The Christchurch Killer’s Dungeon of a Mind

ONE = Greg Sheridan: “A Manifesto for a Dark Age,” in The Australian, 23 March 2019

The manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the alleged Christchurch gunman, displays an extreme contemporary embodiment of six historical trends. It is the mirror in morality, personality and rhetoric of the archetypal Islamic State terrorist. It is the inheritor of the most extreme traditions of white racism, both the North American tradition and its Germanic cousin. Its outlook is crippled by an addiction to conspiracy theories of a type long familiar, especially in the modern US.

Brenton Tarrant with his father Rodney.

Brenton Tarrant as a youth with his father Rodney n 2006

The manifesto betrays a threatened and desperate version of masculinity. It is fascinated and addicted to violence and displays the character type that was most easily recruited to Nazism and communism in 20th-century Eur­ope. This mentality grows in an atmosphere of casual violence. And finally, though it claims to battle for the Western identity, it rejects Christianity and, mostly unconsciously, lives in the subjective environment of identity politics and the postmodern attack on objective truth.

It is wrong to give too much intellectual credit to any terrorist. It is right that the main reaction to Christchurch was condemnation, and solidarity with the victims. I passed through Adelaide airport exactly one week after the killings and there was an announcement on the PA calling for two minutes’ silence to show respect for the victims, and there were signs with the New Zealand white fern and the inscription: stay strong, sister city.

Much of this [Tarrant] manifesto is designed for the internet — lots of memes, lots of names for click bait, lots of little code games to excite fellow extremists. But, while the net is a fundamental part of modern terrorism, and has a qualitative role in radicalisation and promulgation, nonetheless the underlying dynamics of these movements fit the historical categories.

First, the uncanny resemblance to Islamic State. It is true that all extremes ultimately resemble each other. White racist terrorism doesn’t have anything like the international organisation of Islamist terrorism and can never occupy territory, but plainly it is capable of murderous violence. And obviously just as Islamist terrorism does not implicate all or even many Muslims, so white racist terrorism does not implicate all or many whites.

The Christchurch manifesto is titled The Great Replacement, a reference to the idea that non-white populations are replacing white people in Western societies through immigration and low Western birthrates. (It calls this a white genocide even as it also points out that there have never been more white people in human history.) This “replacement” is presented as a conspiracy of liberal international organisations, Western governments seeking the destruction of their own nations and greedy corporations.

This is also presented as the end point of a long war against whites by various forces, among them Jews, blacks and Muslims. There is a wildly simplistic and one-sided presentation of Muslim-Christian wars in Europe.

White nations historically, though not any predominantly white nations as they exist now, are held up as a kind of historic ideal, which were always attacked by Muslims. In reality of course history is complex, with lots of her­oes and villains and many different sides. The two greatest conflicts of the 20th century were predominantly intra-European wars.

The manifesto’s almost insanely simplistic view of history is an exact mirror image of what you get in Islamic State documents, where Islamic communities are a historic ideal but every existing modern predominantly Muslim nation is a betrayal of the ideal. So Islamic State leaders typically want to kill both Westerners and Muslim leaders who in any way frustrate their goals. Similarly, the Christchurch gunman wants to kill Muslims and other non-whites, but also wants to kill white government representatives who don’t share his view of the world.

Tarrant is lead into the dock in the Christchurch District Court.

Tarrant is led into the dock in the Christchurch District Court.

An even greater similarity comes in a section that denounces the depravity of the contemporary West, particularly scorning entertainers Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Freddie Mercury and Madonna. It comments on Mercury: “Lifelong identity crisis, lifelong battle with hedonism and drug use, eventual death due to sexual hedonism.” This is the tone of countless Islamist documents since the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syed Qutb, the ideological progenitor of violent jihadism, was shocked by the licentiousness of the US in the 1940s.

The Christchurch manifesto is also one of pure white supremacism and extreme racism. The author hates any non-white person living in the West. The definition of white is confused and narrow. A white person is someone of non-Jewish, purely European stock.

