The “poisonous rhetoric” of the extreme right has successfully crept into the mainstream and bolstered the beliefs of people like Christchurch terrorist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, an Irish expert has said.
Dr Orla Lynch said the attacks on two mosques in the New Zealand city, claiming the lives of 50 people, including children, was not an “isolated event”, but part of a rise in far-right killings and extremism.
The head of criminology at University College Cork, whose research focus is on the perpetrators and victims of terrorism, said individuals like Tarrant “do not operate in a vacuum” and are a “product of our time”.
“Brenton Harrison Tarrant has become the latest right-wing extremist to carry out a major terrorist attack,” Dr Lynch said.
“But this is not an isolated event – in the past 12 months, we have seen an increase in far-right killings and a rise in far-right extremism on both sides of the Atlantic.”
She said that using a well-planned communication strategy, Tarrant live-streamed the attack on Facebook and released a so-called manifesto entitled ‘The Great Replacement’.
Dr Lynch said the material led to a flurry of activity aimed at conducting a “psychological autopsy” of the Australian, with some media reports citing his childhood obesity for his descent into teenage isolation while other reports gave a more sophisticated analysis on his interactions with the extreme right wing.
Importantly, however, this autopsy will not provide us with what we ultimately seek, and that is the why. Why did he do it, what motivated him, how could he justify undertaking the attack?
The UCC academic said it may never be known why he did it.
But she said: “What we can do is understand how the perpetrator planned and carried out the attack, we can discover the antecedent behaviours, we can understand the social network supporting the person and we can discover how chance and opportunity played a role in their involvement.”
In addition, she said: “We can understand how a supportive political climate emerged that allowed his views to go unchallenged and constructed a minority population as an existential threat to our way of life.”
She said the language used in the public sphere can “dehumanise minority populations” and describe their presence as an “invasion”.
She said: “Finally, we can understand how the poisonous rhetoric of the XRW [extreme right wing] has successfully crept into the mainstream and has manifest itself as publicly acceptable forms of racism.”
Dr Lynch said the language may not be overtly about race, it was more likely to be about “culture and identity” but said the exclusionary rhetoric served to “legitimise the XRW” as an extension of moderate right-wing views.
She said its capacity to “seep into mainstream debate” was one of the dangerous strengths of the increasingly prevalent ideological position.
“While there are significant conceptual and behavioural leaps to be made to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action we must not underestimate the power of legitimising narratives and the role they play in bolstering and legitimising the identity position of individuals like Tarrant,” Dr Lynch said.
“Indivi duals do not operate in a vacuum and Tarrant is a product of our time, mobilised into action through the intersection of grand political narratives, virtual communities, revered ideologues and personal need.”
Dr Lynch is a board member of the EU-funded Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), Europe. In her own research, she has interviewed more than 100 people convicted of involvement in terrorism and political violence.
She said that understanding terrorism was, on the one hand, about understanding the terrorist, but “more importantly”, was about understanding the complex societal dynamics that made him possible.