I woke up to the news of the horrific attack in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday, like millions around the world. I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed on Friday morning, and the first thing I read was a friend's status update sending her thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. All I knew was that there had been an attack in New Zealand only a couple of hours earlier. I began to wonder, who were the targeted victims this time? Muslims? Christians? Or Jews?
At least 50 people had been killed in attacks in two mosques—in what is the deadliest shooting in modern New Zealand history—by an Australian national, Brenton Tarrant. His motivations behind the gruesome attacks became clearer and more chilling, as details began to emerge. From his grotesque 74-page manifesto to the guns scrawled with references to various figures from history (including Adolf Hitler) and mass shooters and the fact that he had apparently sent out a warning in the website called 8chan (described as “one of the darkest corners of the Internet”), it became obvious that this was a man filled with hate who had been indoctrinated into believing a twisted ideology—an ideology that sadly resonates with far too many today.
It also became clear that these attacks were thoroughly planned and were years in the making. Tarrant described his reasons for the attacks as to “show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands, our homelands are our own and that, as long as a white man still lives, they will NEVER conquer our lands and they will never replace our people.”
These attacks hardly came as a shock at a time when xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments are being ruthlessly peddled by the media and politicians in the West. The number of such kinds of attacks is rising in the western world in a large part because extremist views such as those of Tarrant are being legitimised by elected public officials. There's a thin line between toxic rhetoric and violence. And that is what's so tragic about attacks of the kind we witnessed in Christchurch—more innocent lives have been lost and families shattered largely because of the irresponsibility with which the media and some politicians have conducted themselves. Words have consequences.
I think of my family and friends scattered throughout the West who must be living in fear in the aftermath of yet another deadly attack targeting people who look like them and share their faith.
The current conversation is understandably highlighting many different aspects of the attacks—the role of the media, the manner in which immigrants are viewed and who have begun to feel that they can never truly “belong”, the threat of white supremacy, the role of the community at large in standing up for Muslims in the West, etc.
But there's one other thing that made the Christchurch shootings stand out from terrorist attacks in the recent past—something that could set a dangerous trend in the future. The fact that the gunman livestreamed the attack on social media as he began shooting people at point blank range added a new dimension to the way terrorist acts are carried out and the way terrorists want to ensure mass dissemination of their carnage. The chilling footage, taken through a camera mounted on Tarrant's helmet, was shared by social media users en masse, with many urging people not to watch or share the video. Some of my Facebook friends had begun to share the video and by the time I logged onto Twitter, the video had spread like wildfire. When terrorist attacks take place, we usually read about them and get glimpses of the aftermath through various sources—but how often do we witness real-time footage of the act itself, that too from the attacker's perspective?
This time, Tarrant made sure that everyone got to witness in real time the bloody rampage that he was about to embark upon. And the footage was evidently too hard to resist for many. Apart from the obvious moral implications of it—that watching and sharing the videos reflect an utter lack of respect for the dead—there is another side that is equally disturbing: the exhibitionist nature of terrorist attacks that the opportunity of social media presents. When you combine all the factors—the fast-paced nature of social media, a terrorist attack in the West, and human curiosity—what you have is a recipe for disaster with implications for governments, ordinary citizens and tech companies. As we know, tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google were scrambling to remove the graphic video from their sites which was available hours into the attack. Apart from the need for Silicon Valley tech companies to collectively find a strategy to filter and remove such content much more swiftly and effectively, the livestreaming of the Christchurch attack risks producing copycats who may adopt the same method to maximise their reach.
Given human beings' natural impulses to witness things of a “shocking”, violent nature, it is understandable, though not justified, why social media users would watch and re-watch the Christchurch video when it's readily available at their fingertips. But what about those media outlets that utterly failed to uphold their moral responsibility during such a moment of crisis? The Guardian reports, “Sky News Australia repeatedly broadcast footage of the shooter at the mosque and Ten Daily embedded the footage on its website and social media posts. Neither showed the actual shootings or any victims.” In the UK, “tabloids have been criticised for publishing footage of the Christchurch mosque terror atrocity...on their websites.” And on Friday, I switched on the TV to my disgust and horror to see Jamuna TV publicising the video, and later heard from a friend that another local channel had done the same. Apparently, none of these media channels stopped to think twice about the consequences of publishing a sordid video, however “heavily edited” as some spokespeople of news channels responded in defence, which will be etched into the memory of victims' families for the rest of their lives.
Also, there is no question that such real-time videos risk radicalisation on both sides of the aisle—white supremacists who may have been “inspired” by Tarrant on one hand, and those willing to exact revenge for the attacks, on the other. As social media users, the best we can do is denounce the attacks in the strongest possible terms, express solidarity with the victims and the targeted community, and refuse to watch and share the videos and indulge in our voyeuristic sentiments—essentially depriving the perpetrators of the audience they so badly crave.
The horrific Christchurch attacks are yet another cruel reminder of just how far we are from eliminating the spectre of terrorism given its very complex roots. But it shouldn't be lost upon us that the recent attacks have also brought to the fore a very dangerous dimension—a volatile concoction of technology, bigotry and violence—to terrorism in the 21st century, which, one can only hope, will not inspire similar violent attacks or lead to extremists into adopting a newfound “media strategy” by livestreaming the cold-blooded murder of innocent people.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.