Brenton Tarrant
The Australian terrorist who killed 51 people in Christchurch mosques in 2019. (Image: AAP/Mark Mitchell)

The Christchurch attack is, so far, doing everything that Brenton Tarrant has stated he wants it to. It has made a safe haven like New Zealand as violent as some of the countries that many of the affected immigrants fled. It has, as the online fascist right says “accelerated” the debate and conflict over large-scale open-ended multicultural immigration; and it has put a centre-right that has used nativism and xenophobia on notice — they have half-slipped off the tiger they’ve been riding for a decade or more.

PM Scott Morrison issued a mealy-mouthed comment, then came out explicitly labelling the event as “right-wing terrorism”. Presumably an adviser had read Tarrant’s 75-page document and seen that Tarrant himself says he’s a terrorist and right-wing by some definitions. Senator Fraser Anning’s statement blaming Muslim immigrants for their own slaughter proved a welcome distraction for the right, as did the egg-slapping he received the next day.

While the right were desperately trying to find a stance, large sections of the left and progressives were willing to rush to a standard explanation. Tarrant’s document/manifesto was “rambling” and “hate-filled”; his act was the end result of years of tabloid racism; as a white Australian, he was the carrier of settler violence etc etc. This is a wheezy old recitative, which simply assimilates any new event to a progressive narrative. It has a near-total symmetry with the right’s account of madmen and lone wolves — but it was made more visible by the right’s silence across the weekend.

The plain fact is that Tarrant’s bloody terrorist propaganda of the deed fits almost none of the progressive/left accounts being given of it. Tarrant seemingly isn’t ‘mad’ in the sense of being psychotic; his document/manifesto isn’t rambling; his hate is focused and directed, not explosive and incontinent; he is not, in an exact sense, a white supremacist, or an antipodean anti-Indigenous racist. Given what he actually is, it would be almost more comforting if he was any of those things — which is one reason why there is such a desire to slot him into a standard progressive/left narrative.

What or who is Brenton Tarrant? It is quite possible that he was once an attentive reader of Andrew Bolt and other tabloid nativists and race-panic merchants. But his document/manifesto and his 8chan threads — overlaid with trolling though they are — suggest that he left that cheap stuff long ago and began to dive into the traditionalist stream of European reactionary thinking. These were movements inspired by specific readings of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Spengler, of figures like Julius Evola and the fascist ideologue Gentile, who argued that modern existence — technology, capitalism, bureaucracy — was essentially annihilating the human spirit, that it was afflicting white Europeans uniquely, that communism and consumer capitalism were near-equal ills, and that the recovery of the European spirit licensed almost any act. 

It could be argued from his document that Tarrant is of this tradition, even if he hasn’t encountered much of it directly (though he may well have). He declares it necessary to kill Muslims (and possibly others) in European lands (including colonial lands) because their culture is stronger, not weaker than white culture. Essentially he argues that white culture has become so decadent, its post-God world such a market wasteland, its cultural heroes either depressives like Kurt Cobain or alleged paedophiles like Michael Jackson, that it stands no chance against intact, robust cultures such as Islam. There’s no particular anti-Semitism, no anti-Indigenous ranting, no incel stuff about feminism per se — his obsession is falling birthrates overall, rather than failing to get laid — and no championing of European imperialism in that defensive way the right has adopted. For Tarrant, meaningful existence seemingly comes from intact race-cultures; his travels through the world have convinced him that no European society is intact.

The importance of this is to see clearly what’s happened, and what’s coming. Tarrant isn’t some ranting Aussie with eight flag emojis on his Twitter handle. He’s part of the “right international”, the global movement of ethno-nationalists and ethno-separatists whose movement can be found widely — including in Hungarian politician Hungary Viktor Orbán, in the underworld of 8chan — and in violent operatives like Tarrant. Because they’re separatists not supremacists they can work together globally, connecting with, for example, Hindu nationalists, the Han Chinese nationalism of the Chinese Communist Party (Tarrant says his political views align most closely with China’s), and others.

Tarrant’s act isn’t the “lone wolf” act of someone running down Muslims in his truck; it’s “lone operative” terrorism. It’s a single mission seeking maximum outrage.

None of it fits the right-wing narrative of a madman; Tarrant is radically evil and ruthless, but the content of his social philosophy — that race-decline destroys whole societies — lines up with the explicit beliefs that much of News Corp tabloid media has been pumping out for years now. Yet nor is he the figure the left/progressives would want him to be: the loner bogan automaton with no agency, loaded up and pointed, like one of his scribbled-on guns, by racist media.

What Tarrant clearly wanted was for European countries to feel markedly less safe for Muslim immigrants. He wants the centre-right, which has been opportunistically borrowing from hard-right nativism, to be thrown into chaos, split between condemners and appeasers. Above all he wants left progressives to discredit themselves by insisting ever more vociferously that There Is No Alternative to a world totally marketised, multiculturalised and globalised, and that anyone who disagrees is a monster, much like… Brenton Tarrant. That will serve, in his thinking, to further alienate those who have deep misgivings about globalised, internationalised societies, from the official political and media system, and make elite dominance all the more visible.

Don’t be distracted by the shitposting of the document. Beneath it is a perfectly consistent worldview, with a rationale for extreme violence in the tradition of the Irgun, Ulster paramilitaries, Black September and a host of others. What is chilling is not the occasional grandiosity, or occultism of Tarrant’s thought but the, well, modesty of his aims — how much he was willing to trade away for what he believes will be relatively little effect.

If few are likely to follow him into decades of prison, many will be convinced by his weighing of means and ends to lesser actions. As violent Islamic terror fades in the West, the greatest threat we now face is hard-right terror, successively refining its methods, swimming like a fish in the sea of a racist political culture engineered by the right.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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