The manifesto says: “The invaders must be removed from European soil, regardless where they came from or when they came. Roma, African, Indian, Turkish, Semitic or other …” The manifesto says it is not hostile to Jews provided they live in Israel. It not only praises Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, but also Dylann Roof, who murdered innocent black worshippers at a Charleston church. Africans were brought to America by white slave traders. They did not invade or colonise. Yet according to this manifesto their presence in the West is also illegitimate and they are to be killed.

The manifesto overall has very little to say about the content of Islam. Phil Coorey of The Financial Review gave a good expression to this confusion when he commented that the Christchurch gunman had a similar view of Islam to some fringe Australian senators. Coorey is a fine journalist but this is a widespread and mistaken view. The Christchurch manifesto really has nothing to say about the teachings or practices of Islam. It hates Islam mainly because it sees Islam as embodying a large number of non-white people living in the West.

This is not to downplay the obvious Islam-specific nature of this vile terrorism but the engine of this movement is racism more than a critical view of Islam. And it inherits all the terrible racism of sections of the US and Europe. Its style is a modern version of the Ku Klux Klan, which hated blacks, Jews and Catholics. Although the manifesto describes itself as fascist rather than Nazi, it plainly echoes the racial purity madness of Nazism.

It also inhabits entirely a fantasy reality born of conspiracy madness. The racist Right is always anti-Semitic.

Police officers stand guard outside the Kilbirnie Mosque as part of the Human Chain of Protection and Solidarity in Wellington, yesterday. Picture: Getty Images
Police officers stand guard outside the Kilbirnie Mosque as part of the Human Chain of Protection and Solidarity in Wellington, yesterday. Picture: Getty Images

Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, as long ago as 1964 traced the role of conspiracy theory as a force in US politics. The John Birchers thought Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. The Lyndon LaRouche gang thought the Queen was a drug runner. Conspiracies are consoling because they relieve a person of having to think through, or even deal with, the complexity and messiness of real political life. In spreading conspiracy theories the internet and Hollywood have had a profound impact. The loss of credibility of institutions — among them the mainstream media — has assisted the rise of a bewildering range of conspiracies. Many people believe one or a number of them. I have old friends who regularly email me with articles showing Vladimir Putin, a revanchist dictator determined to destabilise the US and Europe, is really the saviour of the West.

Oliver Stone’s bizarre 1991 movie JFK, which ludicrously won an Academy Award, recycled an old conspiracy that the Kennedy assassination was a gay Nazi plot. The equally ludicrous recent bio­pic of Dick Cheney, Vice, was full of plain lies implying all manner of gruesome conspiracies where none was present. The Australian Left dearly wanted to believe the CIA was behind the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975, a dramatic but transparent episode. Whitlam himself never entertained such nonsense.

At the heart of most historic conspiracy theories is anti-Semitism, the irrational hatred of Jews. Today’s anti-Semitism is fed by three sources. One is on the political Left. Partly because Jews were traditionally associated with the fin­ance industry, the Left, going back to Karl Marx, has always had a big dollop of anti-Semitism. The position of Israel as a Western state in the Middle East gives this tradition modern energy. There is also an Arab and Islamist tradition of anti-Semitism. And in both Europe and the US, race purity obsessions of the type in the Christchurch manifesto are obsessed with anti-Semitism.

The Christchurch manifesto also exhibits what could rightly be called the most toxic masculinity imaginable. It seeks not even honourable battle but validation through the power to kill and hurt and dominate. It betrays the personality type that was most easily recruited into communist, Nazi and fascist parties in Europe in the 20th century. The love of street fighting, the joy in humiliating innocent members of a hate group and the glorification of urban confrontation meant that Nazis and communists recruited almost exactly the same type of person; sometimes people went from one to the other. This type of masculinity loves guns and revels in an atmosphere of casual violence.

Most of the criticism of Australian politicians who have made comments about Islamist movements, or the need for secure borders — that they somehow encouraged what happened in Christchurch — is wrong, offensive and absurd. And of course typically parochial in that the last thing Australian commentators want to do is invest any serious intellectual effort into understanding white supremacist mindsets and pathologies. The Christchurch gunman spent a little over a month in Australia in the past three years and was radicalised online and in Europe. His grotesque ideology was much more likely influenced by online peddlers of hate interpreting Islamist terrorist actions in Europe than by a poorly worded statement by an Australian politician.

