Christchurch: A Legacy of Hope

The attacks on the Al-Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 reverberated worldwide. One year on, Hawaii-based terrorism expert Elina Noor, a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network, assesses the aftermath. 

The rampage on March 15 last year was New Zealand’s first significant terrorist incident in recent history, shattering the sense of peace, safety, and security in distant Aotearoa. The shootings killed not only the country’s sons and daughters who had been born there but also migrants and visitors who were in New Zealand precisely for the stability and opportunities it offered. Sickeningly, the assaults were also live-streamed on social media for maximum impact and influence. The footage was only flagged for take down 29 minutes after it had aired or 12 minutes after the actual onslaught had been brought to an end.

No doubt there are many lessons to be drawn from the attacks, with the benefit of hindsight. Three are worth unpacking for their implications on the terrorist threat and response.

First, the threat of the apparent “lone wolf” terrorist actor conceals a larger pack ideology and should be considered against this broader context. The Christchurch perpetrator was reportedly spurred by Anders Breivik and the larger white nationalist movement abroad. His decision to livestream his carnage was, in turn, intended to inspire others and provoke a militant uprising.

Individual extremists are challenging for law enforcement to monitor and apprehend but there are disconcerting trends that indicate right-wing extremism is an urgent threat in western and central Europe, North America, and Oceania. The 2019 Global Terrorism Index, for example, identified a 320 per cent increase in far-right attacks between 2014 and 2018.

For too long, a post-September 11 focus, the fallout of the Daesh (ISIS) threat, resource constraints, and media attention have skewed counter-terrorism efforts towards one type of menace. However, in the same way that Islamist extremists have been interrogated, the “myth” of the right-wing lone wolf terrorist necessitates an urgent look at the ideology, networks, and drivers that have given rise to this phenomenon.

Second, in responding to the terrorist threat in general, there must be a closer examination of the strength of relationships in our societies that determine our collective resilience to violent extremism. This is the soft underbelly of preventing and countering violent extremism.

Studies have shown that a society’s capacity to withstand violent extremism is influenced by leadership, resources, and social capital. Social capital is the sense of community, belonging, and participation within and among groups of people which prevents the hardening of attitudes and identities that drive conflict. Because terrorists polarise, mobilise, and destabilise whole communities, society’s resilience capacity when confronted with violent disruption depends at its core on how we treat each other, as well as on the trust we have among members of our own community, particularly those who are different from us.

The strength of this social fabric determines how quickly a community recovers, but it also determines the likelihood of some people become radicalised.

 Leaders – political, religious, and civil society – have a special role to play in setting the tone of communal relations and in laying the foundation of social resilience to violent extremism. Leaders wield enormous potential to catalyse and conversely, condemn extremism. Throughout history, leaders have repeatedly etched that fine line between hate speech and brutality – from the Third Reich and the Rwandan genocide in the past, to current unfolding developments across Asia, Europe, and America. What is a nation’s collective narrative if the incitement of hate and violence is tolerated or propagated at the highest levels? What do a state’s policies on its own population say about the nation’s principles and core values?

In the days following the Christchurch attacks, there were many things that New Zealand got right – from timely crisis communications during the carnage and decisive legal and legislative actions, to a commitment to improve counter-terrorism efforts in the long-term. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s personal leadership – heartfelt, sincere, and firm – played a distinct and important role in steering New Zealand through one of its darkest days. Yet, the ability and capacity of New Zealanders to collectively rebound in the face of an outlier threat is testament not just to the leadership of the country but to the social capital of the nation – and of Christchurch - forged primarily in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquakes but intuitively adapted to a completely different type of crisis.

One year after Christchurch, the legacy of the tragedy is not of rage, despair, or victimhood; rather, it is of determination – specifically, the promise of what can be done through political will – and the larger lessons of resilience for us all.

Dr Elina Noor is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii. Her areas of expertise include international security and cyberspace, countering violent extremism, and Southeast Asia. She is a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author. 

- Asia Media Centre