How an act of mass murder is turned into a global spectacle

Daniel Trilling

Fascist ideology is by its nature incoherent and contradictory. It bundles together all sorts of fears, prejudices, beliefs, myths, symbols, images and rhetoric around a simple and brutal impulse: a desire for absolute dominance, hierarchy and racial purity. In recent years, white supremacist terrorism across the world has targeted Muslims, black people, Jews, Sikhs, Roma, immigrants and leftists. The perpetrators are often misogynists. Fascism has always followed this logic. What is new, however, is the way in which the rest of us are being made complicit, on a mass scale, in furthering its aims.

Far-right terrorist ‘manifestos’, like the one apparently published by one of the Christchurch shooters, are a kind of Rorschach test, inviting the reader to finish the job by finding meaning in the incoherent and contradictory ideas it contains. An act of mass murder is turned into a global spectacle by the use of real-time social media networks. Traditional media organisations and individuals online are drawn into repeating, arguing over and sharing the claims and images made by the perpetrator.

The central message of the manifesto – a call to genocidal white supremacism – travels in two directions. One is to pull mainstream political debate to the right and make existing divisions worse. The other is to draw people into the online subcultures in which far-right ideas thrive: the jokes, memes and conspiracy theories set up an enclosed system of meaning, where challenges from outside merely reinforce its apparent truth.

What could stop this? The first thing should be to pull the brake on the particular way in which these images and ideas are able to circulate via global networks of communication. Twitter, Facebook and Google have created social resources that many of us now find indispensable. They have made our emotional engagement – our interior lives – the basis on which they try to make profits. At the same time they largely refuse to put in place structures – editorial oversight, forms of democratic accountability – that would allow us at least some degree of control over them. We should own them, and have the power to take collective decisions about the way in which they operate. In the meantime, we need strategies to help young people – though not only young people – develop the critical thinking tools necessary for negotiating this world.

The second is to recognise that although technology can make things worse, it is not the cause of terrorism. Far right politics is parasitical on the mainstream. It has little original content of its own, but holds up a distorted mirror to more general failures and divisions. It takes the racism and the resentment that are already present in society and tries to mobilise them to ever more extreme ends. White supremacist terrorists target the people that white majority societies have already made marginal in one way or another, through historical oppression, economic injustice or current conflicts. It should not be a surprise that Muslims are so frequently the target of far-right violence in the West, when anti-Muslim attitudes are widespread among the populations of those countries, and voiced across a broad range of mainstream media. Or that Jews remain central to the far-right worldview when conspiracy theories about Jewish wealth and power persist elsewhere. It is legitimate to ask what role mainstream prejudices have in raising the risk of far-right terrorism, but it is also important to remember that isn’t the only reason to oppose them. We should oppose these prejudices because they are – in and of themselves – an appalling way to treat people.


  • 16 March 2019 at 1:16pm
    Michael Collins says:
    Daniel's voice is just one of many crying from a now-limitless wilderness.

    Many ideologies are "incoherent and contradictory" - can anyone see sense in Marxism? Not me. Perhaps Stalin got the nub of it.

    "Anti-Muslim attitudes are widespread in the West." If I take this as true - though what evidence is offered? - then does Daniel have any clues as to why this could be? I'd feel enlightened to hear them.

    We must beware of being too Western-focused in our attention. Africa often escapes our parochial preoccupation but in Nigeria, within the past week, more than 50 Christians have been killed and 140 homes destroyed by Islamic militants. The media furore over Christchurch is as unsurprising as the almost total lack of the same over the Nigerian carnage. Perhaps poor blacks don't have names or deserve our compassion quite so much, aren't so REAL to our refined sensibilities.

    The weakest section of Daniel's piece lies in the strictures advocated for social media companies. He's been reading too much William Blake if he imagines they will ever cede one iota of meaningful influence to the people. The Jerusalem Express is permanently cancelled.

    Other prescriptions based on some hopelessly idealistic conception of human nature remind me of the twerps who tried all sorts of "remedies" to cure my inner-city school's well-documented woes. What may seem feasible in Ludlow is probably doomed to crash and burn in London.

    I studied history at college and my overall impression was that most of it was "an appalling way to treat people", and nothing much has changed. Here at least I can detect the profound and genuine upset Daniel feels and, believe me, I share it.

    But pie-in-the sky niceties won't solve the bloody contretemps into which we're all born.

    • 17 March 2019 at 1:52am
      hry says: @ Michael Collins
      Many people can see sense in Marxism – if you can't then that's probably more to do with you. Given that Stalinism discarded Marx's central plank of internationalist revolution – without which he stressed there could be no socialist victory – in favour of 'socialism in one country', I think that you're just shoehorning into your point an ideology you dislike in order to take lazy and ill-informed jabs at it.