The only Western politician who bears some culpability for encouraging an atmosphere of casual violence is Donald Trump. This is easy to overstate. Many on the Left speak routinely in violent images and violent metaphors — Robert De Niro wants to punch the US President in the face, etc. But Trump is the first president to speak that way, and he shouldn’t.

Two modern ideologies do find echoes in the Christchurch manifesto. One is identity politics. The only value the manifesto positively asserts is race. It is the Left that is making race and identity the centre of all politics. In demanding that only a real white person can speak for whites or live in white lands the Christchurch manifesto bears a striking resemblance to much of the rhetoric of identity politics.

Finally, the postmodern view that there is no objective truth, that, as Michel Foucault put it, the “regime of truth”, rationality itself, is oppressive, allows everybody, not just people you like, to construct their own fantasy reality.

As Christchurch demonstrates, those fantasies can be nightmares.

   *** ***

TWO = Chip Le Grand & Mark Schliers: “Gunman’s Dark World of Misfits and Voyeurs,” The Australian, 23 March 2091,

The Swedish tour operator had a question for the man wanting to travel to North Korea. In his application, he’d listed his age as 23 and his occupation as retired. Surely, one of these must be a mistake. “No mistake there,’’ came the reply via an email from Thailand. “I have enough money to retire at this stage, perhaps for ever or at least for a very long time.’’

That was five years ago. In the mind of Brenton Tarrant, Australia’s worst mass murderer, a loose plan was already forming. It didn’t involve having to work.

In 2010, Tarrant’s father killed himself after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He wasn’t a wealthy man; he’d worked in waste disposal at Grafton in northern NSW. But through his estate, 19-year-old Brenton received a considerable sum. Writing under a pseudonym on an online forum, Tarrant suggested he had inherited about $500,000. It was enough to open possibilities and create a new problem.

“In my piss-ant town, you are the next Bill Gates if you have half a million in liquid assets,’’ he ­explained on the investor forum in May 2011. “Thus why no one must ever know I’m not a broke personal trainer living with my mother.’’

Tarrant was a young man with means, but he couldn’t tell even the few friends he had. In the real word, his unexpected wealth pushed him into isolation. The only people he trusted were those he found online, under assumed names and avatars. His true friends were anonymous.

There are two investigations being conducted in parallel by law enforcement and intelligence agencies into the radicalisation of Tarrant. Both are global in nature.

The first is to establish where Tarrant went and who he knew in the years and months before he entered the Al Noor Mosque. The second is an overdue, deep-dive examination of the obscure, online community he inhabited; from the social misfits and voyeurs who watched and celebrated as Tarrant live-streamed his crimes, to the hardcore, white supremacist ideologues who seed hatred and discord through right-wing memes.

Despite his new-found riches, Tarrant didn’t travel in luxury. Throughout 2013 and 2014 he drove a nomadic trail through Western Australia and the Northern Territory, living out of a van and sleeping in the dank sweat of tropic nights.

On a Lonely Planet blog, he writes about being stuck in Katherine with no airconditioning and waking up with a “sweat angel’’ on his mattress and a beer in his hand. Next on his itinerary was Southeast Asia, where he intended to buy a van or four-wheel-drive. “I have no plans, just head counter clockwise around the greater land mass of europe/russia/asia/­Africa,’’ he wrote. The North Korean trip, booked through the Swedish group Korea Konsult, was in 2014 and China the next year.

In 2016 and 2017, his travels took him to historical faultlines between West and East, Christianity and Islam; Turkey and Israel and the Balkan states of Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro.

Tarrant on a trip to North Korea in 2014

When back in Montenegro six months ago, he visited the ­Museum of Marko Miljanov in the ancient town of Medun. Miljanov is a celebrated writer and warrior who 150 years ago led his local ­Orthodox Christian tribesman, the Kuci, against the Muslim ­armies of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian website Nova reported that last November Tarrant visited several towns linked to historical battles in the Russo-Turkish War. By that time, his preparations were well advanced for a war of his own.

They began on April 7, 2017, when an Uzbek immigrant named Rakhmat Akilov stole a truck and ploughed through pedestrians in a popular Stockholm shopping district. He killed five people. One of them was Ebba Akerland, an 11-year-old schoolgirl on her way home.

