The New Zealand mosque massacre and the banality of evil

ON Friday, March 15, the world watched with horror the lone act of a gunman who used a military submachine gun to kill Muslim worshippers at the Al-Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. When he was done with them, he moved on to another building, the Linwood Islamic Centre, where he continued his evil act of mayhem on an unarmed and defenceless people. What is worse, the murderer himself filmed his evil acts. We saw people screaming, wailing, running, trying to hide. And yet he continued. By the time he was done, 50 worshippers lay dead and another 50 were wounded.

My gentle readers, I can tell you that my spirit revolted within me with a sense of outrageous horror. Anybody who watched those horrific scenes would have felt diminished as a human being. For it was not only an assault on Muslims; it was an assault on all humanity. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

As we understand it, a young Australian man, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, age 28, has been charged for murder in relation to the attacks. He is said to belong to a growing network of ultra far-right white supremacists who hate Muslims and other foreigners.

I have visited New Zealand. It is a beautiful country. It is a small, progressive country whose leaders have governed the nation consistently with enlightenment and civility. For those who love the game of rugby like I do, the national team, the All Blacks, are among the top of the league. Rugby, as you know, is a game meant by barbarians but is played by gentlemen. Football, on the other hand, is a game meant for gentlemen but is, course, played by barbarians.

No nation is perfect. New Zealand has its own fair share of problems. But I found New Zealanders to be, on the whole, a tolerant and civilised people. As far back as 1840, the white colonists signed the famous Treaty of Waitangi with the indigenous Maori people guaranteeing respect for each other’s identity and culture. The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, and it means “land of the long white cloud”. I was relieved to learn that the youth of the country came out in their thousands to say “No to racism and xenophobia” in their beloved Aotearoa. They called the bluff of all those who sought to darken the sky of their homeland with their macabre gospel of hate and death.

It was the German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt who famously used the term “the banality of evil” to describe the horrors of genocide and the Shoah on Nazi Germany that was associated with Nazi leaders such as Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was captured and put on trial in Jerusalem in 1960 and executed by hanging in 1962. Hannah Arendt was a profound thinker and a former student and close associate of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Eichmann was a man of great evil who supervised the execution of people in Nazi gas chambers. Arendt reported on his trial and final execution in Jerusalem. It seemed she could only come to terms with the purveyors of such evil when she saw it as something banal and stupid.

No words can comfort the family of the victims who suffered the banality of evil at Christchurch. But we need much more than words. We need action. In a world that is swimming deeper and deeper in the quagmire of hate and intolerance, we need to preach the gospel of love and peace. Contrary to what many suppose, hatred is not the opposite of love – its opposite is fear. We hate that which we fear. And what we fear is that which we do not know. True love casts out all fear.

The ending of the Cold War, it would seem, has ushered in neither The Age of Perpetual Peace that the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant once dreamt of; nor has it led us to that realm of idyllic bliss that Francis Fukuyama famously depicted as “The End of History.” On the contrary, we face a new age of anxiety, in which old hatreds are resurrecting with a vengeance, leading to random violence and widespread insecurity among nations.

There has always been this misconception that terrorism is synonymous with the Muslim-Arab world. I lived and travelled widely in that part of the world and found many of them to be decent and civilised people. The late Charles Tilly, a social scientist of the highest integrity, who reminded us that terrorism as a social phenomenon surfaces in a wide variety of cultures, institutions and political forces; and that it is certainly not a preserve of Muslims as the American neo-conservatives would have us believe. The murderer of Christchurch was a blond white man, apparently from a middle class family.

Conflict is, of course, inherent in human societies. Politics has existed because human beings living in communities cannot always agree on what constitutes the Good Life or on how scarce resources should be distributed – how to decide on who gets what, when and how. This is also part of the reason the institution of civil government exists and why we have constitutions, laws and the judiciary. In democracies old and new, political parties provide the institutional framework within which political contestations are organised and channelled into electoral processes to decide who has the popular mandate to govern. In fragile democracies and in transitional societies such as those of Africa, those who lose out in the political process may resort to the pursuit of power by other means, i.e. through recourse to violence and other forms of self-help, including terrorism.

Ironically, political science scholars have found democracies to have a greater propensity to generate terrorist activities than military dictatorships and other repressive regimes. For example, as bad as he was, General Sani Abacha was ruthlessly effective in controlling religious extremists. During his time, it was said that even armed robbers had to soften on their act while petty criminals decided to abandon their trade. On the other hand, new democracies that suffer from high levels of corruption and institutional weakness, such as Nigeria, would tend to generate considerably more levels of terrorist activities. At the other extreme are failed states such as Somalia and Afghanistan, which provide a fertile ground for terrorism and all manner of terrorist groups.

Funnily enough, terrorists, far from viewing themselves as evil, believe themselves to be fighting a just cause. They see themselves as legitimate combatants using whatever they have to fight for what they believe to be a just cause. The victims, on the other hand, would tend to view terrorists as wicked demoniac killers. The public tend to vacillate between viewing terrorists as monsters to seeing them as heroes who are fighting a just cause against powerful enemies. In many parts of the Arab world, for example, suicide bombers are venerated as martyrs (Shaheeds). Osama bin Laden and his fellow Jihadists have been viewed by the masses of the Arab world as romantic heroes who braved the icy winds of Kandahar to fight “the infidels.” In Nigeria, some sections of the northern populace view Boko Haram with approval as brave warriors who have dared to fight against an unjust and corrupt political order.

Terrorism is ultimately about power. Terrorists crave the acquisition of power and would resort to all the means that would enable them to acquire it. The end for them justifies the means. Terrorists also tend to be quite systematic and methodical in their approach. Acknowledging their weak position, they make careful calculations of costs, benefits and risks and they select targets that will yield the maximum returns in terms of their political objectives. Their actions are often designed to have the ripple effect of fear. They pride themselves in their capacity to unleash mass anxiety, fear and panic, recognising in such psychological impact the potential large scale insecurity that forces people to submit to their will. Far from being irrational madmen, they are rational actors who make rational choices based on calculated risks and forecasts of returns on investments.

There is clearly a method to the madness. We need to understand them before we can defeat them!