New Zealand is currently recovering from the shock of its first 21st Century terrorist attack, one of the worst in recent history globally, and the worst ever in the Australian and New Zealand experience combined. The implications are wide-ranging. New Zealand's long-held assumption that terrorism was something that never could happen here, has been shattered. It has to face up to the possibility of further attacks, inspired by the Christchurch offender. But the potently graphic streaming of the incident, and its global reach, means it is not just in New Zealand that his followers may emerge. He was Australian, they could emerge there, or anywhere that extreme right-wing individuals or groups hibernate.
There is another chilling consequence — until now, the Islamic State never really knew, or cared to know, where New Zealand was. Now it does.
Now the live streamed video may well be used in Islamic State propaganda to incite violence. The terror outfit's spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Muhajir has already been reportedly calling for a revenge attack on New Zealand. The country has possibly entered a spiral of violence, or fears or threats of it, that could have long-term security implications. It has already been grappling with a few individuals, who perhaps carelessly or deliberately, have recently shared the gunman's live stream or posted anti-Muslim comments. New Zealand had already put a small number of individuals before the courts for possessing and disseminating Islamic State propaganda; so why these people thought they could effectively do the same thing is puzzling.
Now, anyone's comments that suggest an extremist view will attract State security sector attention, when before last Friday, many such comments may have been passed over. New Zealand will now struggle with what the 'freedom of speech' means, it will have to find the balance an open democratic society demands, and a consistent and even line that all those with extremist views — Left, Right, religious, ideological or single issue — can no longer cross.
It is not what is said now, but what is heard, that will matter. Things said before, that were offensive — if never dangerous, that were verbally threatening but not followed by acts of violence, that used to be dismissed as the ramblings of activists, malcontents or volatile loners — will now be met with heightened suspicion. Warnings previously given to the anti-1080 activists who threatened damage or violence, may well be a thing of the past. Our much vaunted multiculturalism and commitment to diversity will quite rightfully be put under the microscope.
New Zealand's high police population ratio, and its routinely unarmed consent-based policing approach may now need to change. The country, one of the few in the world that has since the late 19th Century kept its patrol constables without sidearms, will need to review whether this approach can now still work in an society where terrorism just became real.
The funding of police, the adequacy of arms and terrorist legislation, even the continuing free access of its closest neighbours to freely visit — are all going to have to be scrutinised. We will need to close the glaring loopholes right through which this tragic incident has shone a deadly light. Prime Minister Jacinda Adern's announcement on firearms restrictions today goes some way towards addressing those gaps, but these changes need to be administered and enforced, and adequate resources will be needed to do that. Banning semi-automatic weapons will mean a boost to the already-established elicit importation of these weapons, and policing New Zealand's lengthy borders, airports and sea ports will need to be stepped up.
Now that the security threat level is 'high', New Zealand will have to decide what this means. New Zealanders almost certainly have not thought this through, quite possibly assuming they would never have to. We may recall the ridicule the Defence Force faced after warning its personnel in 2016 to keep alert when walking around in public, and to remain aware of what was around them. This was not just sage advice to soldiers then — it is advice we all have to take now. A high threat level means precautions where we didn't need them before, not taking our safety for granted, a more visible police presence, more stringent rules in public spaces — a significant reduction in the carefree lifestyle we used to have.
The biggest challenge New Zealand faces is to quantify the extent of not just right-wing extremism, but any other form of extremism where violence can be attached. It probably does not matter how large any of these groups are — they will probably be found to be quite small. But modern terrorism is often leaderless and lone, and the volume of those who purvey it is inconsequential. The Christchurch attack was the work of one man. That one man may have engaged in any number of behaviours and uttered or penned any number of offensive comments alongside many others around the world. The enormous challenge for security sector agencies is too find that one man among all the other offensively racist groups or individuals who talk big but do not act.
It is not like trying to find 'a needle in a haystack' — it's like trying to find 'a needle in a needle-stack'.
The freedoms extended to social media, to tech companies who appear to take only minimal responsibility for content posted, or for the welfare of their customers, need to be considered. From grizzly echo chambers of intolerance to cyber-bullying — New Zealanders (and citizens of many other countries) need to ask themselves why have we accepted that the internet can be an unpoliceable space for criminal activity, bullying, extremist and terrorist behaviour. Why are tech companies not held responsible, in the same way as the driver of an unsafe vehicle would be for the safety of their passengers?
The author is a Fellow at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies in Massey University, New Zealand
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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2019 18:05:35 IST