      No doubt the racial composition of the victims and what country they belong to plays a major role in whether they are given news time in the West. TV news editors have long remarked that whenever they run a segment on Africa, the audience switches off. I would say that an atrocity's coverage is also based on whether the combatants actively court the Western media for the sake of exposure – Nigerian militant movements no, ISIS murder videos yes, fascist mass murderer livestreaming a massacre yes. The coverage reflects the fact that media can be manipulated by aware combatants.

      The idea that social media platforms can never ever be tamed is just pure, uncut, we-can-never-effect-positive-change defeatism and cynicism.

    • 17 March 2019 at 8:14am
      Murphy says: @ Michael Collins
      Like most times you have added some concrete facts/arguments..I want to focus on Daniel's argument that ' we need strategies to help young people develop their critical thinking tools...' How?
      When from an early age they offered a screen where they could play 'Fortnite' and other similar violent games!?!
      Then,the media who cover the Christchurch killings but skip the weekly waves of gang raped African women (whether Christian or ex Muslim) and the attacks or bombings in Christian areas (whether school or hospital) are the same Media that offer coverage,attention,voice to the leaders/ represantatives of the anti European, authoritarian, nationalist right or far right, anti-immigrant, populist 'old school'or 'radical'parties.... I know,I know this is how Democracy works,but..
      What should become visible and clear is the appeal that these parties have to the European electoral - well,we'd be here in a couple of months to discuss their successes and analyse the reasons the people voted for we did with Brexit.
      I am curious to see Europe's map.
      Would it be a multinational but antipluralistic one?!
      Would Manfred Weber hold hands with Le Pen and Boran?!
      So to return to our subject matter,the question is how media would politicize this Christchurch massacre and turned it into a societal issue ahead of May's Euroelections...

    • 17 March 2019 at 8:36am
      Robin Durie says: @ Michael Collins
      "Many ideologies are "incoherent and contradictory" - can anyone see sense in Marxism?"

      There is an irony in wording of this, given the significance of Marx's own critique of ideology. Of course, Marx is not a peddler of ideology. The whole point of historical materialism is to develop a way of doing philosophy, & a way of doing the science of political economy that wasn't ideology.

      Is Marx "coherent"? - if by coherent, you mean consistent, then no, he isn't. His thought changes, develops, adapts - immanent critique is one of the main virtues of his work. Moreover, he writes in many voices, from the economic science of Capital to campaigning journalism, to political manifestos - & no voice simply echoes another.

      But if, by coherent, you mean that his writing "doesn't make sense", then you're way off the mark. To take just one example, the scientific analysis of how capitalism works has never been bettered in the history of economics. One reason for this is that he seeks to describe the workings of capital based on analysis of material reality, in contrast to discourses that begin from a premise of the workings of an idealised free market - which latter, in the very sense Marx critiques, amounts to ideology.

    • 17 March 2019 at 10:36am
      Michael Collins says: @ Robin Durie
      Thanks for your reply, Robin.

      First, I'm an ironist by the iron law of patriarchy. My dad determined this predisposition.

    • 17 March 2019 at 10:39am
      Michael Collins says: @ Robin Durie
      Sorry, fat thumb syndrome there, another curse cascaded down the DNA chain for my delight.

      The subject of Daniel's piece precludes levity

    • 17 March 2019 at 10:55am
      Michael Collins says: @ Robin Durie
      I've done it again, apologies.

      Just as the topic precludes excessive levity, I think we're wandering off the point here by hacking into thickets of pernickety philosophy. Whenever I hear or read the word "immanent" I reach for my Macallan 18-year-old malt.

      However, I am more than happy to engage in the debate you outline here in another context to reveal to you the full epistemological awfulness of your arguments.

      NB, I shared a Hackney squat in the early 80s with hardcore members of the WRP and never lost an argument, particularly on the scratchy subject of Marxism being secular Roman Catholicism - i.e. blind faith without the paedophiles.

      Gird your loins.

    • 17 March 2019 at 2:33pm
      Michael Collins says: @ hry
      Most things in my life are more to do with me than others. I'm not very Woke, more Drowsy sad to say.

      "Shoehorning" is a beaut. Haven't heard it for years.

      "Lazy and ill-informed jabs" are the exact words my PE teacher used apropos my boxing technique. I just wasn't tough enough, a soft man born in a hard place.

      "Racial composition"? If you are in contact with any sentient member of any race other than the human one please let me know and we'll share the splash.

      If you're one of those philosophically underpowered individuals (see, I can be snarky too) who thinks humankind is divisible into different races then just tell me how many there are and we'll kick the can until we agree upon the Master one, the remorselessly logical conclusion to that position.

      The magnificent compound adjective of your last par, casting me in a Sam Beckett light, is a thing of beauty, an Ozymandias of linguistic construction upon which I can only look and despair.

      Finally, are you. Hooray hry?

      Best wishes.

