On Friday morning, the world woke to the tragic news that in Christchurch, New Zealand 50 Muslim worshippers had been killed, and a 50 more injured, when a mosque was attacked by gun-toting far-right extremists. At least one of the shooters has claimed that the attack was ‘in response’ to Islamic State attacks on various European nations.
Every time the perpetrator of such an event is white, questions are raised about how the media covers such events. It has often been pointed out that, when a massacre is perpetrated by someone who is not white, the media instantly condemns them as a ‘terrorist’. White gunmen, conversely, are labelled as ‘mentally ill’, and their crimes are seldom described as acts of terror, even when dozens of people are slaughtered in the name of a political cause.
This time around, the media’s response has been mixed. Whilst some news outlets have, quite rightly, described the incident at ‘terrorism’, others still seem determined to avoid the ‘T word’. They call the attacks ‘shootings’, ‘carnage’ and even ‘a massacre’, yet the incident still isn’t depicted as an act of terrorism.
Because the perpetrators don’t fit the Western media’s view of what constitutes a terrorist. Yet, as far as I can see, the cold-blooded slaughter of 49 people in the name of a political cause sounds like the very definition of a terror attack.
I’m sure the media would agree- if the terrorists had brown skin, wore Islamic dress and identified as Muslim. Since 9/11, this has been many Western journalists’ only accepted definition of a terrorist. As far as they are concerned, someone who is white or Christian simply can’t be a terrorist, even when their hands are soaked in the blood of innocent people.
So, why does the media repeatedly get away with failing to refer to mass-shootings as terrorism?
In the case of the New Zealand terror attack, this question can be answered using a single word: Islamophobia. If the victims of this atrocity were white, I believe their killers would have been labelled as ‘terrorists’ as soon as the first article was published about the attack. Yet, when Muslims are the ones targeted in a terror attack, the far-right media has a tendency to ‘justify’ the attacks, pointing out that Islamic extremists have been responsible for terrorist attacks in the past.
Surely, these red-faced, fist-waving, commentators spout, all Muslims are the same?
In their eyes, terrorist groups like Islamic State represent all Muslims, and Islam is a barbaric, violent religion. This view was best summed up by the far-right Australian Senator Fraser Anning’s response to the attacks. His statement, which is too outrageous and insensitive to be quoted, essentially waved away the terrorist attack as little more than a response to Muslim immigrants’ presence in New Zealand, and condemns Islam as a religion for fanatics.
Anning and his ilk are choosing to forget about the 1.5 billion innocent, peaceful Muslims around the world. Instead, they are determined to argue that all Muslims are violent extremists, reducing the sympathy any Islamic community is shown whenever they are attacked by far-right terrorists.
Unless the media does more to challenge such bigoted views, and starts calling far-right attacks ‘terrorism’, I feel we will fall into a vicious cycle, whereby Muslims or immigrants will continue to be attacked, more innocent people will be massacred, and nothing will be done to change attitudes and prevent it happening again.
Anyone familiar with the work of David Mitchell and Robert Webb - the stars of the BBC’s ‘Peep Show’ - may also have seen their sketch show ‘Mitchell and Webb’, or at least what is now its best known sketch. It consists of two Nazi SS officers talking during the retreat from Stalingrad; after pointing out that they have “little pictures of skulls” on their caps, one turns to the other and says “Hans ...are we the baddies?”. The sketch is a great of example of something that’s funny because it really is true. Studies have shown repeatedly that humans have a terrifying ability to bias their worldview in a primal instinct to create an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ group. As a species that evolved in close-knit tribes that were entirely co-dependent it was extremely important for our survival and, since its function is no longer needed, is now at the centre of the problem with modern political discourse and social division.
To cast this bias in an entirely unfunny light you need only to open any social media, which is still flooded with stories of the Christchurch massacre, in which 50 Muslims were murdered during worship in New Zealand on Friday. As with many people who have commented on the shooting I can agree that I am disgusted, but not surprised. Mass shootings seem almost ubiquitous in the news today, and what is more subtly present around social and print media is their cause; Islamophobia, or, more generally, the ‘tribe bias’. It seems obvious to me that most of the stories we despair over endlessly on the modern world stage (Brexit and Trump et al.) are closely linked to this root cause. The common denominator between all of them is that they consist of two sides, embattled and hating one another, wondering how anyone would be foolish enough to see the world from the others’ ridiculous point of view. Politics and the marketplace of ideas have become a team sport in which many of us simply pick an arbitrary side and dig our heels in at any sign of contradiction; after all, it is a nasty experience to find out that a comfortable, familiar world view is actually deeply flawed.
From the point of view of the Christchurch shooter, he was simply doing the work of the his 'tribe'. He no doubt saw himself as a virtuous saviour, ending his life as a free man to forward what he saw was the noble cause of protecting western civilization from the malicious invasion of Islam. It is obvious to everyone that has not surrounded themselves in a far right echo chamber that his actions were horrific and irrational, however in an age when- through social media- we can completely ignore any point of view that does not affirm a pre-existing belief we already have, our worldviews can become twisted to even these extremes. The deep ingraining of the tribal mentality is a key element in the rampant Islamophobia we see today. A story as shocking as Christchurch will drag this bias into the light for questioning, albeit temporarily. Even now, public figures like Australian senator Fraser Anning refuse to give in to the overwhelming evidence that his blunt scapegoating of immigrants is wrong, saying “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Even after hearing of how innocent people, many of them children, were mercilessly killed, not once did he stop running his mouth to ask himself whether he could really justify what he was saying, using the media coverage of such an heinous act to further his own cause, and stubbornly cheer for his own 'team'.
In everyday life, it is difficult to get rid of all of our biases; one or two always slip through the net and wait subtly to distort our view of reality. Xenophobia, Islamophobia or any kind of hate should not be allowed to cloud our judgments . Whenever someone like ‘Tommy Robinson’ or Katie Hopkins says something negative about Muslims which may seem ostensibly common-sense and agreeable, simply repeat the statement while replacing the word ‘Muslim’ with ‘Jew’, or 'human'. Then, after reflecting on what you have just said, look in the mirror and ask yourself an honest question; “are we the baddies?”