Brenton Tarrant was sentenced last week. The Australian national who butchered, with relish, 51 individuals in Christchurch at Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre, found himself facing something unique in New Zealand: jail for life without parole. He pleaded guilty to 51 charges of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one of terrorism. He also faced a tsunami of victim impact statements – over 200 in all.
The High Court Justice Cameron Mander was not too willing to delve into the substance of Tarrant’s ideas that saw noxious fruition on March 15, 2019. They constituted merely a “warped and malignant ideology” with moorings “in religious and ethnic antipathy and intolerance.” What concerned him most was the method. “You slaughtered unarmed and defenceless people.” Tarrant “maimed and wounded and crippled many others, your victims included the young, and the old, men, women and children.”
It is true enough. Tarrant was unsparing, pitiless and relentless. He had hoped to kill more worshippers, intending to strike a note of fear among “non-Europeans.” He had also prepared for the slaughter well in advance, having undertaken a reconnaissance mission to Al Noor Mosque two months before, sending a drone to identify points of entry and exit. Such readiness went back as far as 2017, when the Australian had settled in New Zealand with nefarious purpose. “You came to this country to murder.”
The sentencing of Tarrant served a sequestering purpose. According to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, “he deserves to be a lifetime of complete and utter silence.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed the sentiment. “It is right that we will never see or hear from him ever again.” New Zealand authorities are not merely content on keeping him in permanent incarceration on home soil. They insist that he be returned to Australia.
No one got to receive a full airing of the mindset of Tarrant the ideologue, his own views about the inundation, expunging and racial deletion of white Christians at the hands of the followers of Allah. There has, in fact, been a concerted effort across social media platforms and publications to expurgate and limit discussion on Tarrant’s cock-eyed view of the world, scribbled out in the rambling manifesto The Great Replacement. The intention is to avoid the dissemination of hate and incitement; the consequence is its concealment, bowdlerising the views of a mass murderer and limiting its dangerously broader appeal.
The plagiarised title of Tarrant’s tract is itself loosely based on Renaud Camus’s self-published book of the same title from 2012, though Camus himself had little time for the methods of Tarrant, the efforts of “someone who had failed to understand my work.” But had he? Both Camus and Tarrant are, at first blush, striking juxtapositions: the former, an ardent, confessional homosexual aesthete and laureate of the Académie Française; the latter, a personal trainer from Grafton, New South Wales who had travelled to Europe on his father’s inheritance money to bear personal witness to immigrant “invasion”.
While not having the cast iron stomach for Tarrant’s bloodiness, Camus was delighted by the notoriety his ideas were getting. As to whether he resented “the fact that people take notice of ethnic substitution that is in progress in my country?” he posed rhetorically to James McAuley writing for The Washington Post, he was unequivocal. “No. To the contrary.”
Tarrant’s language, as expressed in the manifesto, clings to the raft of European identity. “The origins of my language is European, my culture is European, my political beliefs are European, my philosophical beliefs are European, my identity is European and, most importantly, my blood is European.” He sees himself, incoherently and ramblingly, as “an Ethno-nationalist Eco-fascist. Ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on preservation of nature, and the natural order”. He sees enemies everywhere: German chancellor Angela Merkel as “mother of all things anti-white and anti-Germanic”; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as “the leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people, and the leader of the largest Islamic group within Europe.”
This streakily misguided, not to mention linguistically and culturally deluded reading, is something that finds voice across the White Supremacist family. It made an appearance in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 with chants of “Jews will not replace us.” Ditto in October, 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, were 11 were slain by Robert Bowers claiming to be targeting those who “bring invaders in that kill our people.” But Tarrant’s preferred target of hatred was not some fabled international Jewish conspiracy but Islam.
These are not the isolated mutterings of a noisy fringe. They are also entertained by certain political leaders not averse to teasing out the race, culture and even religious card, if it advances a cause. In Europe, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ far-right Freedom Party rallies with the cry that, “Our population is being replaced. No more.”
The notion of a great replacement has found freight in the views of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s fear is demographic inundation by swarthy, non-Christian outsiders. Christianity, he explained last September at the Third Demographic Summit in Budapest, needed to “regain its strength in Europe.” Population decline was “a general European phenomenon” that arose from the First and Second World Wars, both of which he regards as “brutal civil wars”. To arrest such population decline by accepting non-Europeans would be “effectively … consenting to population replacement: to a process in which the European population is replaced.”
Such views are heartily shared by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who wrote adoringly of Orbán last year as “the first European leader to cry ‘stop’ to the peaceful invasion of 2015 and is now trying to boost Hungary’s flagging birth rate.” At the centre, then, of this cultural and racial cosmos lie a set of ideas that share a threat with Tarrant’s own form of murderous retribution. They are all concerned with existential replacement.
The trial, however, left those watching it with a sense of simplicity: wickedness confined to the dock; victims seeking spiritual and emotional compensation through various forms of anger, sadness, forgiveness or lack of. It was procedural, formulaic and decidedly clear: Tarrant had butchered and must pay the bill. But there was little stomach for confronting his central contention, less than his method, which has found an audience not merely in the White Supremacist fold, but in public offices from Washington to Budapest.