Why did a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand, kill 50 Muslims in two mosques on March 15? The answer may not be as evident as it first seems.
There’s no doubt that the New Zealand shooter, an Australian national I won’t name, was motivated by a blind hatred of Muslim immigrants. His manifesto calls Muslims “the most despised group of invaders in the West.” And his self-described terrorist act takes place in a context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry around the Western world. The number of organized anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States nearly tripled in 2017, a rise that the Southern Poverty Law Center credited in part to the “incendiary rhetoric” of Donald Trump. The French elections of 2017 were also chock-full of anti-Muslim invective. A 2019 report in Britain found that the far-right movement there is fast growing because of a common hatred of Muslims.
This tragic situation has consequences for how Western Muslims will now live their lives. Imagine having to wonder if going to your place of worship will also mean going to your final act in life.
But this is not an anxiety reserved solely for Muslims, either. In 2018, another white supremacist entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jewish worshipers. In 2015, the white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine people, all African American, during a service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2012, another white supremacist killed six Sikh worshipers at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Looking at these horrific incidents together, there is little doubt that white supremacist violence is a grave threat to us all.
But the terrorist attack in New Zealand stands apart from these others for a specific reason: the manifesto.
The New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, titled “The Great Replacement,” is not a work of sublime or even evil genius. Canada’s National Post called it “a digital document titled like a political science treatise, looking like a high school journal, positioned as an ideological manifesto but coming off as a cut-and-paste online rant.” But we would be wrong to dismiss the document as merely the immature ramblings of a crazed ideologue. The manifesto is key to understanding the New Zealand terrorist attack in the same way that Anders Breivik’s manifesto, titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” is central to understanding the Norwegian terrorist’s attacks in 2011, which killed a total of 77 people.
Why? Because neither the New Zealand attacker nor Breivik was using his manifesto to justify his terrorism. On the contrary. Both were using their terrorism to advertise their manifestos.
The New Zealand shooter’s document not only references and praises Breivik—“I have read the writings of Dylan Roof and many others, but only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik”—but in fact emulates “2083” in form, content, and even delivery. Just prior to committing his act, the Norwegian attacker sent his manifesto to 1,000 e-mail addresses. Similarly, minutes before setting out on his rampage, the New Zealand shooter sent his manifesto to more than 30 New Zealand parliamentary e-mail addresses. In both cases, the attacks functioned as ways to bring extraordinary attention to the manifestos, a document of over 1,500 pages in the former case and a paltry 74 pages in the latter.
The main ideological content of both manifestos is essentially made up of boring talking points from the extreme-right wing about how Europe is allowing itself to be exterminated through Muslim and other nonwhite immigration. Once one is familiar with this (frankly, stupid) argument, the ideological component is just not that interesting. But it’s the form, the composition, and the sundry material where the manifestos become more curious. As I wrote for The Nation when reporting on Breivik in 2012:
More than half [of “2083”] comprises essays copied from the Internet, and the rest is Breivik’s own. It is a bizarre read. The sections Breivik composed contain, among other things, uniforms and insignia for the Knights Templar, his imagined resistance army; head shots of Breivik, presumably for media use; details on explosives and weapons; opening and closing statements for his trial, which he had foreseen; a section where he interviews himself (“Q: Name your favorite Eau de Toilette: A: Chanel Platinum Egoiste”); an incomplete elaboration of women’s “erotic capital”; and a clinical discussion of the STDs his mother and half-sister have contracted.
The document has repeatedly been called a manifesto and denigrated as a cut-and-paste job, although Breivik does usually identify his sources. Less remarked upon is that Breivik never calls his text a manifesto, instead using the term “compendium,” and that he clearly envisions the document as a present and future collaborative effort. Sections are left in draft form, to be completed by others later. He…concludes his text by telling the reader that “the responsibility falls upon you now as I will, for obvious reasons, not be able to develop it any further. Any and all individuals with the appropriate skills are encouraged to contribute to a second edition of this compendium by improving and expanding it where needed.” He closes by thanking his “brothers and sisters in England, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the US etc.” for their assistance.
The list is significant. Breivik may be a loner, but he’s not alone. Transcribing the anti-Muslim blogosphere into his text is his way of showing he is part of a movement. He is tapping into the talents of today’s right-wing populists who “are adept at using new technology to amplify their message, recruit, and organize,” as a recent study by European think tank Demos pointed out. “2083” gets its compositional energy from the phenomenon of crowd-sourcing. This is not a brainless cut-and-paste job. It’s a wiki for right-wing terrorism.
And now we have not just a second edition but a version 2.0. Like “2083,” “The Great Replacement” also contains a section where the killer interviews himself. “Was the attack ‘islamophobic’ [sic] in origin?” he asks himself, answering: “Islamic nations in particular have high birth rates, regardless of race or ethnicity, and in this there was an anti-islamic [sic] motivation to the attacks, as well as a want for revenge against islam [sic] for the 1300 years of war and devastation that it has brought upon the people of the West and other peoples of the world.” The document reprints Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” among other poems, and, also like 2083, is heavily reliant on Wikipedia. It is also a mish-mash of writing styles, suggesting that it was not all written by the same person. And the Internet has also evolved since 2012, meaning that this latest manifesto trades often and freely in right-wing memes (the shooter calls himself a kebab removalist, for example), digital trolling, and a kind of alt-right irony, a world I know very little about.
And that’s the point. The New Zealand attack was performed as a way to advertise a manifesto that isn’t directed to people like me, to the general public. It would, however, be fully legible to a dangerous subculture of global white supremacists. Unlike Dylann Roof’s manifesto, which was one man’s justification for his unjustifiable actions, this new genre of document is the collective labor of a dangerous international social movement, the ultimate goal being to recruit ever more authors and killers. This is mass murder as a marketing strategy, death on the internet plan.
“Final victory is yours, if you have the will for it,” the New Zealand shooter’s document ends. “As for me, my time has come.” The implication is clear. A third edition is likely on the horizon, which is why we would be foolish to relegate attacks such as these to the actions of lone wolves.