Australia and New Zealand are migrant societies held together by a healthy civic patriotism that welcomes anyone of any race or creed who signs up for government by rule of law decided by democratic means. The reality of this social cohesion was demonstrated over the weekend, when the peoples of New Zealand and Australia too were drawn together – from right across their political, religious, ethnic and social spectrums – to mourn 50 lives lost to a gunman driven by lies and rage.
It repudiated the extreme ethnic nationalist idea of belonging in which Brenton Tarrant dressed up his murderous instincts in Christchurch on Friday. Such ideology has no place in our free and open societies, and it never can have. It is a mirror image of Islamist violence, with its similar stew of paranoid conspiracy theories, revenge fantasy and the certainties of the fanatic. In the hands of disturbed individuals who have armed themselves, this bile leaks out of the dark corners of the internet into the real world. Barbarians pretending to be defenders of civilisations have to be challenged at every level of our society.
Tarrant is Australian. He could have acted here, though his semi-automatic weapons would have been impossible to buy legally in Australia. The Australian police and security services now will have to be extra vigilant in monitoring the sewers of the far-right internet and social media, trying to find the tipping points between mere trolls and real terrorists capable of acting out their anger. But there could be a lot of Tarrants. He came from mainstream Australia, and he had his life opportunities. He cannot even claim, as a Muslim teenager might, that he came from a marginalised community where angry alienation is to be expected.
The internet connects these fanatics everywhere, first radicalising Tarrant, then becoming his live stage. The internet giants turned out to have feet of clay, unable to keep up as Tarrant’s footage went viral around dark corners of the web, just as he intended. In a horrible new era of live-streamed killing, the pressure on internet publishers wherever they are to take more responsibility for what appears on their platforms – just as any conventional publisher would – is going to become intense.
The whole debate on free speech is more important now too. There is a clear separation between free speech and hate speech. People do have the right to be bigots, to think stupid thoughts, and to say them – and to be repudiated. But incitement to harm is always a different matter. Some politicians are now being criticised for shrill conversations about migration, and creating an atmosphere that supposedly enables the likes of Tarrant. But a strong civic society cannot put subjects such as the appropriate pace of migration under the carpet where they fester for extremists to pick up. The Australian Financial Review is in favour of a big (and colour blind) Australia, which will be strategically safer and more prosperous in the long run if it has more people. But we acknowledge that you cannot change communities too fast or lose control of borders. That is when confidence in the migration process collapses.
The federal government has decided to stop Milo Yiannopoulos a right-wing activist from entering the country. Mr Yiannopoulos is a professional provocateur – he was invited onto the ABC’s Q&A – and it may be prudent to keep him away at this moment. But free speech is a natural test of the resilience of a free society, and ordinarily we would be loath to keep people out or stop them from speaking. And the left needs to watch its political language as well. Descriptions of conservative parliamentarians as “far-right” is now routine currency in Australia, when they have not the slightest attachment to racist or authoritarian movements. We hope this stops. And look how quickly British Labour has become engulfed in anti-Semitism, imported along with the nasty sectarian politics of the authoritarian left that the party foolishly invited in.
Tarrant chose tranquil New Zealand for his assault because he thought it would show Muslims they were not safe anywhere. The heartfelt response of the free societies of New Zealand and Australia have shown how wrong and deluded he was.