    • 19 March 2019 at 5:35pm
      Callum Reid says: @ Michael Collins
      leave beckett out of this

    • 22 March 2019 at 11:47am
      Michael Collins says: @ Callum Reid
      Every word, Callum, is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

      Make the most of our remaining easy days because very soon they'll be all we remember of halcyon.

    • 28 March 2019 at 10:08am
      Reader says: @ Murphy
      If reports from the Barnabas Fund are correct, Christian persecution by Muslims in Nigeria is every bit as bad as you suggest. Unfortunately, independent confirmation seems to be lacking. However, we know what ISIS was like and there's no reason to suppose that the African equivalents are much different.

      But in acknowledging that point, may I give another example of media blindness? The daily killings by heavily armed soldiers of civilians who are protesting, on their own land, against a state of siege. Where? Exactly!

  • 16 March 2019 at 7:48pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    The atrocity in NZ is inhuman and vile.

    But the white supremacists have no monopoly on atrocities, nor on the use of social media to publicise those atrocities: beheadings in the desert anyone?

    There is a problem. It is not confined to one wing of the political spectrum,

    I don’t have a dolution

  • 17 March 2019 at 4:07pm
    Michael Collins says:
    With all the Marxists (two?) swarming on here to justify themselves and correct me on finicky points of doctrine with the zeal of 16th century theologians, Daniel Trilling's cogent piece has been subsumed in ideological blancmange.

    In short, social media will play an increasingly malign role as we now enter an age of tit-for-tat atrocities. Forlorn appeals to bored hedonists (us) not to view the material will fall on deaf ears. Viral proliferation in this context is essentially vicarious morbidity expressed digitally or, to irk the Marxists still further, human nature expressed as ones and zeroes. God help us when quantum computing envelops the West.

    Finally, I find it disappointing that readers of the LRB airily dismiss TV coverage of atrocities in Africa because "people turn off". On that basis Madawi Al-Rasheed's superb 'The Saudi Lie' in the latest issue should never have been published because the majority won't read it.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece, Daniel.

    • 22 March 2019 at 1:06pm
      freshborn says: @ Michael Collins
      Is this the sort of brilliant argumentation that left you undefeated in the 1980s? I suppose sneering is an overwhelmingly dominant debating strategy, from the point of view of the sneerer at least. From the point of view of anybody else, you might just come across as an obnoxious Jeremy Clarkson-esque troll (only, with a veneer of intellectualism instead of a veneer of anti-intellectualism).

      "Daniel Trilling's cogent piece has been subsumed in ideological blancmange."

      I beg you to consider, if only for a brief second, whether that might potentially be, at least in part, a consequence of you beginning the discussion by pointlessly drawing an equivalence between fascism and Marxism, and suggesting that Stalin is the paragon of Marxism?

      The sheer hypocrisy is quite amusing, fair play to you.

    • 28 March 2019 at 10:12am
      Reader says: @ freshborn
      Where exactly does this kind of reply get us? You respond to sneering with your own sneering, or so it seems to me. This is not a good advert for Marxism. I recall hearing when I was young (and very sympathetic to Marxism, if not actually a follower of it): "if you are not a Marxist at 20, there is something wrong with your heart. If you are still a Marxist at 30, there is something wrong with your head".

      Or perhaps you think of Marxism, as someone said of Christianity, that it was a great idea and it was a shame that it had never been tried?

  • 20 March 2019 at 2:53am
    frank scott says:
    which ones are the real "islamophobics"? the nutcases who commit individual acts of violence against supposed islamic people? or the socially deranged mass murderers who have slaughtered several hundreds of thousands of islamic people, destroyed islamic nations and reduced hundreds of thousands to refugee status? and as a result of this ongoing slaughter, created a slightly larger group of islamic nutcases than the western variety who kill and maim in a fashion to panic many who fear being victims into becoming, like their ruling powers, islamophobic, if only with a moderately armed retail rather than massively armed wholesale capacity to destroy life, nations and larger areas of the globe?

    as for the mentalities finding marx incoherent, those unable to understand the wit of groucho should not be expected to fathom the intellect of karl.

    • 22 March 2019 at 9:19am
      Michael Collins says: @ frank scott
      Is Groucho that bloke with the Soho club?

      Frank - you're an impassioned man but that condition sometimes shades across borders into dangerous territory. Time to get your bearings, clear your head. We're in a charnel house; live with it.

    • 28 March 2019 at 10:16am
      Reader says: @ Michael Collins
      Can I recommend to anyone wanting to criticise (or defend) Marxism, to read "The Open Society and its Enemies", by Karl Popper. He argues that Marxism is of no value as a scientific theory because, like psychoanalysis, it is incapable of being falsified. Marxists remind me of the followers of those cults that are always predicting the end of the world. When it doesn't come on the due date, there is always a convincing reason why it didn't, and a new date is given for the apocalypse (or the revolution). You are waiting for Godot, my friend.

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