Three days after the attack, an anonymous poster on 4chan, a message board popular among the alt-right, published from an Australian IP address a picture of a girl’s body, lying in the middle of zebra crossing. “This is Ebba Akerland now,’’ the message read. “This is the future for White children in Europe if we allow Muslim settlement to continue.’’

Tarrant, in his manifesto, said he was travelling through Western Europe at the time of the Stockholm attack and that Akerland’s murder “broke through my own jaded cynicism like a sledgehammer”.

Within months, Tarrant had moved to New Zealand where, until this week, military-style semi-automatic rifles could be ­legally bought with a licence.

The 8chan message board, a more extreme, obscure version of 4chan, provides an online refuge for white extremist ideology, child pornography and sexual fetishes. It was here that Tarrant started the thread that announced his intention to murder Muslims.

Luke Isaak, an alt-right journalist and activist behind the latest push to bring Milo Yiannopolous to Australia, says that to fully understand why Tarrant did what he did, you must first understand the meme culture that drives sites such as 8chan.

On one level, the discussions are a piss-take; a stream of anonymous, facetious trolling designed to expose anyone who either doesn’t get the joke or is new to the forum. On another level, the discussions are replete with deepseated, disturbed meaning. That meaning is embedded in memes; recurring images or cultural references that have become ­ingrained in the human psyche over years and, in some cases, centuries.

Tarrant’s online cobbers refer to Kek and the fictional land of ­Kekistan. The symbol of Kek, as appropriated by the alt-right, is a cartoon frog called Pepe. While Tarrant is carrying out his massacre, his 8chan followers delight in a language of their own making.

“Hahahaha. He played remove the kebab en route. I’m dyin over here!’’ posts one. “See you in Valhalla BT. Kekspeed’’ says another. “He dabbed on some muds. Nice.”

All these references are to powerful memes within the ­extreme right. Kek was an ancient Egyptian god. He represented darkness, chaos and obscurity. He was drawn as a man with a frog’s head. This explains how Pepe the Frog, once a harmless cartoon, ­became a symbol of the extreme right.

Removing kebabs refers to the slaughter of Muslims by Serbians when Yugoslavia collapsed into its disparate states. Muds is a disparaging term for Muslims.

Tarrant murdered 50 people knowing he was being watched by this small in-house audience. He performed for them, as he did this week in a Christchurch courtroom, when he flashed the “OK” symbol while his hands were in cuffs. The symbol is an alt-right meme. It has no connection to white supremacy other than its ­recent, facetious use, to trigger ­reactions in others.

The Anti-Defamation League, a US-based organisation formed to combat anti-Semitism, notes that Tarrant’s manifesto is full of symbolism adopted by the Nazis: the Othala rune from pre-Roman Europe, the Celtic cross, the Tyre rune Archangel Michael’s cross. This doesn’t make Tarrant a Nazi. As JM Berger, an expert on ­extremism, told CNN, the killer’s manifesto shouldn’t be read as a confession.

“This particular document is really full of things that the author thought were jokes or things that were meant to provoke news coverage in some way that don’t necessarily reflect really what he thought or he was trying to achieve.’’

John Coyne, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy ­Institute, began his career in the Australian Federal Police. One of his first assignments, before 9/11, was to infiltrate and monitor right-wing extremist groups in southeast Queensland. “I believe there is a very small cadre of hardcore right-wing ­extremists and white supremacists. That small cadre, on a global level, social media provides them with the capacity to create their own echo chamber where true ideologues can meet up. The echo chamber at a global level troubles me,’’ he says. “He is not mentally ill. He was cold and calculating. Everything he did was all about the audience and manipulating the situation for maximum benefit. All his activities have the hallmarks of a driven and directed person.”

Tarrant’s path to radicalisation is almost a cliche: the death of his father at an impressionable age, his disconnection from schoolmates in Grafton, the injustice he feels at Stockholm, his immersion in a destructive ideology and ­exposure online to like-minded radicals.

It is more difficult to explain what has happened since. All week, in a dark, foul place on the internet, people have championed Tarrant as a hero. That is almost as disturbing as what he did.



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One response to “The Christchurch Killer’s Dungeon of a Mind

  1. Just goes to show….travel does not always broaden the mind

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