Fifty people are confirmed dead in Christchurch, New Zealand. They were gunned down by a white supremacist who believes that their existence is an “invasion”.
This descriptor – “invasion” – is also used by the president of the United States, several Murdoch press columnists and sitting members of parliaments across the world. Their endless and odious evocation of the language of military incursion, and the existential threat it implies, has but one logical conclusion: taking up arms to repel the onslaught.
That’s what this terrorist did. And he was encouraged, repeatedly, by “respectable” people. Those who stoked and promoted this fury with their vile anti-Muslim bigotry knew what they were doing. They knew who they were stirring. They knew the risks.
They never directly called for this or any other massacre like it. They are too clever for that. They used allegories. They made suggestive references. They drew spurious analogies. Their subeditors created sensational headlines to promote online engagement. But the dots were there to be linked. They have now been linked with blood.
Socialists, anarchists and anti-fascist activists in Australia have been warning for at least half a decade of the risks posed by conservatives stoking far right sentiment; warning that they are emboldening a fascist minority. We weren’t alone. Writers such as the Monthly’s Richard Cook, the Guardian’s Van Badham, Jeff Sparrow and Jason Wilson, and the ABC’s Osman Faruqi also sounded the alarm. Repeatedly.
We argued that the “Western civilisation” purportedly being defended by the right is not the canon of reason and freedom they hypocritically try to claim. It is not Descartes’ universalism or Spinoza’s tolerance. It is a “civilisation” juxtaposed with “savages” narrative that justifies drones, surveillance, authoritarianism and racism.
Activists in groups such as the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism have mobilised again and again to counter neo-Nazi attempts to build a street movement capable of unleashing violence. Those activists watched with despair as the media gave platforms to the most odious fascist figures, describing them innocuously as “activists” or “provocateurs”. They watched as almost two dozen senators shook hands with Fraser Anning after his “final solution” maiden speech. And they sat stony-faced reading and listening to “reasonable voices” hand-wringing about anti-fascist protests or declaring them “extremists” little better than the white supremacists they desperately tried to counter.
Is more evidence now needed that the threat of an ultra-violent far right is real? Or that fascism takes succour from the propaganda printed in the comment pages of the respectable press or from the speeches delivered by prominent elected officials? Those who sounded the warnings have, tragically, been proven right. But there is only anguish in our fears being confirmed in Christchurch.
There is more to it, however. The violence unleashed by an Australian in New Zealand is undergirded by more than just the hatred encouraged by the conservative right. It has been reinforced by the “sensible centre”. This is not immediately obvious from opposition leader Bill Shorten’s address to the Islamic Council of Victoria on Saturday:
“Not all right wing extremist hate speech ends in violence, but all right wing extremist violence started in hate speech … There is no good explanation for this. All I can try and do today ... [is say] my party will never tolerate not just the violence – no one tolerates it – but the circumstances that give rise to it.”
Shorten appealed to the millions of people appalled and gutted by this anti-Muslim terrorist act, and to those struggling to understand how any human could engage in such barbarity. But his words demand interrogation because the circumstances are, lamentably, wholly intelligible.
It’s not just the conservative right encouragement brigade. Official politics in Australia has steadily shifted to the right over the last two decades, making reasonable what previously was unthinkable. And the Australian Labor Party has backed almost every move to normalise anti-Islamic hatred. The so-called border protection regime. The concentration camps. The anti-terror legislation. The wars and occupations of Muslim lands.
Contrary to Shorten’s words, the most heinous crimes of this century were not begun by “hate speech”. They were carried out under the cover of banal declarations about human dignity. Phrases about democracy and women’s rights employed for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans. The mantra of “stopping deaths at sea” as humanitarian cover for a normalised system of refugee dehumanisation.
For all the propaganda of the warmongers and hatemongers, the “reasonable” political establishment has signed off on death warrants again and again. By doing so, they legitimised the nascent rage of a minority wanting to bring the war home. They legitimised the idea of a Muslim fifth column.
The ALP’s Penny Wong and the Coalition’s Mathias Cormann are reportedly drafting a bipartisan rebuke of senator Anning for his despicable comments, which are not worthy of reprinting. It is good that the parliament will do this. But spare us the posturing. Cormann was one of those who shook Anning’s hand. He, Wong and their respective parties are responsible for the concentration camps.
The parliamentarians now “united against hate” have been virtually silent in the face of revelations that Australian commandos cut off the hands of the dead, summarily executed a detainee, killed civilians, bragged of their body counts and took trophies in the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. They held no vigils for the victims. They sent no thoughts and prayers. There was no bipartisan coming together.
These political developments did not irrevocably lead to fascist slaughter. Just as climate change cannot be blamed for any extreme weather event, the broader trajectory of official politics cannot be claimed as the singular source of any given right wing atrocity. But it is reasonable to ask whether one would have happened without the other.
This week, the great human tragedy is the murder of innocent people kneeling in their holiest of places. The great political tragedy is that no one seems ready to admit that the ground had been laid not just by right wing radicalisation, but by a more mundane and all too routine consensus.