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Friday 29 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
# New Zealand
'When it's a white attacker, something happened to him as opposed to him being inherently evil'
An Irish expert explains how the “psychological autopsy” carried out after a terror attack differs depending on who the suspect is.

CHRISTCHURCH MOSQUE SHOOTING AAP / PA Images A man prays at a makeshift memorial at the Al Noor Mosque on Deans Road in Christchurch on Tuesday. AAP / PA Images / PA Images

ON 15 MARCH a man walked into two mosques in New Zealand and shot dozens of innocent victims.

Fifty people were killed in the terror attack and many others injured.

There has been much speculation in the last week as to why and how such an atrocity could happen. Again. 

The same questions are asked, and often unanswered, every time a similar attack or mass shooting is carried out. It’s a complex topic has explored in detail.

Australian-born Brenton Tarrant (28) filmed himself carrying out the horrific attack in Christchurch. 

Aside from the obvious ‘Why did this happen?’ question, there has been a discussion about whether or not members of the public should watch the video or read the racist manifesto he shared before the attack.

There has also been a debate about whether or not his name should even be mentioned when talking about the attack, in a bid to deny him the notoriety he seemingly craves.

Dr Orla Lynch, Head of Criminology at University College Cork, said she understands why people are discussing such issues but that some of the debate misses a wider point.

She said people such as Tarrant “do not operate in a vacuum”, adding that to understand why such atrocities happen, people must examine the “complex societal dynamics” that surround individuals like him.

“Tarrant is a product of our time, mobilised into action through the intersection of grand political narratives, virtual communities, revered ideologues and personal need.

“Unfortunately, we may never truly know why someone carries out an attack like that witnessed in Christchurch.

“We can, of course, ask the individual involved, but we may not be satisfied with the answer and, in fact, the answer may change over time,” Lynch said.

‘Psychological autopsy’

Lynch said the “psychological autopsy” of Tarrant shows how certain elements of the media treat a white person who carries out a terror attack differently than other perpetrators.

“When we talk about Isis and Islamic extremism, we talk about people being fundamentally bad, fundamentally evil, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the person.

However, when we talk about a white attacker like Tarrant we talk about him as a baby – like something happened to him as opposed to him being inherently evil.

Lynch noted parallels to when a mass shooting happens in the US, a relatively common occurrence – blame is often placed on a person’s apparent mental health issues, if they are white.

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A similar situation has occurred in relation to Tarrant. Lynch noted that some media publications have dissected his childhood, saying one article even suggested that being overweight when he was younger “may have caused him to regress into angst”.

“We’re looking for answers, trying to diagnose why this white man did something awful,” Lynch told

White supremacy

Tarrant is a self-professed white supremacist and made a white power symbol when appearing in court last weekend. A 74-page manifesto, entitled The Great Replacement, he released before the mass shooting is filled with racist vitriol, detailing two years of planning for the massacre.

In the rambling document, he expressed anti-immigrant views, stating that “invaders” were seeking to “occupy my people’s lands”. His own ancestors were immigrants to Australia – he even states in the document that his parents “are of Scottish, Irish and English stock” – something seemingly lost on him.

When discussing this, Lynch said “logic is very inconvenient” to people like Tarrant.

NEW ZEALAND-CHRISTCHURCH TERRORIST ATTACKS-MOURNING Zhu Qiping / Xinhua News Agency/PA Images New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attends a memorial service for victims in Christchurch yesterday. Zhu Qiping / Xinhua News Agency/PA Images / Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

She said there has been a notable increase in the spread of right-wing ideologies in recent years, but that they are often presented in a more ‘palatable’ way to win more people over.

One of the biggest issues is the alt-right reshaping the political landscape. There is a creep from extreme right-wing racist rhetoric, which is roundly condemned, to talking about culture and identity rather than race – that appeals across the board, it captures people who don’t view themselves as racist.

Lynch said this approach turns small local grievances people have into “a coherent political ideology”.

‘Dark recesses of the web’

The video of Tarrant carrying out the attack was removed from websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, but new versions keep being uploaded.

In a statement issued last week, New Zealand Police said they were “aware there is extremely distressing footage relating to the incident in Christchurch circulating online”.

“We would strongly urge that the link not be shared. We are working to have any footage removed,” the statement added.

Christchurch Call for Prayer Service PJ Heller / Zuma Press/PA Images A man attending a Call to Prayer service in Hagley Park in Christchurch is overcome with emotion yesterday. PJ Heller / Zuma Press/PA Images / Zuma Press/PA Images

Lynch said stopping the spread of the video is virtually impossible. She said most people will not watch the video, or change their views if they see it or read the manifesto.

She said the video and document will always exist in the “dark recesses of the web” but, even then, the vast majority of people with extreme right-wing views who watch or read them “will never do more than that” – that is to say, they won’t carry out a violent act as a result. 

To the mainstream population, the manifesto and the video are largely irrelevant – they won’t impact the views the majority of the population have, controlling it for the mainstream population is mainly missing the point.

“We need to stop it circulating among that subculture but we’re not going to do that, it’s already out there, we can’t control that.”

Using his name 

Earlier this week, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed to never say the suspect’s name.

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety — that is why you will never hear me mention his name,” Ardern said in an emotional address to a special meeting of parliament.

Lynch said she understands Ardern’s position but thinks people’s focus should be on stopping far-right ideas “creeping into the mainstream”, stating: “We need to stop that creep, call it out when it happens.”

Queensland Senator Fraser Anning drew international condemnation last weekend for blaming the mass shooting on immigration. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the far-right senator should face “the full force of the law” for the comments as well as a subsequent altercation with a teenage boy.

In his statement, Anning said: “As always, left-wing politicians and the media will rush to claim that the causes of today’s shootings lie with gun laws or those who hold nationalist views, but this is all cliched nonsense.”

He added that “the real cause of bloodshed” is the country’s immigration programme.

Ardern, and many others, described his remarks as a “disgrace”. 

The Australian government plans to censure Anning over the comments. A bipartisan motion condemns him for “inflammatory and divisive comments seeking to attribute blame to victims of a horrific crime and to vilify people on the basis of religion”.

The motion states that “violence such as that witnessed in Christchurch is an affront on our common humanity” and condemns “an attack on our common values and way of life”.

Lynch said Anning’s statement amounts to “catcalling to certain segments of the population” and includes an extreme narrative that “needs to be challenged”.

She noted that the majority of people would not agree with Anning, and said people who express similar views shouldn’t be given a platform or legitimised in any way.

“They need to be called out,” she told us, but noted that online debates often aren’t particularly productive.

“Fact and opinion are very often mixed up in that forum, the rise in that type of rhetoric needs to be debated publicly. No matter what you say to people who believe these things, you won’t convince them – it’s a lost cause,” Lynch said. 

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