders Breivik, various medieval figures who made war against the Ottomans, and also the Italian Luca Traini, who committed a racist attack in Macerata in February 2018. Traini has said he doesn’t want to be associated with Tarrant in any way—however, in the end, he did try to do exactly the same thing, albeit with a smaller scope.
The rest of Tarrant’s writing is a set of shibboleths and rhetorical tropes that would make sense only to those who have been initiated into the jargon of the dark underbelly of the Internet. The site Bellingcat has analyzed both the “manifesto” and the 17-minute video in which Tarrant recorded himself shooting people at the mosques, and has listed all the numerous insider references to an online underworld known only to a few, but which several Western political leaders often exploit—from Donald Trump to Matteo Salvini—using its themes and beliefs to manipulate public opinion.
What Tarrant did is not mere “madness,” but rather the result of a political campaign that has been doing this for a long time: fanning the flames of hatred, so that they suddenly explode into a roaring fire. The mindless repetition of slogans such as “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” will lead some people to actually believe them. And, one day, one of them might decide to get a gun and solve the “problem” all by themselves.
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