Assigning responsibility for terrorism

In the wake of the horror that unfolded in two Christchurch mosques yesterday the Internet is abuzz with analysis of what happened and why. Op-ed pieces are pointing fingers in multiple directions, accusing multiple people of having had a role, however indirect, in the slaughter of 49 Muslims by an apparent white supremacist seeking to make his mark on the world and spread his ‘theory’ of ‘The Grand Replacement’ (the belief that Muslims are outproducing white folk and will ‘take over’ eventually).

I have learned a lot already over the past 24 hours about things like ‘shitposting’ and how the world of hateful white nationalists functions online (much in the same way I learned a lot about the incel subculture after Alek Minassian carried out his van attack in Toronto last April). Yes, a lot of this is disturbing but it is incumbent on all of us to learn more so we can come up with ways to combat this scourge.

At the same time there is a fierce debate on who is ultimately responsible for the massacre. A whole range of people from US President Trump to online white nationalist and racist ‘stars’ to former terrorists such as Norway’s Anders Breivik are cited as having contributed to the mindset of the Christchurch shooter. The fact that the terrorist listed tonnes of names in his rambling 74-page ‘manifesto’ is being used to back this analysis.

I will leave the analysis of online space and ‘viralisation’ to those more qualified to weigh in. What I want to reflect on today is what do we mean by ‘responsibility ‘? Narrowly defined the only person ‘responsible ‘ for this heinous act is the gunman himself – unless it turns out that some of the others (three men and a woman) arrested yesterday played some role in facilitating the attack. The gunman got the gun, chose the target, pulled the trigger, live-streamed his actions and is charged with several counts of first degree murder. We as humans have to accept responsibility for our own decisions and our own actions. We cannot resort to “he made me do it”.

At the same time it is important to look into the environment in which this event occurred. I have said it before and I will say it again: no one is an island. The terrorist in Christchurch did not ‘radicalise himself’. He learned from others and drew inspiration from them. They say it takes a village to raise a child: the same goes for radicalisation, even if the village may be largely virtual.

What then to say about the mountains of hateful vitriol out there, either online or offline? Did this cesspool of ideology and questionable history play a role in the deaths of innocent Muslims? Probably. Does that mean that those posting, sharing or creating this garbage are equally culpable? Hmm, I am not so sure on that.

This is not to say that the vast, vast, vast majority of us who reject this vileness should not actively oppose it and do our parts to actively see it taken down. We all have a duty to help identify truly objectionable material and flag it for the social media platforms to deal with as quickly as possible.

Complicating this, however, is the division between legitimate debate and unacceptable content. Having a discussion on immigration, for example, must be allowed but we cannot tolerate the depths of depravity surrounding this topic that can easily be found in far right forums. It still remains a challenge who decides where that bar should be and who should have the power to remove information.

In the end neither President Trump, no matter how incredibly stupid and incompetent that man is, nor anyone else is directly responsible for the massacre. The shooter is the one who must answer for his crimes. This does not mean that we should not take a long look at what we are facing and where we have come to in a world where the ideas underlying a terrorist event of such a scale are readily accessible.

Humans are adaptable and intelligent, capable of solving some truly hard problems. What to do about online hate is one of them. It is time too get to work so that perhaps we can prevent another Christchurch from happening.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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