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Opinion: Confronting extremism – what’s changed since March 15?


New Zealanders learned on March 15 that we are not exempt from global terrorism, says security expert Dr John Battersby.


By Dr John Battersby

As March 15 draws near, the question has been asked - has anything changed in New Zealand since last March, and have we learned anything from the experience? 

Of course we have. The March 15 attacks were unprovoked, deliberately discriminate, with terrible consequences for the families of those killed and injured. For the vast bulk of New Zealanders who would never have wished such an atrocity on anyone, the 15 March 2019 events left a stain on us that we cannot wash off. We cannot but be different now.

We are no longer that little country, so far away from the evils of the outside world that they cannot touch us. We are now like those countries we naively, perhaps even smugly, watched from safe and distant seats over the past two decades while modern individualistic terrorism germinated globally. All that time we found comfort in a flawed assumption that we were unique, special and that such evils simply couldn’t come here. That comfort must surely have faded, and yet travelling around New Zealand now I wonder if people are starting to think that March 15 was an aberration; that it happened…but it will not happen again. If we start to think like this, then, tragically – despite the cost in blood and tortuously changed lives - we will not have learned all that we could have.

We immediately ceased over-the-counter sales of semi-automatic firearms, a move that was not only sensible, but long overdue. Our political leaders should be praised for their decisiveness for this, just as they should be chastised for their lack of leadership for not seeing the risk these weapons could pose in the wrong hands a long time before. Our Parliamentarians did precious little after the 1990 Aramoana mass shooting of 12 people, virtually nothing after the Port Arthur mass-shooting of 35 in Tasmania in 1996, and nothing despite calls since.  We should not have had to wait for a death toll of 51 innocent people before we realised that if these weapons were allowed in our community they needed to be carefully regulated and controlled.

The country has engaged in a comprehensive buy-back. There are good arguments both ways among international researchers concerning the impact of buy-backs on gun crime and gun homicide. But ultimately the results are inconclusive and we don’t know if the buy-back will make us any safer.  More than 56,000 firearms have been handed in by an efficiently-run police operation and fully cooperative licensed gun owners. Their cooperation strongly suggests that these people did not pose any risk to the community. Illegally-held firearms were a problem before and remain one now. 

Banning over-the-counter sales of assault weapons was long overdue, says Dr John Battersby


Terrorism - a borderless, online world

State responses to militant Islamic terrorism over the last two decades often presumed the religion of the few active offenders to be a material factor in their actions. Quickly across Britain, Europe, the United States and Australia the perception was created among Muslim communities that they were all under suspicion and were 'suspect communities’ by dint of sharing a common religion with people they shared little else with. 

It’s possible we have just done the same thing, and cast suspicion on gun owners who had nothing in common with any offender except for the fact they lawfully owned a gun. In 2019, 353 people died on New Zealand roads, seven times the toll of March 15, but we have not cast suspicion on all car owners or demanded they surrender their cars.

Today’s extremists are quite possibly citizens of the cyber-world in which geography and nationality are irrelevant and borders non-existent. The counter-terrorism we traditionally engage in is wedded to those concepts, but 21st century extremist movements may now exist as globally disparate individuals, travelling without moving from their computers, meeting fellow travellers they will never know – listening to themselves on repeat. Intolerant, racist, sexist, defensive, supremacist, deaf to criticism and fluent in one-off acts of violence. Religiously-driven and ideologically-inspired right wing extremist actors all bear a stark resemblance to each other.  

What happened on March 15 did not germinate among New Zealand’s right wing extremist scene. The alleged offender came from Australia, where he may or may not have been a product of an extremist culture there. Managing extremists is not a new challenge for us. We have had activists and extremists in New Zealand before who have pushed beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour, were prepared to offend, and to threaten and use violence. While most were not actual terrorists, some were, and we need to ensure that an over-reaction does not create a metamorphosis from one to the other now. 

Overseas research has shown that carefully designed, non-judgemental community-based programmes can successfully rehabilitate violent extremists. Intolerance confronted by more intolerance is unlikely to rid us of it.

Dr John Battersby is a Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University and a specialist on terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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